100 years of Fake News: The German Corpse Factory


Corpse Factory cartoon drawn by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, creator of ‘Old Bill’

False stories that masquerade as real news are not a product of the modern age. But few realise the modern era of ‘Fake News‘ began one hundred years ago – during the carnage of the First World War.

In the spring of 1917 some of Britain’s most influential newspapers published stories about the German Corpse Factory – a fake news story has been called ‘the master hoax’ and ‘the most appalling atrocity story’ of the 1914-18 conflict.

Listen to my interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (17 February 2017) here – marking 100 years since the birth of the Corpse Factory legend. 

After three years of war and an Allied naval blockade, Germany was desperately short of some of the most basic materials that were needed for its manufacturing industry. Meanwhile, Britain was plotting to bring China into the war against Germany.

In March the English-language North China Herald claimed the country’s president had been horrified when a visiting German admiral boasted the Kaiser’s forces were ‘extracting glycerine out of dead soldiers’.

Rumours had been circulating since 1915, both in France and on the Home Front, that German war dead were being converted into munitions, animal feed and soap.

As one soldier put it ‘then other folk eat the pigs and poultry, so you may say it’s cannibalism. Fritz calls his margarine “corpse fat” because they suspect that’s what it comes from.’

But until 1917 these stories had not been presented as facts by any official source in the Allied countries.  That was until Lord Northcliffe’s  press empire amplified the gruesome claims and printed accounts from sources who claimed to have visited the Kadaververwertungsansatalt (‘Corpse-Utilisation Factory’).

A;lfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, owner of The Times and Daily Mail in 1917 (credit: Wikipedia)

Lord Northcliffe’s anti-German vitriol had so much impact that he was offered the post of director of propaganda by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. On 17 April 1917 two of his papers, The Times and the Daily Mail published what they claimed was convincing evidence the German Army were using a gruesome ‘corpse factory’  behind their front line.

The Times ran the story under the headline Germans and their Dead, attributing the claim to two sources – a Belgian newspaper published in England and a story that originally appeared in a German newspaper, Berliner Lokalanzeiger.

The latter was a short account by reporter Karl Rosner who described an unpleasant smell ‘as if lime was being burnt’ as he passed the a factory behind the German lines. He said the fats that were rendered there were turned into lubricating oils and manure, adding ‘nothing can be permitted to go to waste’.

Rosner used the word Kadaver, that referred to the bodies of animals – mainly horses and mules – not human bodies.

But the Daily Mail described this as a ‘callous admission’ by the Germans that the factory was for ‘extracting oils, fats and pig-food from the bodies of German private soldiers killed in battle’.

The Times quoted an anonymous account from a Belgian source who said bodies arrived at the plant on trains where they were unloaded by workers who ‘wear oilskin overalls and masks with mica eyepieces’.

extract from a report on the Hun 'corpse factory' published by The Times in April 1917

extract from a report on the Hun ‘corpse factory’ published by The Times in April 1917

Long hooked poles were used to ‘push the bundles of bodies to an endless chain, which picks them with big hooks…The bodies are transported on this endless chain into a long, narrow compartment, where they pass through a bath which disinfects them. They then go through a drying chamber, and finally are carried into a digester or great cauldron, in which they are dropped by an apparatus …In the digester they remain for six to eight hours, and are treated by steam, which breaks them up while they are slowly stirred by machinery’.

Soon afterwards the Daily Express weighed in with a story that accused the Germans of cannibalism. The paper claimed the Corpse-Utilisation Works or ‘fat farm’, as it was known by German soldiers, was established soon after the slaughter on the Somme in 1916.

‘Some people believe that there is only one German factory for this damnable work out of which Germans are making handsome dividends,’ it claimed. ‘This is not so. The factories are established in each army area, including Rumania. This the Germans have admitted’.

A cartoon published by Punch presented the story under the caption “CANNON FODDER – AND AFTER”. It shows the German emperor addressing a new recruit: ‘…and don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you – alive or dead’.

The German government protested against what they called ‘loathsome and ridiculous’ claims they said were the result of a deliberate mis-translation of the German word Kadaver.

But their protests fell on deaf ears as both the Chinese ambassador and the Maharajah of Biikanir issued public expressions of horror at German treatment of their dead, the latter warning if the bodies of Indian soldiers were treated in this way this’ would be regarded as an atrocity that would never be forgotten or forgiven.’

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

Punch cartoon from April 1917.

In Parliament, responding to questions from MPs, Lord Robert Cecil, Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, said: ‘in view of other actions by the German military authorities there is nothing incredible in the present charge against them.’

But the German Corpse Factory did not exist. It was propaganda – designed to demonise the Germans and entice the Chinese to join the Allied forces. Propaganda always involves some form of deception, ‘whether through outright lying, omission of important information, distortion or misdirection’, according to Professor Piers Robinson of the University of Sheffield.

Some historians have blamed the Northcliffe newspapers for spreading this most false of WW1 fake news stories. But until now no one has been able to find conclusive proof that would settle the mystery of who created the story and set it running.

