First World War Horse Tribute?

650 officers and enlisted men of Auxiliary Remount Depot No. 326, Camp Cody, N.M., in a symbolic head pose of “The Devil” saddle horse ridden by Maj. Frank G. Brewer, remount commander (U.S. Library of Congress – https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2018646141/)

I spotted this meme on social media and quickly determined that it wasn’t in fact a tribute to the many horses killed in the First World War. On looking further I found this excellent post that means I don’t really need to add much. The gist is that it’s one of a series of photos in this style, and this one commemorates one officer’s (the CO of the ‘remount’ unit in question) horse; that of Major Frank G Brewer. It was taken in 1919, not 1916 (the U.S. hadn’t even joined the war at that point) and although it’s possible that Brewer’s horse was killed in the war, it’s equally possible (if not more likely given that he was CO of a non-front line unit) that it died of old age – or that it wasn’t, in fact, dead at all (the caption does not suggest this). No-one’s been able to determine those facts (and I have attempted a search myself), but regardless, it certainly isn’t a tribute to the dead horses of the conflict. Animal rights hadn’t quite reached that point in 1919, sadly. Most horses were seen as tools and property, although of course individuals had strong relationships with them as they do today.

All I can add to the linked article is that the original image is available in high resolution on the U.S. Library of Congress site.

Attack of the Dead Men 1915

 

 

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)
WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

 

Watching a recent episode of Indy Neidell’s superb ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, I came across an interesting story regarding an incident in the First World War apparently known to Russians (today, at least) as the ‘attack of the dead men’. An unreferenced version is to be found on Wikipedia, and a documentary version by Russia Today is on YouTube (skip to 15:30 for the relevant portion). But in short, on August 6th 1915, Russian defenders of the fortress of Osowiec (in present-day Poland), suffering the effects of a German poison gas attack, unexpectedly counterattacked. Covered with gore from their own damaged lungs, these 60 (or less than 100 according to RT) ‘walking dead’ soldiers fought off far superior numbers (3 divisions, says RT) and saved the fortress.

 

Perhaps inevitably, comparisons were drawn in the video and in the comments with George Romero-style zombies; it’s a compelling image. A forum version here uses the phrase ‘the living dead’. Having researched this far, to quote Deadpool, my common sense was tingling…

 

I found few web sources already in English, mostly from the last five years or so (some of them badly translated), which I presumed meant that it simply that it hasn’t been as celebrated in English as it has in Russian.

 

A much more sober, Russian language account is to be found here, (Буняковский В. Краткий очерк обороны крепости Осовца в 1915 г.’ or ‘Brief Defence of the Fortress of Osovca in 1915’ by B. Bunyakovsky, as the index page reveals), from a book published in 1924. This makes clear that it was actually an entire company supported by a reserve company (so 300-400 men) that counterattacked, supported by the fortress’s artillery batteries. Pretty impressive, but hardly the zombie Rorke’s Drift now being claimed online. There’s no mention of anything like the ‘attack of the dead men’ to describe this fighting retreat. I say ‘fighting retreat’, because as RT admits, after the counterattack the Russians were forced to raze the fortress and evacuate.

 

The event doesn’t seem to crop up in English history books; the one I did find is less sensational but does reference the blood-stained uniforms. Frustratingly the preview doesn’t allow me to see the footnoted source. However, I did manage to find a period English language source for the story (‘The War of the Nations’ by Le Queux & Wallace, vol.5, p.203 – you can access it for free via the Bodleian Library), and even better, it’s a contemporary one free of patriotic hyperbole or later embellishments. It’s based on a ‘brief report’ made by the Commandant of Osowiec fortress, Major General B.R.J. Osovsky. This makes no mention of the numbers involved, but equally, there’s certainly no claim that only 60 were still combat effective after the initial attack:

 

‘There was a lull which lasted until August 7th, when the enemy began his assault by sending into the fortress 600 balloons of asphyxiating gas.

 

The Russian troops were taken by surprise, and nearly all in the first and second lines of the defence were poisoned. They fell back, but encouraged by their officers, they made a superhuman effort and drove back the enemy at the point of the bayonet.’

 

The incident clearly happened, but was not so desperate, nor so horrific to behold, as some would have us believe. Many similar sieges took place during the war, though this one does seem to have significance in Russia equivalent to Verdun for the French. It seems likely (and has been suggested on the Wiki talk page) that the story was embellished by the Soviets in the Second World War for propaganda purposes, but I have no evidence of that. All countries are liable to exaggerate such achievements as time passes, particularly to justify having to retreat in the face of superior forces.

