Careless Talk Costs Lives

James Hayward. Myths and Legends of the First World War. Sutton, 2002.
James Hayward. Myths and Legends of the Second World War. Sutton, 2003.

War is the progenitor of legend, rumour and fantastical stories, some arising spontaneously, others the products of the propaganda factories of the various combatants. In these books James Hayward looks at all sorts of legends surrounding the two Twentieth Century World Wars. Some of the legends are essentially folk interpretations of history, and in these readers should assume that Hayward's often critical views are just one of many, for example his chapters on the 'myth' of the ineptitude of the British generals in WWI, or of the 'myth' of Dunkirk in the Second, contain views which might be challenged by other historians. Other chapters point to universals in the human imagination, for example during WWI a rumour grew that a nurse who had looked after a wounded German officer had been told by him 'to avoid the Tube in April'. Virtually identical rumours circulated after 9/11, and today we see replays of the spy manias which led to attacks on German waiters in WWI and rumours of parachutists dressed as nuns in WWII.

Some rumours have dark consequences, for example reaction against the 'German atrocity' stories of WWI blinded many in the Allied nations to the reality of the Holocaust. The additional irony is that original atrocity stories were exaggerations rather than pure inventions, as the Prussian army had engaged in mass reprisals against the Belgians who had the temerity not to lie down and be raped by their conquerors, as the aristocrats had always expected peasants to behave, but had actually fought back, thus becoming 'terrorists' or 'illegal combatants', and subject to the sort of severe reprisals by which well brought up gentlemen demonstrate their superiority to peasants and savages.

For Magonia readers it is the more supernatural rumours which are likely to have the greatest interest, and Hayward devotes a chapter in the first volume to rumours of Angels of Mons and other supernatural visions, and in the second volume part of a chapter is devoted to foo fighters. In the former case Hayward comes to the conclusion that the rumours did indeed start with Machen's Bowmen, but the latter leaves him rather baffled. Faced with these sorts of story, along with tales of the missing Norfolks, supernatural warnings, and supernatural forces behind the Nazis, Hayward sometimes seems to irritated that 'educated people' could believe these things. Once again 9/11 and its subsequent wars have produced very similar rumours, beliefs, and appeals to the supernatural.

Despite the somber subject matter, there are flashes of dark humour at times, the WWI trial of Noel Pemberton Billing, arguably the most bizarre trial in modern British legal history, in which at one point a witness accused the judge himself as being part of the vast gay and lesbuan conspiracy undermining Britain, would make an excellent drama. Of course Billing would be a boon to the current tabloid press, and if alive today would no doubt end up as a celebrity castaway eating things just slightly more unwholesome that himself. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 85, July 2004


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