In 1928 Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby, in his book Falsehood in Wartime, pointed the finger of blame at the British government and their friends in the press who, he claimed, had both ’encouraged and connived’ in spreading the lie across the world.

For its part, the government failed to issue a complete denial until 1925 when Sir Austen Chamberlain admitted, in a Commons statement, there was ‘never any foundation’ for what he called ‘this false report’.

But in the same year the Conservative MP John Charteris, who as a Brigadier General had served as head of intelligence under Douglas Haig during the war, whilst on a lecture tour of the USA, reportedly admitted he had fabricated the story.

The Daily Express weighs in with its own 'corpse factory' propaganda, April 1917

The Daily Express weighs in with its own ‘corpse factory’ propaganda, April 1917

The New York Times revealed how Charteris, at a private dinner, confessed to having transposed captions from one of two photographs found on captured German soldiers. One showed a train taking dead horses to be rendered, the other showed a train taking dead soldiers for burial. The photo of the horses had the word ‘cadaver’ written upon it and Charteris ‘had the caption transposed to the picture showing the German dead, and had the photograph sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai.’

The story was planted in the full knowledge that it would be followed up by European newspapers and generate horror and anti-German feelings.

On his return to Britain Charteris denied making the remarks and, since that time, no one has been able to discover the photographs or any paper-trail that would prove the intelligence services connived with the press to promote the corpse factory lie.

But I found what I believe to be one of the photographs in Foreign Office documents at The National Archives in Kew. The black and white image, dated 17 September 1917, clearly shows bodies of German soldiers, tied in bundles, on a train just as Charteris had described in 1925.

The covering letter, from a MI7 officer at Whitehall, is addressed to the Director of Information, Lt Col John Buchan, author of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915). It offers ‘a photograph of Kadavers, forwarded by General Charteris for propaganda purposes’.

One of the captured German photographs used by MI7 for propaganda in 1917 (credit: The National Archives)

One of the captured German photographs showing ‘kadavers’ that were sent to British intelligence for potential use as propaganda in 1917 (Crown Copyright – The National Archives)

MI7 were a military intelligence branch that specialised in anti-German propaganda in neutral countries. From 1916 its recruits were busily writing corpse factory pamphlets for translation into a number of foreign languages for distribution in Europe and the Far East.  The branch was disbanded in 1918 because its work had been accomplished and according to one historian its records were destroyed on the grounds they could have been incriminating.

But we know that in 1917 MI7 employed 13 officers and 25 paid writers, some whom moonlighted as ‘special correspondents’ for national newspapers.  One of their most talented writers was Major Hugh Pollard who combined his secret work with the role of special correspondent for the Daily Express, whose proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, became Minister of Information in 1918.

A 'corpse factory' story from the regional press

A ‘corpse factory’ story from the regional press

After the war Pollard confessed his role to his cousin, Ivor Montague, who writing in 1970, recalled

‘…how we laughed at his cleverness when he told us how his department had launched the account of the German corpse factories and of how the Hun was using the myriads of trench-war casualties for making soap and margarine. He explained that he had originally thought up the idea himself to discredit the enemy among the populations of Oriental countries, hoping to play upon the respect for the dead that goes with ancestor-worship. To the surprise of the authorities it had caught on, and they were now making propaganda out of it everywhere…the tears ran down his cheeks as he told us the story they had circulated of a consignment of soap from Germany arriving in Holland and being buried with full military honours. But even for us, the taste of some of his tales began to grow sour after he became a Black and Tan.’

For those who spread fake news in 1917 the Germans were so evil that anything could be used as a weapon against them – including rumours and lies. But lies have consequences. During the 1930s the corpse factory was used by the Nazis as proof of British perfidy during the Great War.

Historians Joachim Neander and Randal Marlin remind us how these false stories ‘encouraged later disbelief when early reports circulated about the Holocaust under Hitler, thus contributing to the early lack of response by nations asked to accept Jewish refugees’.

An edited version of this blogpost can be found on the BBC News website here. Social media coverage of the Corpse Factory story can be followed on Storify here..


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Michael Swiney (1926-2016)

Retired Royal Air Force officer Michael Swiney, who observed three UFOs while flying a training mission in 1952, has died aged 90.

A/C Michael Swiney, circa 1952-53, at Little Rissington (credit: M. Swiney)

A/C Michael Swiney, circa 1952-53, at Little Rissington (credit: M. Swiney)

Swiney’s close encounter occurred shortly after a wave of unexplained sightings during the NATO operation Mainbrace. According to Captain Ed Ruppelt former head of the USAF’s Project Blue Book, it was these sightings that prompted the RAF to set up its first UFO investigation bureau.

Air Commodore Swiney OBE joined the RAF in 1945 and served at bases in Scotland, West Germany and Saigon. He ended his career as an air intelligence officer at Ministry of Defence where he had access to classified files on unusual sightings, many of which have since been destroyed.

