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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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;