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

Graham Seal

Shamans in Arms

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


Oxford University Press 284pp £20 order from our bookshop

Can there possibly be anything new to say about the history of the bloody madness that engulfed much of Europe and elsewhere from 1914 to 1918? It seems so. Owen Davies leaves no form of delusion and deception unexamined in his new book on magic, divination and faith in the First World War. A great number and variety of things seemed to offer supernatural insights into life and death. They included almanacs, charms (including ‘Zepp’ charms, crafted from the aluminium skeleton of a downed German airship), divination, fortune-telling, ghosts, mascots, prophecy, spiritualism, talismans, visions and witchcraft.

Other topics excavated and investigated in this enlightening study of a little-researched aspect of the Great War include the commercial production and promotion of protective pendants, such as the American ‘touchwood’ charms, the British Fumsup mascots, and even golliwog badges, sold by the Red Cross and other charities to raise funds. French soldiers wore charms representing a hunchbacked man, based on the folk belief that it was lucky to touch such an individual. In the lethal uncertainty of the front, almost any object might be invested with magic power, from lucky sixpences, bibles and decks of playing cards to gold coins carried over the heart and finger rings, especially those featuring St Michael.

Davies casts his net widely. His extensive research takes in not only British and imperial beliefs but also those in many other countries, including Germany, and the United States of America. While the broad contours of supernatural belief were much the same everywhere, there were distinct national emphases. Visions of

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