But it was his sighting whilst flying a Meteor T7 twin-jet from RAF Little Rissington on 21 October 1952 that haunted him throughout his career.

In 2001 he broke fifty years of silence to reveal the full story after I discovered a reference to the incident in the operations records books stored at The National Archives.

His account was published in my book (with Andy Roberts) Out of the Shadows (Piatkus, 2002) and in The UFO Files: The Inside Story of Real Life Sightings (Bloomsbury, 2012).

Swiney had been flying for nine years when he left the airfield at Little Rissington on the training flight over southwest England. As the Meteor, with Crofts at the controls, punched through clouds at about 15,000 feet both men were amazed to see ‘three white…circular objects’ above them.

He remembered exclaiming ‘what on Earth is going on!’

Initially he thought they could be three descending parachutes and, fearful of tearing through their canvasses, Swiney took control of the aircraft from his student.

As both men watched in amazement, the three objects appeared to change position ‘and lost their circular shape and took on more of a “flat plate” appearance’: much like the classic ‘flying saucer‘ of pop culture.

Swiney reported their observation to ground control and returned to base, where the two men were separated and interviewed by officers from Air Ministry. They were told their visual sighting had been corroborated by ground radar and aircraft had been scrambled to intercept the UFOs, without success.

The incident remained an official secret until a partial account of it emerged in Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley’s book Sounds from Another Room in 1997. Horsley was at the time equerry to the Duke of Edinburgh, who had received a written account of Swiney and Croft’s sighting for his personal files. But Horsley’s account in his book was written from memory.

Swiney heard nothing more about his observation until 1975 when serving as Air Commodore (Intelligence) at MoD he asked to see a copy of his report. He read it and placed it back in his ‘out tray’ without taking a copy.

‘That was my biggest regret,’ he told me in 2004. ‘Because after my retirement, when I tried to trace the report by writing to the MoD, I was told that all reports prior to 1962 had been destroyed.’

The only surviving official document that refers to the Little Rissington incident is a logbook entry that refers to a sighting of three ‘saucer shaped objects’ travelling at high speed. It concludes: ‘Later, ATCC Gloucester reported radar plots to confirm this, but Air Ministry discounted any possibility of “extra terrestrial objects”.

The Air Ministry report on this and other incidents reported by RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots from the 1950s appear to have been destroyed in one of many subsequent purges of the MoD archives.

Extract from RAF Little Rissington logbook 1952 (credit: The National Archives, Crown Copyright)

Extract from RAF Little Rissington logbook 1952 (credit: The National Archives, Crown Copyright)

Michael Swiney was one of the most impressive witnesses I interviewed during my research for The National Archives. Refreshingly, he refused to embellish his account of his experience, or distort it by immersion in the literature of the UFO industry.

‘I don’t think there are little green men who are going to suddenly land and get out of peculiar looking craft,’ he told me.

‘But what I do know is that both David Crofts and I saw something, the like of which we had never seen before, and I have never seen since. I can’t explain it.

‘I was frightened. I make no bones about it. It was something supernatural, perhaps, and when I landed someone told me I looked as if I had seen a ghost.’


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Where Eagles Dare…and the Sun never sets

Sheffield Star/South Yorkshire Times, 21 May 2016.

David Clarke took a cruise along Norway’s rugged coastline to see the Midnight Sun and experienced Arctic wildlife at close quarters.

‘We can never guarantee that you will see them’, one of our Norwegian guides announced as she flung a piece of raw fish into the sea alongside the SS Orca.  ‘But when we feed the gulls they are never far behind.’


Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Minutes earlier we had left our Hurtigruten cruiseship, MS Polarlys, and joined the smaller boat as it entered the narrow mouth of the Trollfjord.  This awesome sidearm branches west from the 25 km long strait that separates the islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen, in the Nordland region of the Arctic Circle.

Forbidding mountain peaks, forged from some of the oldest rocks on Earth, surrounded us on all sides as our skipper steered us towards the west end of the 2km fjord.  Trolls turn up everywhere in the folklore and place-names of Scandinavia, but we were hunting a slightly less elusive inhabitant of  the Norwegian coast.

The sea eagle is northern Europe’s largest bird of prey. Also known as the White Tailed Eagle, females are larger than males and, when fully grown, can have a wingspan of 2.6 metres and weigh up to 6.86 kg. They feed mainly on fish and small mammals and build nests in trees and rocky ledges.

Noisy flights of gulls continued to mob our boat in search of food but eagles were nowhere to be seen. At the calm end of the fjord we saw Arctic terns, and small guillemots, with their distinctive black and white plumage, nesting in precarious ledges below the cliffs.

But we had almost given up hope when our skipper turned the boat around to rendezvous with the Polarlys. Then a shout went up from Theresa, a woman from North Carolina, who had spotted a juvenile eagle standing sentinel on a smooth rock by the mouth of the fjord.

