A Supernatural War by Owen Davies

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

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Even people with a cursory familiarity with the popular culture renditions of the First World War might have heard of the Angels of Mons, the shining celestial warriors who appeared on the battlefield in 1914 in order to safeguard the British Expeditionary Force while it endured its first harsh retreat from German forces. In the torrent of books dealing with WWI runs a sub-strata of titles on the mystic side of the conflict, the signs and prophecies ready on the lips of fighters and planners on both sides of No Man’s Land.

That mystic side receives a quietly magnificent treatment in the new book from social history professor Owen Davies, A Supernatural War. Davies has a long track record of first-rate books on the history of the supernatural, including Grimoires: A History of Magic Books and American Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem, and in A Supernatural War he consults a wide array of sources to write the definitive history of the weird world war. The war swept away a great many powers and a great many of the ideological underpinnings of an earlier world, and some of the more bizarre old flourishes flared before they faded.

The Angels of Mons, readers are reminded, had a very mundane beginning. Arthur Machen heard about the Mons retreat and wrote a short story called “The Bowmen” in the Evening Standard, in which St. George calls up the bowmen of Agincourt to help the struggling BEF.

“The simple tale of the bowmen began to be embroidered and reformulated as reports accumulated of apparent first-hand sightings of angelic visions, knights in armour, and mysterious clouds at the retreat from Mons,” Davies writes. “Pamphlet compilations of these accounts proliferated, most presenting the visions as undoubted proof of God’s intervention.”

That pattern, the strange and surreal accumulation of supernatural details around quotidian beginnings, recurs throughout A Supernatural War. The enormous horrors of war came into explosive contact with long-held millenarian beliefs that had already reached a fever pitch at which, in certain quarters, cataclysm could start to look attractive:

For some, the Apocalypse was not a metaphor for the war; the war was truly the end times of the Book of Revelation. While that meant the near annihilation of humankind, it also heralded the return of Christ on earth and a wonderful future - a new millennium. Only a small percentage of humans, the elect, would survive to repopulate the New Jerusalem or Kingdom of God on earth.

Davies mines the vast variety of omens, prophecies, and battlefield visitations with a fast-paced and wide-ranging skill, always with a sensitive ear for the personal tensions underlying the pyrotechnics. “The fatigue, sensory deprivation, and sensory overstimulation engendered by trench warfare created distorted perceptions and mental aberrations,” Davies writes, “while stress and anxiety undoubtedly led to some of the uncanny experiences of those affected by fear and loss on the home fronts and battlefields.”

The First World War, according to Davies, “cemented the commercialization of talismans and amulets, helped incorporate mechanization into the realm of the magical, rendered mundane the notion of life after death, and psychologized the psychic realm.” A Supernatural War charts these subtle changes with the same exceptional skill this author has brought to all his books about the ways humans charge their world with supernatural relevances.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.