The visions that lit up the trenches

June 1916: A colonel, a sergeant and a private of the First Regiment of Serbian Cavalry (equipped as infantry), hold a cake while it is blessed by a priest. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Uncanny tales from the First World War

A Supernatural War
By Owen Davies
OUP, 284pp, £20/$28

“There are no atheists in foxholes” – that’s the common perception of spirituality on the battlefields of the First World War. But it’s a lot more nuanced than that, according to social historian Owen Davies in his new book, subtitled Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War, which examines a wide range of beliefs among soldiers across Europe, both at the front and those at home.

In the early months of the war Catholic and Orthodox countries claimed divine messages of victory via the Virgin Mary or the saints. A German postcard showed a “figure with angel wings looking over the shoulder of a rifleman ready to fire”, entitled “The Warrior’s Guardian Angel”. In Italy there were votive tablets depicting “the Madonna and Child appearing in a cloud over the battlefield, looking down upon and protecting Italian troops”. Russian troops too were said to have seen miraculous visions of the Virgin and Child.

But Catholic clergy in France were careful not to “undermine French military authority and prowess in the public mind”, Davies writes. Alleged Marian visions on the battlefield, such as “the miracle of the Marne” in 1914, were interpreted by theologians and priests not as “the visible protection of God and the Virgin Mary” saving France at the battle. Rather, they were seen as having “facilitated the heroism and valour of the army”.

Britain, largely not Catholic, had a different set of supernatural apparitions, the best known being the Angels of Mons, and front-line soldiers’ supposed visions of archers or mounted cavaliers. As always, there were no first-hand accounts of the visions, but lots of what folklorists call FOAF – Friend Of A Friend – stories: the standard way that legends spread.

In fact the “visions” can be traced back to a short story, The Bowmen, by Arthur Machen. Deeply moved by newspaper reports of the British Expeditionary Forces’ retreat from Mons in late August 1914, Machen wrote the story, which was published in the Evening News the following month. Parish magazines asked to reprint it – and by St George’s Day the following year, Machen later wrote, “the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since”. Someone would read the story, mention it to someone else and, as the story grew in the telling, people believed it was real.

The same thing happened with reports of “the White Comrade”, a very popular image of a man dressed in white who walked the battlefields healing and soothing the British wounded. He was never actually identified as Christ, though as the vicar of St Luke’s, Bath, told his congregation in July 1915: “The men called him the White Comrade, but they knew who He was.” He too came from a short story.

Davies, who at the University of Hertfordshire specialises in folk beliefs, spends some time on the variety of amulets which soldiers carried with them. Some were traditional good luck tokens: a rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe or a four-leaved shamrock.

Surprisingly, one very popular symbol among British troops was the swastika, an ancient eastern symbol of good fortune before it was corrupted by the Nazis a decade or two later. Others included a charm called Touchwood, a small figure with its head made of oak, and Fumsup, a baby making a thumbs-up sign. It didn’t really matter what the charm was – it was the act of giving it that was important.

The Church countered these secular charms with rosaries, crucifixes and medals, particularly of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. In France, figurines of the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc were distributed to soldiers. The brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was very popular among both Irish and Italian soldiers. To prevent scapulars from becoming dirty in the trenches, the Church, with papal approval, replaced them with scapular medals.

Interestingly, Davies says, this “Catholic armoury … achieved popularity far beyond the Catholic faithful”. An Irish journalist of the day commented on “how Protestant soldiers warmed to the message of ritual, miracle and protection”.

Catholic soldiers, sailors and airmen wrote letters of thanks to Sister (not yet St) Thérèse of Lisieux, whom they called their “little sister of the trenches”, their “godmother of war”, “the saint of the poilus” (French infantrymen) and “the shield of the soldiers”. Irish soldiers showed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus – though Jesuits said that the Sacred Heart badge should not be worn as a “charm or talisman to preserve the wearer from bullets and shrapnel”, condemning such belief as superstition.

Similarly, clergy warned against belief in providential stories of soldiers saved from certain death when a bullet or piece of shrapnel lodged in the New Testament in their breast pocket. One down-to-earth chaplain even told a soldier that “a pack of cards will stop a bullet better than a Bible”.

Davies covers much more, including the wartime role of spiritualists, fortune-tellers, psychics and other visionaries in this detailed and fascinating study.