‘Look, there’s  another,’ a German tourist tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to  the majestic profile of an adult bird soaring through the air to the starboard, pursued by a group of seagulls. The excitement was infectious as passengers clambered over chairs and each other to secure the best viewing position on deck.


Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Now the eagles were putting on a show for us, their dark silhouettes outlined against the snow-tipped mountains. At one point there were three flying in formation above our heads like a squadron of low-flying aircraft. A fourth dived into the sea a few hundred yards away to our starboard. It emerged clutching a fish in its talons, before returning to its rocky eyrie.

There appeared to be at least three families nesting along the fjord’s mouth, with adults and juveniles defending their territories and chicks. Almost half the Norwegian population of 3,800 pairs nest in the Nordland region, making it one of the best places to see them in the wild.

An excursion to Trollfjord is part of Hurtigruten’s summer cruising schedule along the long, rocky coast. It can also be reached by taking the overnight ferry from Bodo on the mainland, which is known as ‘sea eagle town’.

When our time was up the Orca returned us to the port of Svolvaer in the Lofoten Islands where we met our cruiseship. In Svolvaer painted wooden houses perch on stilts in the water, set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Entering the harbour you pass racks used for drying the stockfish that powered much of the region’s economy.

Days earlier, on the northbound section of the cruise, we joined crowds on the deck to admire the spectacle of the Midnight Sun. We sailed from Tromso towards the rocky headland at Nordkapp or North Cape that, at 71 degrees north, marks the most northerly point in mainland Europe. From May to July this part of the Arctic Circle is bathed in sunlight for 24 hours each day, making it difficult to sleep without an eye-mask.


Sea Eagles soaring above the SS Orca, Trollfjord

Tromso was the starting point of many Polar expeditions and a statue of Norway’s most famous explorer, Roald Amundsen, can be seen close to the tourist office on the quayside. The city remains a base for visitors who wish to explore the Arctic circle and offers a range of opportunities for lovers of wildlife and outdoor activities.

Hurtigruten’s excursions include a boat trip to north Norway’s largest sea bird colony, 15 km west of Nordkapp, where you can watch puffins, kittiwakes and Arctic skuas.  There are also opportunities to go whale-watching and dog-sledding.

On day eight, en route south to the city of Bergen, we revisited Tromso to attend a midnight service at the city’s Arctic Cathedral.  It was just before the witching hour and the sky remained half-lit by the sun’s rays. During the long summer, the constant sunlight brings the wildlife out at all times of day and night. As we pulled into the quay, the sun’s disc appeared to roll along the arches of a road bridge, as Arctic Terns whirled and ducked around our heads. It was fitting end to our expedition.

GET THERE: David Clarke travelled with Hurtigruten. The midnight sun is visible from late May to late July. Voyages from Bergen up to Kirkenes and back depart year-round with prices for the 6 day Classic Voyage South (Kirkenes to Bergen) starting from £724 per person (limited departures in April 2016). The same voyage departing on a wide selection of dates in July 2016 costs from £1,141 per person (based on two sharing an inside cabin on full-board basis). Flights and excursion are extra. Visit http://www.hurtigruten.com/uk/Experiences/Midnight-sun/ or call 020 3582 6642.

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Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown and the UFO

Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, the Royal Navy’s most decorated pilot and UFO witness, has died at the age of 97.


Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown (1919-2016). Credit: Wikipedia

Captain Brown was the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot and held the world record for aircraft carrier landings.

He saw extensive action in WW2 and post war joined an elite group of Allied pilots who test-flew captured German aircraft.

And sixty years ago, whilst Commander of the Royal Naval Air Service station at Brawdy, in West Wales, he found himself chasing a UFO.

Brown provided me with a first hand account of the encounter for the second edition of my book The UFO Files, based upon MoD files at The National Archives, published by Bloomsbury in 2012.

The drama began at dusk on Monday, 6 February 1956, when the station received a call from a schoolteacher who said she could see ‘a flying saucer’ cruising over the West Wales coastline.

In his memoir Wings on My Sleeve (1961) Brown says his first reaction was to laugh, but on checking with a pilot returning from an exercise he was surprised to be told ‘Yes, and I can damn well see it too.’

When one of the air traffic controllers called down to say he could see the object was visible from Brawdy’s control tower, Brown’s scepticism was sorely tested.

‘I decided it was interesting enough to go and have a look at it and leapt off in a Vampire,’ Brown wrote in his memoirs. He climbed to 35,000 feet in the gathering gloom, all the while keeping an eye on the object which was ‘still above me and unidentifiable in the fading light’.

Although visibility was good Brown eventually gave up the pursuit and returned to Brawdy. Later that night further reports flooded into newspaper offices from puzzled observers across South Wales and the Bristol Channel region.

One phone call received by Brown came from an amateur astronomer who took a photograph of the UFO and was adamant it was not a balloon


A West Wales newspaper account of the UFO flap in 1956 (credit: Pembrokeshire Record Office)

In 2011 Captain Brown told me this conversation led to reject the cosmic research balloon theory ‘which was the only tangible thing I thought it might be’.

