Ministry of Apparitions

Malcolm Gaskill

  • A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith during the First World War by Owen Davies
    Oxford, 284 pp, £20.00, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 879455 4

In 2001 an architect called Danny Sullivan claimed to have found cine film of an angel while rooting around in a Monmouth junk shop. This was, unsurprisingly, a hoax, as were claims that Marlon Brando had paid £350,000 for the footage. But the alleged provenance was intriguing. Sullivan invented a psychical researcher called William Doidge, who had, he said, fought with the Scots Guards at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The angel had been caught on camera much later, in the Cotswolds in 1952. It’s a well-known story that British soldiers at Mons claimed they really did see angels – but that story, too, turns out to be unfounded. In September 1914 the Welsh writer Arthur Machen published a story called ‘The Bowmen’ in the London Evening News. In it, spectral archers from the Battle of Agincourt come to the aid of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons. To his dismay the story was widely taken as truth, and a ‘snowball of rumour’ hardened into ‘the solidest of facts’. ‘If I had failed in the art of letters,’ Machen wrote later, ‘I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.’

It’s ironic that the Great War’s most famous supernatural story was the creation of Arthur Machen when there were so many real reports of supernatural phenomena on the front line. In A Supernatural War, Owen Davies leads us from the conflict into a haunted world filled with magical thinking and uncanny experiences. ‘The greatest virtue [of history],’ the historian Tom Griffiths has written, ‘is uncompromising complexity.’ And that’s what we get in Davies’s book. His fortune-tellers are therapists as well as mountebanks, his mediums are counsellors and frauds, his spiritual encounters wholesome and pathological. There is no showdown between science and magic, or reason and religion, because these dichotomies plaster over so many telling intricacies and contradictions.

Europe, it seemed to many in 1914, was due for a shake-up. H.G. Wells, whose apocalyptic War in the Air was published in 1908, was not alone in dreaming up a major new conflict. Two years earlier, the Daily Mail had serialised a novel about a German invasion by the journalist William Le Queux; his 1894 book, The Great War in England in 1897, has Germany as Britain’s ally against France and Russia. These fictional forecasts were complemented by mystical and historical ones. Old prophecies acquired fresh significance, from Nostradamus to the 18th-century seer Joanna Southcott. France looked to the seventh-century Saint Odile, who had predicted that Germany would be defeated in a great war. There were German equivalents, too, including a pamphlet by a Tyrolean monk written in 1717, rediscovered in 1821 and published in 1916, which foresaw the military triumph of a German prince.

Living prophets lined up, from seaside palm-readers and mediums in gas-lit parlours to occultists like Aleister Crowley, who boasted of first hearing about the upcoming war in 1910, from ‘Bartzabel’, the conjured spirit of the planet Mars. A spiritualist in Teddington, who interviewed Julius Caesar several times between 1909 and 1912, passed on Caesar’s warning of ‘red poppies in the smiling cornfields in the sun’. The Parisian celebrity Madame de Thèbes had long predicted the demise of Prussian militarism in a final war from which France would ‘emerge renewed in strength, reconstituted’. Astrologers found an audience, as they had in past centuries – the difference now being the publicity given them by the popular press. Christian typology provided another interpretative framework. Everyone from Christian occultists to Expressionists such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix linked the war to the Apocalypse, either as phantasmagorical metaphor or accurate prediction. Were the British not Israelites fighting Germany’s Assyrians? Surely the Western Front could be seen as Armageddon? ‘Never in the whole history of Christianity,’ one biblical scholar observed, ‘has the power of Antichrist asserted itself so triumphantly.’

From the outbreak of war, tales of the uncanny abounded. French Catholic troops at the Battle of the Marne and Russian Orthodox troops at the Battle of Augustov reported seeing the Virgin Mary. ‘Sport is more in my line than Spiritualism,’ a British officer wounded at Mons remarked, ‘but when you have experiences brought under your very nose again and again, you cannot help thinking that there must be something in such things.’ Battlefield apparitions were nothing new: Roman legionaries saw Castor and Pollux; troops fighting in the Crimean War saw saints. Walter Scott thought this perfectly natural: ‘One warrior catches the idea from another; all are alike eager to acknowledge the present miracle, and the battle is won before the mistake is discovered.’ What made the First World War different was not just its mechanised slaughter, but the way it slammed together old and new habits of thought.

