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Myths & Legends of the First World War

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Myths & Legends of the First World War
By James Hayward. (Sutton Publishing: 2003. 224 Pgs.) ISBN: 0-7509-2865-4.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 10, 2003

Regrettably, the War to End all Wars, failed in ending anything. As events would later play out, the Great War in reality was but the first of two world wars. Much has been written about World War I, both from a historical and military standpoint. However, one aspect of the war that is often over looked is the myths and legends that developed both during and after the war - and the propaganda uses to which these myths were put to use during the war. James Hayward corrects this oversight in his riveting work, Myths & Legends of the First World War.

This important work delineates the various myths and legends that emerged from the war. Hayward documents how the various stories developed and how they were spread. He examines whether or not there is any basis in truth for the stories, and if so how the truth was distorted over time. He also details the controversies that still surround many of the stories. The stories are presented in a straight chronological order, and the more significant stories are analyzed in detailed. He illustrates how the various myths and legends were spread, and the effect that they had on the war. In addition, Hayward examines the myths that developed after the war ended, and those which reemerged during World War II.

Myths and legends covered in this text included the stories about the Angels of Mons, the reported German atrocities in France and Belgium, the Phantom Bowman, the tale of the crucified Canadian, and the stories surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania. He also chronicles various trench myths, such as the notion that the British were renting trenches from the French, and that there was a band of deserters living in no man's land. Hayward also discusses how the German Kadaververwertungsanstalt (Corpse Exploitation Establishment) gave rise to stories about the existence of a German corpse rendering factory. While the story later proved to be untrue, it was an eerie precursor to the German atrocities that would be carried out during the Second World War.

Myths & Legends of the First World War not only discusses stories that developed naturally, but also those fabricated by counter-intelligence agencies. In addition, Hayward details how various nations milked the propaganda value out of these stories, both those that arose naturally and those that were fabricated. The use of The Rape of Belgium as a rallying cry in Britain to encourage enlistment in the military and to garner public support for the war is a well-known example of World War I propaganda at its best.

Myths & Legends of the First World War is a fascinating book to read. It will be of great interest to anyone interested in the history, folklore, or military aspects of World War I. This book was written for a general audience. Consequently it does not include footnotes nor a bibliography, which will be a disappointment to scholars. Nonetheless, it is an eminently readable book that will appeal to readers of all ages, and all academic persuasions.


Related Reviews:

When This Bloody War is Over, by Max Arthur.
Soldiers' Songs of the First World War - Historically annotated lyrics to nearly 100 songs from The Great War.

Myths & Legends of the Second World War, by James Hayward
In this unique text, Hayward chronicles a variety of World War II myths that developed in Western Europe, and he examines what basis in fact, if any, that these myths had.

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