(Originally published in October 2013)
THE FIRST WORLD WAR WAS BARELY TWO WEEKS OLD when Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II shot off an urgent (and now famous) telegram to the commander of his first army group, Alexander von Kluck.
The terse note, which was supposedly dispatched on Aug. 19, 1914, urged the commander of the right wing of the German advance into France to quickly crush the six divisions of British troops that were blocking the road ahead and get on with the business of capturing Paris.
“Concentrate your energies upon one single purpose,” wrote the Kaiser. “Exterminate the treacherous English and walk over [this] contemptible little army.”
Far from being troubled by the knowledge that they were in Germany’s crosshairs, British troops were positively thrilled to learn that they were causing the enemy ruler such anxiety. In fact, the men of the BEF quickly dubbed themselves “The Old Contemptibles” in reference to the German emperor`s remarks.
While the nickname certainly boosted morale on the frontline and helped buoy the spirits of those at home, it’s unlikely that the Kaiser ever sent such a telegram or even referred to the English as a “contemptible little army”.
According to a recent article by Stephen Corbett, author and blogger for Helion Books in the U.K., while Wilhelm likely felt nothing but disdain for Britain’s army in France, no evidence of the famous Aug. 19 order has ever been unearthed. Some even as far back as the 1920s argued that the entire story was a fabrication — engineered by Britain`s newly minted War Propaganda Bureau.
If that’s the case, then the ‘contemptible army myth’ would be just one of the myriad of fictions that were spread during the conflict by army spin doctors, patriotic newspaper editors, war-weary civilians and overly-imaginative soldiers. Here are some others:
Angel of Mons
Following the August, 1914 Battle of Mons, wild tales began to spread throughout the U.K. of angles appearing above the battlefield protecting the beleaguered British troops and even slaying enemy soldiers. The apparitions were sometimes described as sword-wielding spirits riding white horses. The stories served as proof to many in England that the war itself was some kind of divinely ordained errand. The reality however was less than supernatural. The various narratives sprung from a rather ordinary fictional short story entitled “The Bowman” that ran in the Sept. 29 edition of the London Evening News. Penned by fantasy novelist and war correspondent Arthur Machen, the yarn tells of the ghosts of English dead from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt coming to the aid of outnumbered British soldiers in France. Many readers mistook the fanciful tale, which was written in the first-person, for a real eyewitness account. Despite Machen’s efforts to dispel it, the saga took on a life of its own. A 2005 book by David Clark on the Angel of Mons argues that the myth was intentionally promulgated by army propagandists to bolster morale. The legend even survived the war and has often since been cited by spiritualists as proof of the existence of angels. In fact, as recently as 2001, pranksters in the U.K. claimed to have uncovered photographic evidence of the angels. The allegations were later reveled by the BBC to be a publicity stunt.
The Crucified Canadian
Another often-repeated yet supposedly unverifiable bit of frontline folklore is that of the crucified soldier. While various tales had been floated as early as 1914 of German troops crucifying captured soldiers, babies and even cats, one story the following year gained widespread currency. It described a group of Canadian soldiers that watched helplessly from their trenches as enemy troops pinned one of their comrades to a barn door by the wrists and feet with bayonets before driving a blade into the prisoner’s throat. The story, which supposedly took place near Ypres in April of 1915, created a stir on both sides of the Atlantic when details appeared in the press. In some coverage, the hapless captive was a young officer, while in other renditions the victim was a private. Accounts also diverge as to whether it was a barn door to which the victim was fatally pinned or a tree. Historian John Simkin claims that the tale was actually born from an innocuous report by a night reconnaissance patrol and then intentionally spun by British propagandists. Simkins reports that British on a night recon mission observed a force of enemy troops encamped next to what appeared to be cross with a human figure hanging from it. Upon closer inspection, the apparent crucified victim turned out to be a shadow. However, in 2002 Peabody Award-winning documentary film-maker Iain Overton reportedly uncovered correspondence from Canadian troops who saw such an atrocity take place first hand. The soldiers even identified the victim as one of the own – Sergeant Harry Band. Letters to and from Band’s surviving sister even referred to the missing sergeant as the famous “crucified” Canadian.
The Kaiser’s Cadaver Factories
One myth that proved to be entirely false emerged in 1917. In April of that year, the British press published what it claimed were reports from newspapers in Belgium and the Netherlands of a bizarre German corpse reprocessing program. According to the stories, industrial plants were springing up throughout enemy territory in which dead bodies collected from No Man’s Land were harvested for their fat. These Kadaververwertungsanstalt or “corpse-processing factories” extracted the lard for use in the manufacturing of candles, soap, industrial lubricants and even munitions. The macabre recycling program was a supposedly the result of the British naval blockade, which was starving Germany of raw materials. The reports were refuted when observers with knowledge of the German language pointed out that the term kadaver isn’t used to refer to human bodies, but rather animal carcasses. That didn’t stop the story from being breathlessly circulated by the public and the press. In fact, it caused such an outrage in Great Britain that opposition MPs in Parliament pressed the government to release everything it knew about Germany’s supposed harvesting of the dead.
The Wild Men of No Man’s Land
Not all war mythology came from propaganda bureaus – much of it was generated by the men in the trenches themselves. One of the more outrageous of these tall tales concerned nomadic packs of runaway soldiers who inhabited the foxholes, craters and dugouts of No Man’s Land. In his celebrated 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory, historian Paul Fussel called it the “finest legend of the war.” “The rumour is that somewhere between the lines a battalion sized (some said even regimental sized) group of half-crazed deserters from all armies harbored underground… and emerging at night to pillage corpses and gather food and drink,” wrote Fussel. According to the book, variations on the legend portrayed the fugitives as bearded and dressed in rags while others suggested that escapees had gone feral and had become more animals than men. Troops swapped stories about how patrols, wiring details and raiding parties had even stumbled across the renegades while crossing the battlefield in the darkness. The legend also held that commanders on both sides were aware of this growing legion of savage soldiers and were even planning a joint campaign to exterminate them (possibly with poison gas) once the war was over.
The Stab in the Back
Perhaps the most tragic myth of the First World War, and certainly the one with most dire consequences for the future, came after the Armistice. Many German veterans maintained that the empire could have fought on (and perhaps even won the war) were it not for defeatists and revolutionaries on the home front that forced Berlin to capitulate. Nationalists quickly branded such ‘quitters’ the November Criminals. Such assertions have since been roundly refuted by historians. Many point out that by the fall of 1918, Germany had utterly collapsed militarily and had neither troops nor the resources to continue the fight any longer. Yet this belief in the “stab-in-the-back” had a number of prominent and vocal proponents including German general Eric Ludendorff and one war-vet turned politician by the name of Adolf Hitler. In fact the denunciation of the November Criminals, the punitive Treaty of Versailles and the very concept of German culpability for the war all became central planks in National Socialism movement and helped propel the Nazis to power.