Nascent disciplines like psychology, sociology and social anthropology were quick to identify atavistic traits in 20th-century people. Granville Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association, thought the Angels of Mons a fascinating expression of societal stress. ‘No war,’ he said, ‘was ever so hard on the nerves.’ The French historian Marc Bloch was thrilled to observe in the trenches ‘a wonderful renewal of oral tradition’. Men moving up and down the line would exchange a few words, often passing on rumours that were groundless but hugely significant for the hearers. The anthropologist Ralph Linton, who served with the American Expeditionary Force in France, saw little difference between his comrades’ protective rituals and the totemism of Australian aborigines.

Another aspect of modernity was the crisis of confidence in organised religion. Catholicism weathered the storm better than the Church of England, armed as it was with comforting rituals and an array of interceding saints and angels. Many Anglican chaplains found their services deserted because Catholic padres offered superior spiritual sustenance. On the other hand, the Catholic Church condemned spiritualists as demonic, whereas the Church of England had a more ambivalent relationship with mediums, believing that anything that engendered a sense of the enduring spirit might be worth tolerating. Reverend A.A. Boddy, an Anglican vicar who had served at the front (and thought the war presaged the Second Coming), published stories of heavenly visitors and providential deliverance in his periodical, Confidence. One stretcher-bearer described arriving in a trench during a bombardment to find the men in ‘one line of prayer’, overseen by ‘a host of angels’, which were visible to all present. None of them was harmed. Boddy included the account in a pamphlet entitled Real Angels of Mons.

As the war entered its second year, the desire for miracles became more urgent, and even fictions like Machen’s were co-opted as fact. Battlefield sightings of a ‘white comrade’ tending to the wounded had as their prompt a story written in 1915 by a clergyman called W.H. Leathem. Introducing an edition of Leathem’s tales, Hugh Black, a theologian, asserted that soldiers ‘have discovered some of the secrets of life and death’. If the Reformation had drained the magic out of Christianity, the war topped it up again. Atheists and rationalists struggled to account for things they knew to be impossible but which were suggested to them by the evidence of their own senses. (In a curious parallel, Ernest Shackleton and two fellow explorers felt the presence of a fourth man while trekking across South Georgia in 1916. Shackleton was deeply moved, but considered it to be something ‘which can never be spoken of’.) A London newspaper, discussing experiences of ‘that unimaginable world called “The Front”’, alluded to ‘things that one does not refer to in broad daylight, but which nevertheless obtrude themselves and haunt the mind when shadows fall’.

Sceptics poked fun at the Mons angels and their spin-offs, but gently: after all, these stories were valuable propaganda, the importance of which increased as the casualty lists grew longer. The Daily Herald joked that ‘the need of the moment is not a Ministry of Munitions, but a Ministry of Apparitions!’ Spirits heard and seen at séances divided opinion more sharply. The British authorities were warned about the exploitation of vulnerable citizens – above all, those bereaved by the war – and were wary of potential damage to morale. In Germany soothsayers were banned (apparently exceptions were made if they predicted Britain’s defeat). Mediums and fortune-tellers in Britain were prosecuted under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, and, increasingly, under the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which forbade pretending to conjure spirits. In France the Napoleonic prohibition on the ‘profession of divination and prediction, or the explanation of dreams’ was refined and extended. Meanwhile, public figures like Arthur Conan Doyle defended spiritualism, and ordinary people wrote to periodicals – and to the home secretary – criticising the ‘medieval’ persecution of mediums. The police and the press in turn emphasised the risk of psychological harm, such as that inflicted on one London woman who wept that a fortune-teller’s tales had ‘undermined the health’ of her family, including her four soldier sons, one of whom had been killed in action.

Reverend Boddy, for all his occult enthusiasms, thought spiritualism a ‘terrible thing’, and agreed with the Vatican that contacting spirits was devilish. By contrast, a London vicar called Fielding Fielding-Ould asked in a public address: ‘Is Spiritualism of the Devil?’ He thought not, and defended the right of the British people to know the truth: ‘Their husbands and sons are being killed every day, and they demand some instruction and teaching which is alive and reasonable.’ Spiritualists insisted that their ministrations were necessary to the newly dead, whose souls were in a bruised and perplexed state. Once settled comfortably beyond the veil, they would return to the battlefield to assist the angels and white comrades. Every day these pale battalions grew larger.