 

What intrigues me is the burgeoning ‘zombie’ connection being made. This reminds me of the instant reaction to the ‘Miami Zombie’ a couple of years back. A man eating another man’s face? Must be a real-life zombie! This fantasising of real life events seems to be irresistible to us, at least in the ‘west’. In contrast, Russian sources don’t seem to imply any paranormal connection; that seems to be a western addition that’s gained currency in recent years. Of course, zombies as we know them today didn’t exist. We had Haitian mindless slave zombies of course, but although these were thought to be ‘dead’, they weren’t depicted as bloody or corrupted in any way. That form of fictional ‘horror’ zombie came later; much later than 1915. Of course, there were other gore-smeared ‘undead’ creatures in (non)existence by that time, such as vampires or other revenant corpses. But western European soldiers are highly unlikely to believe in such things. In addition, though poison gas was relatively new to warfare, its effects would have been well known (and feared) by the Germans who, after all, were the ones deploying it! So I seriously doubt that the Germans thought they were fighting dead men. If the attack really was known as the ‘attack of the dead’ at the time, I think it’s just a turn of phrase; and likely originated with Russians rather than Germans. Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this WW1 zombie meme grow legs in the coming years.

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)
WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

Angles on Mons

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘The Angel of Mons’ by R. Crowhurst (UK National Army Museum)

I’ve been catching up on the BBC’s latest First World War documentary series, as the centenary approaches (that fact is not coincidental to my sporadic posting – day job and all). It’s actually pretty good, though I did catch a dodgy claim in the first episode. The redoubtable Mr Paxman, explaining the ‘defeat’ of the Battle of Mons and the famous story of angelic salvation, told us that;

“There was one simple explanation for the Angels of Mons: exhaustion”.

This is indeed a simple and plausible explanation for a bizarre story of angelic apparitions rushing to the aid of British Tommies. But it’s wholly unnecessary. The origins of the story as a piece of fiction turned folklore are well documented. Arthur Machen’s ‘The Bowmen’, written in faux documentary style, was modified to be more Protestant Christian (angels not unquiet dead), and embraced as genuine by Spiritualists, who then went hunting for/fabricated ‘evidence’. The rest is history.

If you’d like the real story, I recommend this article by the excellent David Clarke in the equally great Fortean Times, and, if you can access it, another of his from the journal Folklore. He went on to write a book on the subject. You can also check out this Skeptoid podcast. Another article by Steve MacGregor supports Clarke’s thesis, and focuses on the propaganda and recruitment value to the British government of this kind of story.

It does surprise me in the Age of Google, that no-one researching this series bothered to even read the Wikipedia page on the subject. I suspect, given the description of Mons as a ‘defeat’, that they chose to twist the tale to suit the narrative of exhausted, beaten troops. I don’t think they’ve entirely shed the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme. In fact, as dire as casualties appeared at the time to a naive public, Mons was actually a very successful fighting retreat.

It’s a shame in another way too, because Clarke’s interpretations of the story are far more interesting. He casts the construction of the story as myth-making for the industrial era, and as a psychological coping mechanism for people on the home front to deal with the horror of modern war and mass casualties amongst their loved ones. To this I can perhaps add something to bring things full circle to the many soldiers who survived Mons. There actually is a direct relevance here that doesn’t rely on hallucination. Whether or not there were/are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, as the war progressed and the remaining soldiers of the professional army were joined by civilians, it appears that the number of believers in the supernatural also increased. Every soldier was issued a set of identity disks (later nicknamed ‘dog tags’), to be recovered in the event of their death. On these tags, alongside abbreviations like ‘CE’ for Church of England’ and ‘JEW’ for Jewish, was also stamped ‘SPIRI’, for ‘Spiritualist’. This reflects a booming recruitment period for that faith as people struggled to deal with the loss of sons, fathers, and partners. These soldiers and perhaps non-Spiritualists also, must have brought this civilian tale of an incident that never happened with them to the front, and carried that belief with them into battle. I may not believe it myself, sitting in the comfort of home, surrounded by my loved ones; but I cannot help hoping that it provided them some comfort.

Truce Truth?

Image

A brief seasonal post to comment on Snopes’ enthusiastic take on the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Such a truce did actually happen, but I feel the Snopes article might give the reader the impression, by omission and by implication, that it was a)universal across the trenches, and b) an effort by working class soldiers to actually stop the war from progressing, only to be bullied into continuing the war by the officer class and harshly punished afterward.

