Coo-ee: Great war fantasies

By Simon Ruppert

It is said the first casualty of war is truth. In the Great War, fantasies often took its place.

In August 1914, British forces attempted to stop the left flank of invading German forces at Mons in their first battle. They failed.

At the height of the battle, British soldiers are said to have seen an angel, a host of angels, St Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary or even Joan d’Arc coming to their rescue.

That the identity and number of heavenly hosts seem uncertain lends this story an air of fantasy.

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There were neither reports in official unit diaries nor corroborating witnesses. However, this fantasy has persisted up to the present day.

At the Battle of Loos in September 1915, bowmen in medieval costume were reported fighting on the British side. No-one reporting these bowmen actually saw them.

The reports were always from ‘someone who had been told’.

At Agincourt, almost 600 years before, bowmen had cut down the flower of French knighthood.

Near the anniversary of Agincourt, this story smacked of wishful thinking.

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Australian soldiers were not exempt from such fantasies.

On Gallipoli, rumours abounded of almost naked Turkish women snipers killing Australian soldiers.

The story first arose on the day of the landing when troops landed at Cape Helles.

The story was printed in The Times in July 1915. It said: ‘`This sailor witnessed the capture of a woman sharpshooter in a little white house near the shore.

``She was a Turkish woman, and the house was her own.

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``She had refused to leave it: Her old mother and her child were with her when she was taken.

``She had persistently fired on our men from a window, aiming in particular at the officers.

``She must have rifled the bodies of her victims, for some 16 identification discs and a considerable sum of money were found in her possession.’'

Three months later, the same story appeared again but this time the sniping occurred 35 km away at Suvla.

Same white house, same 16 identification discs, but this time the sniper was the wife of a Turkish soldier.

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The story was repeated over and over with similar details. It grew in the telling. Sometimes, Australian troops bayoneted the woman sniper. In one telling, New Zealand artillery blasted her out of a tree. In another, Irish soldiers raped and killed her.

She was always painted green and nearly naked. These reports were always from ‘someone who had been told’.

Allied troops on Gallipoli loathed and feared the many Turkish snipers.

However, a near naked woman sniper would not have been allowed near Turkish lines, whether or not she was painted green.

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Turkey was an intensely conservative Islamic country 100 years ago. The story is a fantasy.

Later in 1917 three Australian soldiers saw a Crusader knight in chain mail just outside Jerusalem.

This was not a report of sighting by others. All three saw the knight. One must presume alcohol was involved.

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