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Not every soldier had a supernatural experience at the front, but by 1918 magical thinking was universal. One British soldier, a driver, believed his horse had psychic premonitions of poison gas attacks. Triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 – was widespread. Dead men’s boots, however valuable, were not worn. Some soldiers reckoned that making trophies of German helmets beckoned death, others that the bearer of the rum jar had a higher chance of copping it.

Talismans were universal. Soldiers wore heart amulets, sprigs of heather, four-leafed clovers, rabbits’ feet, miniature horseshoes, pebbles with holes in them (traditionally a witch-repellent), as well as Catholic medals depicting saints, angels, Christ and the Virgin. Germans carried Himmelsbriefe, copies of letters supposedly written by Christ. Tyrolean troops had bats’ wings sewn into their underwear. Serbians wore belts of dinars. Soldiers from Abruzzo threw pinches of native soil over their shoulders before battle – a portable bit of home, like the lump of coal cherished by one Irish officer. Bibles pierced with bullets and shrapnel had a prophylactic magic, as they had during the English and American civil wars. A soldier in a Highland regiment swore by a black stone his uncle had carried through the Boer War and which another ancestor had carried at Waterloo. A trade in charms was established. At the top end were pendants in precious metals and gems – an outgrowth of the Victorian fashion for ornate tokens of love and remembrance – but cheap trinkets were more typical. Manufacturers advertised in the newspapers. One of the most popular talismans was ‘Fums Up’, a tiny baby (or gnome) made of gold, silver or brass, usually with a wooden head (so the owner could ‘touch wood’). These charms were worn on watch chains and as brooches or were hidden in the pocket of a service tunic. The swastika – a runic symbol of fortune and protection – was also popular. So were animal mascots – anything from a parrot to a tortoise to a bear cub. Australian troops in Egypt managed to get hold of a kangaroo; New Zealanders in France kept a donkey called Moses.

Attempting to attract luck can be interpreted as an effort at controlling fate, but, as Davies notes, ‘fate and luck are not interchangeable or even compatible notions.’ The desire to be lucky was active, and often optimistic. Some soldiers found in fatalism a relief from fear; others were consumed by pathological dread, convinced they were about to die. After the war, the American fighter ace Charles Parsons admitted that ‘probably we were wrong in being superstitious. But we believed in our talismans and charms, and since they brought us through, who can say that we weren’t right?’

Supernatural thinking persisted into the 1920s and 1930s, not only because of the war’s impact on society but because such beliefs had been popular before 1914. It’s sobering to be reminded that people throughout Britain, continental Europe and the US still believed in witches and favoured violent countermeasures long since abrogated by the law. These attitudes were common in rural areas; in towns what flourished was spiritualism, or, as its critics described it, ‘modern witchcraft’. In 1939 only one in three thousand British adults was a member of the Spiritualists’ National Union, but this might understate its influence. Even greater numbers of people took part in ‘home circles’ – do-it-yourself séances – tens of thousands of which occurred up and down the country, supported by an organisation called The Link.

The Depression added economic uncertainty to postwar political anxiety, reflected in the growth of horoscopes and almanacs. In 1930 the Sunday Express launched Britain’s first astrology column, and within a few years, according to a Mass Observation survey, two-thirds of women in London believed the future was foretold in the stars (only one in five men admitted the same). By 1942 Mass Observation estimated that around half of the British population believed in some kind of supernatural agency. The Second World War inevitably brought more stories of visions and prophecies, which in Germany were suppressed as inimical to the state’s monopoly on truth and power. Allied troops again took talismans to war (but not the swastikas). Eisenhower carried seven lucky coins in his pocket.

Westerners are today shy of admitting how often magic trumps logic in their thinking. But the trauma of war lays bare essential human truths. Public discourse during the Great War – in books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, letters, manifestos and almanacs – was merely the visible expression of fear, anxiety, horror, rage and grief. After 1918 magic was no longer just an emanation from the cosmos, but something inside the self, closer to the unconscious and subconscious states around which psychology and psychiatry would build new ways of understanding how people survive.