In his book he wrote that ‘where he once scoffed, I now have an open mind.’ Today Brown remains open minded but is less certain of his conclusion published in Wings on My Sleeve. He said the truth can be found in his flying logbook entry, completed on landing at RNAS Brawdy, which reads:

‘Flying Saucer Chase! Unidentified metallic object in sky, sighted from ground. Scrambled in perplexing chase after some iridescent shape at very high altitude, which was probably a cosmic research balloon. What else?’

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Farewell to the ‘mystical astronaut’: Edgar Mitchell 1930-2016

Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon who became a celebrity believer in the UFO myth, has died aged 85.

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

Edgar Mitchell, NASA astronaut and the sixth man to walk on the moon (credit: Wikipedia)

The Guardian newspaper once described the retired NASA astronaut as being an unlikely name on the list of those who believe alien life forms have visited Earth and the facts are being concealed by a massive government cover-up.

But was it fair to compare him to the ‘cranks, paranoid delusionals and editors of the Daily Star (and sometimes all three)’ the paper said were more typical UFO believers?

Dr Edgar Mitchell, had a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering and a Doctor of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Unlike most of us, he was one of the few human beings who has actually left the Earth’s orbit and walked on another celestial body. For two days in February 1971 Mitchell became the sixth human being to walk on the surface of the moon.

As lunar module pilot for the Apollo 14 mission, the former US Navy pilot spent a total of 216 hours and 42 minutes in space. Alongside Alan Shepard, he held the record for the longest moon walk in history, spending nine hours working on the lunar surface.

But in retirement, Mitchell’s achievements as an astronaut were overshadowed by a series of statements he made to the Press about UFOs and aliens. And as the popularity of the UFO and Roswell myths grew he was adopted by the UFO Disclosure movement as one of their chief celebrity supporters.

Most recently, in August 2014, he was quoted by the Daily Mirror as claiming that peace-loving aliens had intervened during the Cold War to prevent an atomic exchange between Russia and the United States. He later retracted this claim, telling The Huffington Post’s Lee Speigel that ‘none of those quotes originated from me’.

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Daily Mirror headline from August 2014. Mitchell later denied the quotes came from him

Yet on a visit to the UK during the summer of 2008 Mitchell was quizzed about UFOs during an interview for the Birmingham-based radio station Kerrang!  Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun was having fun with UFO stories during the  summer ‘silly season’, so aliens were very much on the agenda.

So when interviewer Nick Margerrison dropped a throwaway question ‘did he believe in life on other planets’ he appeared taken aback by the answer he received.

‘Oh yes,’ Mitchell replied. ‘There’s not much question at all that there is life throughout the universe’.

Not only was the astronaut ‘totally sure’ we were not alone, he said he was ‘privileged to be in on the fact that we have been visited on this planet…the UFO phenomenon is real although it’s been covered up by governments for quite a long time’.

If this wasn’t definitive enough Mitchell said he was confident the Roswell UFO crash was also ‘real’ and its occupants were harmless ‘little people that look strange to us’. He claimed ‘a number of other contacts have been real and on-going’, adding ‘it’s all been well covered up by all of our governments for the last sixty years or so’.

Mitchell’s comments were immediately seized upon by the news media who obtained a terse response from his former employers, NASA. They said it did not ‘track UFOs’ and was not involved ‘in any sort of cover-up about alien life on this planet or anywhere in the universe’.

Trying hard not to imply former astronaut was deluded, NASA added: ‘Dr Mitchell is a great American, but we do not share his opinions on this issue’.

And when the Britain’s Ministry of Defence opened its tenth tranche of UFO files at The National Archives in 2013, they revealed how conspiracy buff Richard D. Hall had written to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and George W. Bush, to ask if they had taken any steps to investigate Mitchell’s claims.

Hall wanted to know if Brown believed the British people had ‘the right to know if our world had been contacted by alien civilisations’.

Hall’s letter was passed to the MoD who responded with their standard line. Their interest in UFOs was restricted to their ‘defence significance’. While they did not investigate every comment made about UFOs in the media they had begun a programme to release 160 of their files on the subject.

Other than what had appeared in the media, they had ‘no knowledge’ of the substance of Mitchell’s claims.  Hall found this difficult to believe:

‘Either they already know and don’t want to tell us, or they are mind bogglingly naïve and do not want to find out’.

But if UFOs really had landed and the US government had possession of alien cadavers since 1947, was it really conceivable that its closest ally, Britain, would be kept in complete ignorance of this fact?

More to the point, how much credence should we give to Mitchell’s views?

A little fact-checking reveals that, of the 12 men who walked on the moon, he is the only astronaut to express belief in UFOs and extra-terrestrial life.

Since the 1970s he has  been known as the ‘mystical astronaut’. During the voyage to the moon he conducted a private ESP experiment in which he tried to transmit information to participants on Earth.

