The Phantom Russian Cossacks

The fruits of my research into First World War rumours and belief legends was published in the Sunday Telegraph on 23 February under the headline:


Captured Russian troops including Cossacks in Galicia (credit:

Captured Russian troops including Cossacks in Galicia (credit:

by Jasper Copping

It seems to have been the worst kept national secret.

In the opening weeks of the First World War, word spread swiftly that up to a   million Cossack warriors had been shipped to Britain and were being spirited   through the country to be rushed into action on the Western Front, where   fighting was still at a critical phase and yet to be bogged down in the   trenches.

The news even reached the ears of the Germans, apparently provoking them into   strategic changes which are credited with allowing the Allies to stop them   achieving a swift victory.

Except there was not an ounce of truth in the reports, and the massive force   of Cossacks was non-existent.

The so-called “Russian rumour” is one of a number of myths and legends which   emerged during the First World War and which have now been investigated by   David Clarke, an academic from Sheffield Hallam University who specialises   in analysing such phenomena.

The research, which also covers the so-called Angel of Mons – an apparition   credited with assisting British soldiers – as well spying missions by   “phantom” Zeppelins, and “corpse factories”, where the Germans supposedly   processed human remains – has been conducted as part of a series of lectures   to mark the war’s centenary.

Dr Clarke has pieced together the “Russian rumour” from reports at the time,   tracing its origins and showing how it was used by British spies to dupe the   Germans.

The rumours began to circulate in the last week of August 1914 and swiftly started to appear in the newspapers, first local, then national   and even international.

Witnesses claimed they had seen southbound trains passing through the country   with blinds down, but with the occasional glimpse caught of carriages of   “fierce-looking bearded fellows in fur hats”. Others claimed the men still   had “snow on their boots”, while train drivers said they had spoken to the   foreign troops.

One article referred to reports that an “an immense force of Russian soldiers   – little short of a million it is said – have passed, or are still passing,   through England on their way to France”. It suggested the men had been   brought from Archangel, in northern Russia, and landed at Leith before being   carried south at night on hundreds of trains.

The article concluded: “What a surprise is in store for the Germans when they   find themselves faced on the west with hordes of Russians, while other   hordes are pressing upon them from the east!”

Officials did not confirm the reports but, with no firm denials, and given the   secrecy surrounding war preparations, kept an open mind. Meanwhile, the   reports continued to come in, appearing to give increasing corroboration.

One witness said he had seen 10,000 Russians marching along the Embankment   towards London Bridge station, while a rail porter at Durham reported   finding an automatic chocolate machine jammed by a rouble.

One man said they had been on a ship from Archangel accompanied by 2,500   Cossacks on route to France. He also claimed that he had taken several   photographs of the men which he gave to his local newspaper, which was   prevented from publishing them by the censor.

In Malvern, it was claimed a Russian jumped off a train and ordered 300   “lunchsky baskets”, while a woman near Stafford said she saw hundreds of men   in long grey overcoats stretching their legs next to their waiting train.

At Carlisle, there were said to have been shouts for “vodka” from a train.   Another report claimed 250,000 men wearing tunics from the Astrakhan area of   south west Russia had marched through a town in North Wales.

Some of the most extensive reports were in the US, where the press were free   from censorship restrictions.

The New York Times claimed 72,000 Russians had been transported from   Aberdeen to Grimsby, Harwich and Dover, and then on to Ostend.

The stories reached British soldiers already at the front in letters from   home, while at least one newspaper dispatch from Belgium also claimed the   Russians had actually arrived there.

Even Brigadier-General John Charteris, a senior intelligence officer, learnt   of the reports and made inquiries, but was told the rumours were untrue.

The Germans, however, gave them more credence and on September 7, news reports   from the Continent disclosed how the Kaiser and senior headquarters staff   had left France altogether, attributing the retreat to “the official news of   the concentration of 250,000 Russian troops in France”.

Meanwhile, the German army had veered south eastwards as it neared Paris,   giving the Allies the opportunity to check its advance at the Battle of the   Marne by the middle of September. The part played by the Russian rumour, in   this tactical blunder by the Germans and the subsequent Allied victory is   not known, but senior British military figures have said it was a factor.

According to some reports, the Germans detached two divisions to guard the   Belgian coast against the expected Russian assault, weakening their force   for the forthcoming Marne battle.

It was only after the after the victory on the Marne that the British   Government issued an unequivocal denial, but even after that, the rumour   persisted, with many insisting it was part of a continuing plan to trick the   Germans.

However, Dr Clarke’s research has traced the trigger for the false rumour to   events on August 24, when railway movements around the country were subject   to lengthy hold-ups.

These were imposed to allow reservists to move from their barracks around the   country to embarkation points on the south coast. The trains were   handsignalled and moved at night with blinds drawn.

One of the battalions involved was the Gaelic-speaking 4th Seaforth   Highlanders, whose appearance – and language – appears to have given rise to   many of the reports.

In one Midland station, a porter is said to have asked a group of   Gaelic-speaking Highland soldiers where they were from – and to have   misunderstood the reply of “Ross Shire”, as “Russia”.

At the same time, some Russian officers did arrive in Britain to organise   supplies for their own forces and serve as attaches to various military   staffs. Accompanying them was a number of soldier servants, most of whom   travelled from Archangel to Scottish ports, before catching trains south,   further fuelling the rumours.

Another suggestion put forward for sparking the report was a telegram sent   from a shipping agent in Aberdeen to his London headquarters about a large   consignment of Russian eggs which simply said ‘100,000 Russians now on way   from Aberdeen to London’.

There are clues that the rumour was deliberately fuelled, or even instigated,   by the intelligence service and British agents certainly tried to feed it to   their German counterparts.

MI5 had already intercepted letters and telegrams sent back to his handlers by   Carl Lody, a German agent operating in Britain. However, a report from him   that was allowed to pass related to the Russian troops story.

Dr Clarke said: “It was an accidental rumour, which turned into a massive   delusion. The authorities just let it run, and it was seem to have played a   role in the war.”

His research shows how other myths and legends, such as the Angel of Mons and   the “corpse factories”, were also exploited by the British for their   propaganda value.

Copyright Sunday Telegraph/David Clarke 2014

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.