A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War, by Owen Davies

Simon Young learns how soldiers used magical thinking to cope with their dreadful circumstances

January 3, 2019
Postcard of soldier in trench with an angel
Source: Getty

As Europe has pushed through the centenary years of the Great War, an extraordinary range of books has been published on almost every aspect of the conflict. These began with the major works of 2013-14 looking at the causes of the war and have since moved on to lesser-known but often fascinating themes such as trench animals, colonial soldiers, morale-boosting comic strips and pacifism. However, even readers familiar with the flood of centenary books will be surprised to find one devoted to “magic, divination, and faith during the First World War”. Must we really couple machine guns with horoscopes, Second Ypres with rabbits’ feet?

The author Owen Davies makes the case that we must, and that the Great War was indeed an enchanted war. European soldiers went into battle, as they had done for millennia, with talismans. Indeed, early medieval historians will be shocked to discover that German soldiers carried “letters from heaven” – chain letters from Jesus, first attested in the 8th century. This reviewer choked up on learning that one British soldier took a “perforated stone” with him to the trenches: a protective device against witches and fairies that would have been familiar to his Tudor and perhaps his Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

Why did these labourers in an industrial war turn in such numbers to the magical? Well, as Davies demonstrates, theirs were more religious societies than ours: Gott mit uns meant something in August 1914, as visions of angels and crosses would quickly demonstrate. But the horrid intensity of the conflict also mattered. Nothing, not even the American Civil War, had come close to the experience of the trenches in terms of slaughter, duration and stress: a battle royal or a hunger games on a continental scale. Those involved not only had to fight, they had to make sense, for themselves and for the wider world, of something completely new.

Given these unprecedented circumstances, it is hardly surprising that infantry in particular turned to magical thinking to keep themselves safe, often creating new superstitions as they did so. These young men wanted to survive: “life after all is nothing much to give/but young men think it is and we were young” (as the poet A. E. Housman put it). They, then, drew conclusions to explain the simple operation of chance. For instance, one British private employed Christian Science “right thought” to protect himself and miraculously ghost-danced through Loos, the Somme, Messines-Wytschaete Ridge and Ypres. As Davies notes, “no wonder he felt he had been especially protected”. The most interesting chapter is the last, where these beliefs spill out into the post-war world.

This is a marvellous book, and even readers who know Davies’ impressive writing on witchcraft, cunning folk and ghosts will find a new glint of ambition here. The most admirable aspect of A Supernatural War is that, while concentrating on the English-speaking war, it covers most of the continental combatant nations, too, giving a European flavour to perhaps the last moment in history when Britain was culturally in hock to its continental neighbours rather than to the United States. The reader finishes Davies’ work with a knowledge of how the different combatant peoples reacted in similarly human ways to “the breaking of nations”.

Simon Young teaches at the University of Virginia Program in Siena. His most recent book is Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies – 500 AD to the Present, co-edited with Ceri Houlbrook (2018).


A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War
By Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780198794554
Published 25 October 2018

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Superstition in the trenches

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