On his return he underwent a mystical experience, an epiphany or feeling of oneness with the universe. Leaving NASA he founded a new age organisation called the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), that supported research into a range of paranormal phenomena.

On this basis Mitchell is hardly an unlikely convert to the UFO myth and, more accurately, he fits the profile of someone more likely to believe in aliens. He grew up in town close to Roswell, New Mexico, and absorbed stories from ‘old timers’ who hard heard stories about the crash of a flying saucer in 1947.

Quizzed by journalist Andrew Smith for his 2005 book Moondust, Mitchell admitted he had no ‘personal experience’ with UFOs. But he said his confidence in the reliability of claims about a cover-up of the subject had grown as he got older.

Pressed for specifics of what he knew or thinks he knows about UFOs, the astronaut revealed his sources were all second hand: ‘I’ve talked with many of the people in the system and I’ve observed and kept up with the literature…’

By ‘the literature’, he meant the UFO literature: the books, magazines, TV programmes and documentaries produced by other believers.


Ed Mitchell, in retirement, became a celebrity believer feted by the UFO industry (credit: The Guardian)

In a more recent interview, published in 2014, Mitchell admitted that his statements about a worldwide cover-up were not based – as many would prefer to believe – on facts but was ‘just speculation on my part’.

The sixth man on the moon is not, of course, the only high profile military figure to adopt esoteric beliefs in retirement. One of the RAF’s finest, Lord Hugh Dowding, mastermind of the Britain’s victory over the Luftwaffe in 1940, was a spiritualist who believed in fairies and flying saucers.

For some, celebrity endorsement of popular legends and myths is sufficient proof of their reality. Mitchell was an exemplar of the ‘credible witness’, someone people tend to believe because of their perceived social status, qualifications, life experiences or other special skills or properties.

But as Professor Gareth Williams said, in his book A Monstrous Commotion (2015), of celebrities who have bought into the Loch Ness Monster myth:

“Being a credible witness has nothing to do with intelligence, social standing or occupation….witnesses may look impressive because they are lords, ladies, counts, commanders, MPs, doctors, engineers or even a Nobel-Prize winner, but titles and qualifications are irrelevant when deciding whether to take them seriously or not.”

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Katharine Briggs award shortlist

My book How UFOs Conquered the World: the history of a modern myth was shortlisted by The Folklore Society for the Katharine Briggs book award for folklore scholarship in 2015.UFOs_HB_B

The judges described the book as ‘a lucid account based on 30+ years of archive research and fieldwork by an eminent researcher on the subject. 

‘Clarke concludes that UFOs are a distinctively modern Western folk legend, culturally determined products of post-war fears and desires.

‘This is interwoven with the author’s own intellectual journey from teenage sci-fi enthusiast to critical investigator of the psychosocial process of myth-making.’

The award was won by my friend and fellow folklorist Professor Richard Jenkins for his excellent book Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in the North of Ireland 1972-74 (Cork University Press, 2015).

Other books shortlisted included Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale (OUP, 2014) and Stephen Banks, Informal Justice in England 1760-1914: The Courts of Popular Opinion (Boydell Press, 2014).

A paperback edition of How UFOs Conquered the World will be published by Aurum Press later in 2016.

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On the Side of the Angels

Sheffield Hallam University journalism lecturer David Clarke will present his research on the origins of some of the First World War’s best known legends at a public event in Leicester on 11 November.Cover

New Perspectives of the First World War commemorates the lives of soldiers who fought in the 1914-18 conflict and features a stunning piece of music and narration based on one of the war’s most mysterious events.

Dr Clarke’s talk at de Montfort University’s Research Festival will examine the role played by newspapers and military propagandists in the creation of three iconic legends of the war: The Angels of Mons, the phantom Russian Army and the German ‘corpse factory’.

His research on WW1 newspapers was funded by the British Academy and first appeared in Folklore journal and later in a book, The Angel of Mons (Wiley 2004).

This presentation be followed by An Angel at Mons: Immersive Electroacoustic Music created by Professor of Composition, John Young. This provides a unique sound experience framing the recorded words of an Irish soldier who described his experiences at Mons to the BBC on his 101st birthday in 1980.

The evening also includes a talk by DMU journalism lecturers John Dilley and David Penman who have embarked on research to investigate how local newspapers in the UK manoeuvred around Lord Kitchener’s draconian wartime press censorship laws to produce articles that rivalled the war poets for powerful imagery.

Dr Clarke said: ‘With the deaths of the last surviving veterans, the First World War is now outside living memory. But the testimony of those who fought and sacrificed their lives for their country live on today in books, poems, newspaper archives and other media.

‘Public interest in the more mysterious aspects of the conflict remains as strong today as it was a hundred years ago.

‘This event will engage the public with the latest research into the origins of some of the best known rumours and legends of the war.’

New Perspectives of the First World War is part of a free festival celebrating research at DMU that runs from 9-13 November. The evening runs from 6-9.30 pm on Wednesday 11 November at The Venue@DMU, booking details here.