The Long, Long Trail has an excellent balanced summary of what actually happened at Christmas 1914. The background is important here. By Christmas 1914, offensive action by both sides was stagnant, and fighting men were coming to terms with the idea that they would be there for the long haul, and that the war certainly wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”. They longed for a break from the boredom, the adverse living conditions, the threat of death and disease, and the tension and stress of the sporadic fighting. At this stage in the war, the memory of home and Christmas would have been quite fresh, and the arrival of parcels from home, including the official “Princess Mary boxes” of chocolate, nuts and cigarettes, fostered a festive mood. Though the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’ had taken place, the levels of resentment and hatred for ‘the Hun’ amongst the British troops had yet to peak. The Germans were in much the same boat, and as the lines of the front were so close together, it was not difficult to communicate a desire for cease-fire. This is exactly what happened at many points along the front. Curiosity too played a part, cease-fires being an opportunity to learn something of the enemy, his equipment, tactics, and psychology. In any case, the following year, similar behaviour (at least one incident did occur) was actively discouraged by British and no doubt German command.

Many of the actual meetings began as practical opportunities to bury the accumulated dead, with the spiritual/psychological bonus/trigger of it being a time of a shared religious occasion. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

Though these truces were indeed spontaneous and strictly unofficial, this was no overt protest against authority or the validity of the war. A number of officers did take part or at least observe, even if they were obliged to report what was happening to commanders. Whilst threats of courts martial were made to prevent a recurrence, no significant punishments were actually meted out. Comments about the theoretical moral significance of the cease-fires came from officers as well as men;

“These incidents seem to suggest that, except in the temper of battle or some great grievance, educated men have no desire to kill one another; and that, were it not for aggressive National Policies, or the fear of them by others, war between civilised peoples would seldom take place”.
-Captain Jack, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 13th Jan 1915

But neither this officer nor his men were thinking to try to end the war by their actions. Even some of the senior ‘brass hats’ did not entirely disapprove, as long as efforts to actually win the war were resumed afterward. Some Germans did tell individual Brits that though they could not visit them again, they would “remain (their) comrades” and if they were forced to fire, they would aim high. This by no means reflects a consensus among the troops, as evidenced by the next four years of bitter fighting! Officers did not generally seek to stop the fraternisation; they passed reports up the command chain instead. No doubt some of them did not approve, but neither did some of the men, as letters show. Interestingly, a young Adolf Hitler is supposed to have commented that;
 ‘..such a thing should not happen in wartime…Have you no German sense of honor left at all?’
Certainly not everyone felt like taking part, nor did they all have the opportunity to do so. Some soldiers sent to parley with the enemy ended up as prisoners. The truce(s) were also very much a British/German thing, reflecting the great effort put into averting Britain’s entry into the war, Germany being somewhat kindred, and no direct threat to British sovereignty. The mood of the French and Belgian troops would have been much less buoyant, fighting as they were in their own occupied and war-torn countries. Cease-fires were a result of young men with national but not personal scores to settle, coming from equally diverse backgrounds with plenty in common culturally. They could have been friends under different circumstances. Many had family in Germany, and some German soldiers had lived or even been brought up in Britain. It seems strange to us that sworn enemies having reconciled so easily in this way, could so easily go back to killing each other. It’s a paradox, but it’s not unusual as far as the experience of fighting men goes.
This was not a unique reaction to nor a rejection of the new form of ‘total’ war. Similar incidents of “peace breaking out” are said to have taken place in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Revolutionary war, the Crimean War, and even the Second World War (see Gilbert’s ‘Stalk and Kill’, 1997). In all the theme is similiar, bored battle-fatigued combatants in close proximity start larking about with each other. Gilbert’s stories involve one side holding up a target for the opposing side to shoot at and then cheering or deriding them depending on the marksmanship. They usually seem to be in a spirit of camaraderie, albeit with the enemy. It always ends the same way – back to the business of war the next day. The Civil War story is interesting in that during an unofficial truce one side accidentally fired a round. As the two sides picked up their arms to resume fighting, the offending party sent the man over the trench who had fired the shot and made him parade back and forth carrying a heavy beam for two hours. This appeased the offended party who did not fire at the man but applauded their efforts.
Some have drawn parallels with medieval “truces of God” which allowed combatants to observe sacred feasts whilst on campaign. But there’s also a psycho/sociological angle, that many of us in the civilian world just don’t get. You don’t have to hate your enemy or want to kill him individually, to have no hesitation to kill him in battle. It’s the warrior’s paradox; something peculiar to fighting men and women that people find increasingly difficult to understand. Patriotic ideals aside (though there was no shortage of these during the War), it’s about doing what you’ve been trained to do, no hard feelings (at least at this stage of the war). Richard Dawkins has speculated that one of his theories may apply here, wherein two competing groups will work together for mutual benefit; in this case, getting a break from the fear and tension of war. Participants would have known that it couldn’t last, so took advantage of the opportunity to blow off steam.
I would conclude by saying that though ‘the truce’ happened, it wasn’t really the universal realisation of the futility of war that many think. No more than 50% of the Western Front took part, and many protested the fraternisation, both officers and men. The great human cost of the war as it developed, and the subsequent reaction against imperialism and economic/territorial war between states, has led us to reimagine the various separate incidents of fraternisation as a single organised legendary event. So much so, that people receiving a version of the story in their email inboxes in recent years have questioned its veracity, hence the Snopes verdict. However the phenomenon has been altered by time and hindsight, there’s no doubt that the men of both sides appreciated the chance for a brief return to normality and civilisation, and looked forward to the return of real peace to Europe.

