When Rationalism Tangled with Magic: ‘A Supernatural War’

Exploring the charms and rituals believed to safeguard WWI soldiers makes A Supernatural War a fascinating read.

A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War
Owen Davies
Oxford University Press
February 2019

When the First World War did not end by Christmas 1914, contrary to expectations of some British leaders, many men in the freshly dug trenches and the many women left behind at home grew anxious. Tanks, chemicals, and suicidal charges against foes heightened fear among millions trapped within a vast theater of combat across much of Europe.

When soldiers were thrown into the chaos of continental conflict, some turned to traditional, rather than modern, means of comfort. They reverted to, or sustained, practices which their ancestors until recently had carried on. Magical spells, divination to discern malign forces, and spiritualism to summon up protective specters returned early in a century that boasted of the advent of reason, the invention of machinery, and the solutions found in progress.

Owen Davies has spent a productive career as a social historian of the beliefs in ghosts, the purported presence of witches, and the efficacy of popular medicine from ancient times until now. Six years ago, he joined a British-funded initiative “to challenge predominant narratives and support grass-roots research on the impact of war.” At Everyday Lives in War, Public Engagement Centre Davis and others examine how everyday people expressed beliefs during the Great War. While fears of witchcraft and a trust in “everyday magic” continued as they had before the publication of Barbara W. Tuchman‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns of August (1914), the uncertainty which grew between 1914 and 1918 generated “new commercial and faith-based opportunities to feed the popular desire for protection and good fortune.”

Davies applies his expertise in the subjects of superstition and paganism to track how these manifestations spread through the rank and file, the press, and the mindsets of those on the home front. Until the publication of A Supernatural War, research into this field lacked the context of a framework that expanded beyond the four-and-a-half years of the war itself. Owens enriches research through his broader knowledge of this subject.

The outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914 had been predicted. So claimed adepts who scoured the enigmatic verses of Nostradamus from centuries before. The clairvoyant who styled herself as the Madame de Thèbes turned from palm reading to a wider prospect, as her insights into the mysterious forces which had foreseen the war found ready customers.

Propaganda furthered the reach of occult beliefs. Most famous was the alleged appearance of the Angel of Mons. This figure rallied retreating Tommies, according to accounts which attracted eager readers as well as sharp listeners among troops. Jingoism used such instances to assert how divine intervention rescued the British; similar miracles, unsurprisingly, were attributed to supernatural events which rescued those under the command of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A particularly noteworthy addition to study of wartime culture benefits from Davies’ own initiative. Faced with the paucity of specimens within museums, he turned to E-Bay to build his own collection of charms and talismans manufactured or crafted for both a military consumer and a civilian buyer. For both turned to these objects for protection from malign and evil forces.

Fewer illustrations than expected speckle these pages — given the rarity of the presentation of these materials — but a handful of these amulets as displayed enrich the verbal treatment of these metal, cloth, and paper creations. Postcards with angelic or heavenly guardians found recipients among both French and German Catholics. Swastikas, long before the Reich, became one of the most popular symbols for fortune, derived from the sun’s daily path across the sky. Horseshoes, the Hand of Fatima via the Muslim world, scallop shells which once marked a medieval pilgrim, and an old shoe as a token for a safe journey: these familiar tokens represented the range of trinkets kept in a pocket or a pack at the front, to ward off dangers.

One valuable acquisition was made from the aluminum of a Zeppelin shot down over England into the Aryan rune. A Jewish fighter ace decorated his Albatross with a black swastika; the new Finnish air force adopted it in blue as its logo. Britain, thanks to its jewellery and fashion enterprises, capitalized on a lucrative trend that had started with imported pins, bangles, and leather goods from Paris back in 1907. Americans soon followed suit, promoting this common sign of prosperity and luck.
The advent of New Thought paralleled this turn to credulity, prophecy, and rituals which could thwart global Grim Reapers.

The year before the war, a savvy fundraiser for an association assisting the blind advertised a “mysterious little eastern mascot” said to bring the same luck. By Christmas 1913, these “touchwoods” captured attention, for the charity noted in its publicity that Queen Alexandria featured among the patrons of this British endeavor. What Davies traces back to a German Jewish Ukrainian immigrant’s enterprise, having fled pogroms to start up a side business in “The Wonderful Eastern Charm”, turned into an international craze. Timed for better or worse luck, this fad spread in the winter and spring of 1914. Thus, shifting its product into a transatlantic trade proved for Henry Brandon (born Hyman Pokrasse) a stroke of sudden fortune.

Davies introduces us to Frederick Lawrence Rawsom’s “intriguingly titled pamphlet” Bullet-Proof Soldiers. This touted his “audible treatment” by which “right thinking” could dematerialize bullets. Having affirmed the “primacy of spirit” by which neither weapon nor ammunition could harm one who trusted in this energy, Rawson avowed the success of this wonder-working source. Those who scoff at this pitch may judge its appeal alongside the success of Oprah Winfrey’s self-affirmation marketing or Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 bestseller (The Secret Atria, 2006) and its rapturous reception among millions of Americans.

Brandon and Rawsom’s picaresque stories enliven this narrative. It will assist scholars and it will instruct readers curious about this era when the boasts of rationalism tangled with the reversions to astrologers, Christian Science, Joan of Arc, and the Virgin Mary. Well-documented with deep investigation into newspapers and magazines of the period, accounts by military veterans and chroniclers, and primary sources in German and French, Davies’ work provides readers with an array of fervent reactions to the onslaught of mass warfare. New Thought ushered in attitudes which survive and thrive among the New Age. A Supernatural War encourages reflection on whether or not we have advanced, a century since Armistice Day.