Monday, January 14, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR” by “James Hayward” [pseudonym of James Nice] (First published 2002)
Having chosen a work of military history as this week’s “Something New”, I am now drawn to comment on a work which does not examine sober military fact, but which considers and analyses wild fictions that circulated in wartime. Myths and Legends of the First World War is the work of a solicitor, James Nice, who turned to writing military history in middle age, adopting the pseudonym “James Hayward” for the purpose. Professional historians have criticised his work for some rough edges in the research, but it is generally well-sourced and genuinely informative – as well as very entertaining.

With the exception of one ill-considered and surprisingly patriotic chapter, Myths and Legends of the First World War is a handy compendium of all the false things that a large part of the British public believed while the First World War was in progress. Regrettably some of these fictions endured and were falsely regarded as part of the historical record long after the conflict was over.

Hayward’s first chapter deals with the spy mania that gripped Britain as soon as the war began. One sincerely patriotic, but grossly incompetent, German spy, Carl Lody, was tried and executed in the Tower of London. But the cold fact was that there was virtually no German spy apparatus in Britain in 1914. British intelligence had rounded up 20 or so German agents as soon as war broke out, and there were no others. British intelligence was able to do this as they had infiltrated the German spy-ring as early as 1911. However, this didn’t stop hysterical British patriots attempting to dob in perfectly innocent people who happened to have foreign accents or who behaved “suspiciously”.

Hayward then has fun with the silly legend – popular in late 1914 and early 1915 when the Germans appeared to be winning on the Western Front – that an army of Russian reinforcements had been transported through Britain, by train, at dead of night, to be embarked for France from the Channel Ports. Of course this was sheer wishful thinking (the then-current legend of the “Russian steamroller” whose inexhaustible supplies of men would sweep all before it). Even at the time, saner people realized how false the tale was, when na├»ve “witnesses” claimed they must have seen Russians “because they had snow on their boots”. One clever person suggested that local people at English country railway-stations may have been confused when they heard that Scots troops from Rosshire were passing through – but even this tale appears to have been a fiction.

More pathetic are the contents of Hayward’s third chapter – all those comforting legends about the “Angels of Mons” protecting British troops in their early retreats in France and Belgium, or about a mysterious cloud that swallowed up the Norfolk Regiment as it advanced into Turkish fire during the Gallipoli campaign. Hayward suggests that, though patently nonsense (and clearly based on Arthur Machen’s very short fiction The Bowmen) the “Angels of Mons” yarn was covertly encouraged by British propaganda to give civilians hope in a time of stress. The “mysterious cloud” protecting the Norfolks was a deliberately-concocted propaganda tale. Even in 1915, British authorities were aware that many of the Norfolks had been captured, massacred and hastily buried by the Turks – as mass-graves, examined after the war, confirmed. The folks back home were simply being shielded from this monstrous reality. You can’t keep a good story down though. Years later the idiotic tale of a “mysterious cloud” was resurrected by UFO enthusiasts as historical “proof” of extra-terrestrial intervention on Earth.

The role of propaganda is even more evident in Hayward’s third chapter, although here it is more ambiguous. Hayward deals with how British and French propaganda presented the “rape of Belgium” – the idea that German troops marching through Belgium routinely raped women, bayoneted babies, hanged nuns from bell-ropes, shot children and had more than once crucified captured Allied soldiers. British, French and (later) American propaganda posters depicted these supposed atrocities, most of which were untrue. (There was certainly no historically-authenticated instance of a soldier being crucified, or of babies being bayoneted. Doubtless some women were raped.)

Unfortunately, there is a problem here. As Hayward argues, while the propaganda was largely nonsense, it did contain a core of truth. In marching through Belgium, the Germans really did shoot about 5,000 civilians, most as ‘examples’ to discourage franc-tireur activity.  German armies had been spooked by very effective French franc-tireurs in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and claimed they had right on their side as such guerrilla activity was contrary to the laws of war. In the same spirit, and probably correctly, they said they were justified in executing Nurse Edith Cavell, who became a mainstay of British propaganda. Cavell really had been organizing a network helping Allied prisoners to escape.

As Hayward notes, one problem here is that Allied propaganda fictions about German activity in Belgium were so excessive that people felt repulsed from them once the war was over and their untruthfulness was exposed. Twenty years later, therefore, the “cry wolf” effect meant many people were reluctant to believe stories about Nazi atrocities. Allied propaganda had lied about German actions in Belgium in 1914-15. So maybe they were lying about death camps?

Hayward’s fifth chapter is about a motley collection of propaganda myths and soldiers tall tales. The myth that German processed the corpses of their own dead to help make soap, nitro-glycerine etc. The tale of a feral bunch of deserters from all nations living in No Man’s Land. The comforting tale of a “stranger in white”  - sometimes identified with Christ – guiding lost soldiers through the mud.

His seventh and last chapter is the most outrageous. It concerns the brilliant and yet clearly demented English MP Noel Pemberton-Billing who, in 1917, when the war seemed deadlocked, managed to convince much of the British public that “47,000 leading Britons” – including generals and statesmen – were subject to an evil German plot, the “Hidden Hand”, to corrupt the sexual morals of Britons and thus enfeeble the nation in wartime. It all came to a head in early 1918 when Pemberton-Billing was sued by an American exotic dancer, Maud Allen, whom he had libelled as being part of “the cult of the clitoris”. Because of a feeble judge, who lost control of his own courtroom, this nutter was able to use the dock as a platform to expound his weird ideas – and he was acquitted! This woeful story has been fictionalised in some of Pat Barker’s novels. What is rather alarming, however, is that the demented Pemberton-Billing was clearly a man of some real talent. He was the founder of the Supermarine Aircraft Company, which, years later, produced the Spitfire. So it could be said that while he did not good whatsoever for Britain in the First World War, he was a great benefactor in the Second.

And what of the chapter, which I earlier said was “ill-considered and surprisingly patriotic”? This is the sixth chapter in which, rather foolishly, Hayward attempts to lump critical examinations of British commanders together with the fictions and propaganda stories he is elsewhere examining. He rightly notes that the description of British troops as “lions led by donkeys” was never used by anyone in the First World War. It was invented by a journalist, many years later.  (The idea that the Kaiser had called Britain’s pre-conscription army “a contemptible little army” was entirely the invention of British propaganda). However, having noted this, Hayward then attempts to defend British generals from the many and legitimate criticisms that have subsequently been made of both their strategy and their tactics in the First World War. Like so many British writers, Hayward plays up the series of British Western Front victories in 1918, coming close to saying that these were what won the war. In the process - and again this is a British habit – he belittles the American contribution and denigrates the French.

This chapter sticks out like a sore thumb in an otherwise informative and entertaining book. It shows that even a writer set on exposing fictions can cling to favourite fictions of his own.

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