The Angle of Mons

I’ve so far refrained from commenting on the ‘Angel of Mons’ story, mostly because this Fortean Times article absolutely nails it, and though I’ve yet to read it, I’m sure the full book on the subject (also by Dr David Clarke) thoroughly pokes its dead husk with a stick.

There is also an earlier and more extensive article by Clarke in Folklore journal, reproduced here, a Skeptoid podcast, and just to give some balance, one of the original sources for the claim of ghostly and/or angelic warriors helping British soldiers at the Battle of Mons is online at archive.org. This includes ‘eyewitness’ testimony all apparently based upon an original work of fiction by author Arthur Machen, and all investigated by Clarke and others over the years. The ‘Angel’ is about as open and shut case as it’s possible to get where eyewitness sources are concerned.

But I recently received a Google alert directing me to this blog, which scoffs at Clarke’s scepticism and asserts that;

The issue in the 21st Century isn’t whether the event actually happened – It is whether such an event Could happen.”

Er, is it? I’m not sure how that follows, but even if angelic apparitions were documented and scientifically verified reality, there would still be reason to believe that this incident never happened. And contrary to another statement from the linked blog post, it isn’t because the ‘Angel’ was really;

“…collective hallucination arising from battle fatigue…”

…as the writer claims others claim. No-one today is seriously suggesting this, least of all Clarke, though he does detail this explanation as part of his research. The author of the blog piece clearly hasn’t properly read the article that he links to, as the consensus explanation for the ‘Angel’ is that it was a fictional story that grew legendary ‘legs’.

The invocation of ‘Ockham’s razor’ is also odd, given that even the most ardent believer must admit that the existence of angels is not scientifically evidenced, nor is it today a mainstream belief in the UK, where this commentator is based. But then, phrases like “paradox ridden fairytale” and “meat grinding existentialism and…no hope materialism” being applied to science gives you an idea of the ‘angle’ the writer is taking here. It’s a licence not only to believe what one likes, which I certainly don’t challenge, but to claim it as falsifiable truth.

Well, sorry chum, but it doesn’t work that way. As for;

“why therefore go to all the trouble to dismiss and destroy the Mons story which is a manifestation of human spiritual hope amongst the dark meat grinder of holocausts such as a world war ?”

You said it yourself. Mythmaking under the pressures of one of the most horrific conflicts humanity has ever known is a fascinating and important area of study, whether or not you believe that the events described actually happened. But at the same time, a proper investigation into such stories will almost certainly have to tackle the question “did it really happen”? Some of us feel that it’s important to separate fact from fiction for the same reason that fictional literature, movies and video games are enjoyable and rewarding, but it wouldn’t be healthy to live our lives as though the events described in them were real – as appealing as that idea might sometimes be.

PS Yes, it’s a lame title. Deal with it.

Horrible.

I’ll keep this one brief, since I haven’t been able to give this exhibition its fair dues by actually visiting it. Having said that, the very concept strikes me as pretty disrespectful to those that took part in a conflict that is still within living memory, not to mention pretty trivialising.

Essentially it’s a 3D version of the book of the same name, one in a series of light-hearted yet visceral children’s history books. I’ve always found them annoyingly smug and terminally unfunny, not to mention less informative than a vandalised Wikipedia entry. The main problem from an historical sense is that concepts are simplified to the point of meaninglessness, and then often politicised into the bargain. If you’re posh, woe betide your treatment by Deary. Will this joint effort with a national institution set up to commemorate and interpret the First World War be different? This radio interview would suggest otherwise, since it claims that “officers hated” the Christmas truce, and threatened to shoot anyone that “tried this again”. This is nonsense – officers in the trenches reacted much as the other ranks did – some objected on principle, some embraced the idea and even initiated truces, and many others simply took advantage of the respite offered, knowing that it would likely never come again. There were no threats of shooting – even military justice, which did call for court martial in case of “fraternisation”, was largely suspended, partly to allow intelligence to be gathered from the enemy.

Much as I understand the power of a different approach to interpretation, it’s hard to resist my gut reaction that children “who don’t read books” are unlikely to take away much sense of the “dreadful conditions” of the trenches simply by squashing a virtual rat. But I could be letting my prejudice get in the of this one. I’d be interested in comments. Am I wrong to be down on this idea?

The exhibition’s on til early next year in any case. More relevant press here;

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article3969797.ece

http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/entertainment/arts/s/1049608_finding_humour_amid_the_horrors