REVIEW – A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith During the First World War

2 mins read

By Owen Davies
Published by Oxford University Press

Cover image for 'A Supernatural War' by Owen Davies
Owen Davies
Oxford University Press, £20 (hbk)

The First World War created new experiences of pain and suffering, and had profound consequences for the shape of wars to come.

But in one respect the Great War of 1914-1918 was curiously old-fashioned and traditional – and that was in the realms of spirituality, superstition, and religious faith.

No matter how terrible were the new technologies of mass killing and maiming, the men who endured them often did so by recourse to age-old beliefs concerning luck, good fortune, and supernatural protection, whose physical embodiments they wore or carried.

In A Supernatural War, Owen Davies takes us on a journey through these stranger worlds of the war, drawing on evidence from soldiers’ diaries, memoirs, and other contemporary accounts.

The book deals first with prophecies, visions, and fortune-telling, and second with a host of objects imbued with the power to protect and bring good luck. Several chapters explore popular beliefs and activities, many of which were profitable for those playing on the grief and traumas of war.

The range of evidence is fascinatingly broad: soldiers who encountered ghostly figures who guided them to safety in the trenches; others who saw apparitions of dead comrades; spiritualists conversing with the war dead on behalf of their distraught families; innumerable guardian angels who had intervened to save a soldier; and those who illegally sold personalised horoscopes.

As powerful as such stories were, more enduring (and open to constant reappraisal) were the objects that men found, made, elaborated, or were given, and which were regarded as embodiments of the protective power of belief.

Amulets, lucky charms, and mascots could be specially made for a particular purpose or (more tricky to identify) ordinary objects whose significance and power resided solely in the minds of their owners, such as a fragment of stone or a lock of hair. Any of these items could produce strange physical habits – mini-rituals undertaken before going over the top, taking off in a biplane, or diving deep in a submarine.

Some of these objects had pre-war origins, albeit given new life and popularity by the daily assault on men’s lives during the conflict. One example was Touchwood, a round wooden head with small silver legs and arms, that enabled the soldier to always and quickly touch wood for good luck.

A 19th-century mascot that gained popularity during the war was ‘Fums Up’, a miniature naked baby with a smiling face and making a thumbs-up gesture.

Other examples were created by the war itself, such as the ‘talismanic bullet’, the idea being that if the soldier carried a bullet inscribed with his own name, then there was not another bullet coming his way from an enemy gun.

Many such objects were ‘trench art’, made or elaborated from war debris, such as a swastika carved from aluminium sourced from a downed German Zeppelin – and whose ancient pre-Nazi origin was as a Hindu symbol of auspiciousness.

And then there were extraordinary amuletic objects, such as a miniature Bible carried in the breast pocket which stopped a bullet, and the bullet dug out of a wounded soldier then carved into a cross and worn by him for the rest of his life.

This is a fascinating account of how the first modern industrialised global war revitalised traditional superstitions, and infused supernatural power into all kinds of objects.

Review by Nick Saunders

This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.

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