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Happy birthday, Crying Boy!

Thirty years ago this month the British tabloids were full of stories about mysterious fires breaking out in houses across the north of England – and the only survivor was a mawkish print of a crying boy.

The Sun's version of the story, 4 September 1985

The Sun’s version of the story, 4 September 1985

The legend began in September 1985 when my former paper, the Sheffield Star, sent reporter John Murphy to follow-up a routine calls story about a fire that badly damaged a terraced house in a South Yorkshire mining community.

A cheap, mass produced painting of a crying toddler was found in the remains, perfectly intact.

Murphy did a bit of digging and discovered fire fighters at Rotherham’s Erskine Road station had compiled a list of 50 similar fires where the painting had been found.

In each case the kitsch prints – attributed to an obscure Spanish artist known as Bragolin – were left unscathed by the devastation around them.

The Curse of the Crying Boy was born and Kelvin McKenzie, who was editor of The Sun, was soon fanning the flames with a string of stories telling of families fleeing from the evil painting.

It emerged that more than 50,000 versions of the print were sold in the UK at branches of Boots and Woolworths.

Some were crude copies of sentimental portraits of children with sad, big eyes painted in the 1960s by American artist Margaret Keane, the subject of Tim Burton’s 2014 biopic, Big Eyes.

News of the ‘curse’ led scores of people to report house fires where the painting, or versions of it, survived. By October the tabloid was encouraging worried readers to send their prints to Sun HQ for destruction on a Halloween bonfire.

But the urban legend was too good to die and from the mid-90s the Curse of the Crying Boy became an internet phenomenon. Elaborate versions of the legend have appeared online, seeking to explain who the boy was and why the paintings were cursed.


John Murphy’s story for the Sheffield Star that started an urban legend

In 2010 comedian Steve Punt quizzed McKenzie for an episode of his BBC Radio 4 series Punt PI. In suitably playful mood, he admitted the Crying Boy was born on a slow news day when a filler from a regional news agency, based on Murphy’s story, caught his eye. The fact that fire fighters – credible witnesses – appeared to confirm the story was enough for him.

When asked if there was any truth to the story, McKenzie responded:

“Who knows…[but] there comes a point when you research a story too deeply – as you keep on asking more and more questions about it – the story actually disappears and before you know where you are we are all sitting there, it’s ten to five, and we haven’t got a front page lead and the story’s just collapsed. So some stories are just too good to check.”

Too good to check? Read more about the Crying Boy legend here.


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The Warminster Syndrome

It is 50 years since the Wiltshire town of Warminster, 15 miles west of Stonehenge, first became a centre of pilgrimage for British UFO watchers.

Opening titles from 1951 sci-fi chiller 'The Thing' (credit: moria.co.nz)

Opening titles from 1951 sci-fi chiller ‘The Thing’ (credit: moria.co.nz)

As flying saucerers gather for a convention and skywatch to mark the anniversary of the mysterious ‘Warminster Thing‘, this extract from my book, How UFOs Conquered the World, explains the genesis of this modern legend:

During the late 1960s, on weekends and bank holidays, the 11,000 population of Warminster was swelled by hundreds of UFO enthusiasts. Pilgrims were forced to camp in fields as there were not enough hotels. As night fell the hills around the town were thronged with expectant sky-watchers all hoping for a personal sighting of ‘The Warminster Thing’.

They were undaunted by the fact that one of the key skywatch locations, Cradle Hill, sat alongside the largest military training zone in the UK. Large areas of Salisbury Plain are used by the British Army for weapons testing and many square miles are closed to the public even today.

The Warminster phenomena began late in December 1964 when a curious news item appeared in the weekly newspaper, The Warminster Journal. A woman on her way to church early on Christmas morning was startled by an unearthly sound like ‘branches being pulled over gravel’. This was followed by an eerie droning sound.DC14c

One week later, the town’s postmaster came forward to say he heard a similar bone-chilling aerial noise. This prompted an ‘amateur scientist’, David Holton, to sent a long letter to the paper. Holton claimed the mysterious noise had been heard for years and had once ‘disturbed a flock of pigeons from their roost’. The birds flew across its path in terror, many dropping dead to the ground.

Quizzed about this sensational story on a local TV news bulletin, Holton said he believed ‘The Thing’ came from outer space (a reference to the 1951 science fiction thriller, The Thing from Another World). It was only a matter of time before the source of the noise showed itself.

By the spring of 1965 stories about unexplained sounds were replaced by sightings of ‘bright, cigar-shaped objects’ in the sky. A bright light, dubbed the ‘amber gambler’, roamed the hills above the town. As rumours spread Elwyn Rees, chairman of the town council, called a public meeting ‘to allay fears that the happenings were a danger to the Earth’.

