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:
A RUSSIAN REVELATION: WHERE THE MYTHICAL COSSACKS OF WW1 WERE REALLY FROM
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