On Friday 27 August 1965, just before the Bank Holiday, two hundred residents squeezed into the Town Hall Assembly Room. Hundreds more gathered outside. Inside, John Cleary-Baker, the Chairman of the British UFO Research Association, the UK’s premier UFO society, reassured townsfolk they had nothing to fear from their visitors. They should ‘welcome their arrival in the sky’. He went on to link UFOs with fashionable New Age ideas about ley lines and suggested aliens could be using an ancient earthwork nearby as a ‘homing beacon’.

Graffiti spotted on Cradle Hill in 2005 (David Clarke)

Graffiti spotted on Cradle Hill in 2005 (David Clarke)

Six people at the meeting declared they had seen ‘The Thing’ but only four of these were Warminster residents. The debate almost descended into farce when Rees was handed an urgent telegram. He opened it and found a message that read: ‘Investigations completed. Invasion fears are unfounded [Signed] Dr Who.’

The public meeting failed to untangle fact from fiction but attracted TV cameras and national media to the town. Local businesses were overjoyed. Hotelier Hugh McLaren told reporters ‘this could do us as much good as the Loch Ness Monster did for Scotland.’

The Warminster Thing might have been quickly forgotten after the summer ‘silly season’ was over. The man who ensured it continued to run was Arthur Shuttlewood who, at the time, was chief reporter for the town’s newspaper.  He kept the rumours alive in a stream of articles for the Journal. By the summer of 1966 Warminster was firmly planted on the map as the place to see UFOs.

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, who transformed a silly season story into a modern legend (credit: BBC)

Journalist Arthur Shuttlewood, who transformed a silly season story into a modern legend (credit: BBC)

‘As a local journalist I have to report every item of news as it comes in and this was such extraordinary news,’ he told the BBC documentary Pie in the Sky. ‘Reputable people were coming forward: the head postmaster of the town, a vicar and his three children, a hospital matron, an army major who said his car was virtually stopped in its tracks at 40 mph. These sorts of people have to be trusted for their integrity’.

Shuttlewood depicted himself as a hard-bitten, cynical journalist. But his cynicism and objectivity evaporated when he went looking for UFOs.  He attributed this conversion to personal experiences with ‘The Thing’. Shuttlewood had lost the sight in one eye following a wartime accident. But despite this disability he saw UFOs on average twice every week and went on to rack up a total of 800 ‘experiences’. He told the BBC: ‘When one sees for oneself that’s it. Nothing will deter you from your absolute belief from that moment onwards’.

In 1968 he published a book, The Warminster Mystery. This was the first in a series that combined colourful accounts of his and others’ sightings with new age mysticism. Shuttlewood was a deeply religious man and believed UFOs were a sign of the approaching apocalypse. He had a way with words and quickly became a media celebrity. Visitors to Warminster regarded him as a kind of saucer guru and sought him out to experience UFO magic.

Cradle Hill, Warminster, once the centre of Britain's UFO syndrome (credit: Kevin Goodman)

Cradle Hill, Warminster, once the centre of Britain’s UFO syndrome (credit: Kevin Goodman)

Night after night he could be found on the hills above the town, skywatching with groups of visitors from across Britain and the world. One of his promises was that ‘if you stand on Cley Hill from around 9.30 at night you’ll see something unusual by midnight’. By 1967 Warminster’s reputation as the UK’s UFO spotting capital was at its height…

Seasoned UFO-watcher Kevin Goodman summarises the origins of the mystery for BBC Wiltshire here (this magazine item includes a link to the 1966 documentary Pie in the Sky).

Kevin also maintains the UFO Warminster website and Facebook group. Two excellent recent books on the phenomenon are Steve Dewey and John Ries In Alien Heat and Dewey and Goodman’s History of a Mystery.

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The Bowmen of Mons and Mars

Originally published in Fortean Times 319 (October 2014) this blogpost ponders the origins of the phantom bowmen imagined by two fantasy authors at the outbreak of the First World War.

The Bowmen and other legends of the war, 1915 (author's collection)

The Bowmen and other legends of the war, 1915 (author’s collection)

They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German host…the singing arrows darkened the air; the heathen horde melted from before them.’ [Arthur Machen, The Bowmen, September 1914]

….our giant minds…defend us, sending out legions of imaginary warriors to materialise before the mind’s eye of the foe. They see them – they see their bows drawn back – they see their slender arrows speed with unerring precision toward their hearts. And they die – killed by the power of suggestion’ [Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thuvia: Maid of Mars, 1916]

One hundred years ago the great European powers were drawn into the first war to be fought on a truly global scale. Four years of conflict produced an outpouring of literature and art and many caught up in the carnage found sustenance in religion and other types of supernatural belief. There were national calls to prayer and the notion of ‘God With Us’ encouraged the idea that troops had divine protection. Others reverted to what Paul Fussell has called ‘a medieval mindset’ that encouraged belief in a variety of apocalyptic prophecies, superstitions, wonders, miracles, rumours and legends (1).

The greatest legend of the war, The Angels of Mons, emerged from the first battle fought by British troops in Europe since Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon at Waterloo a century earlier. At the time the Belgian battle had a symbolic importance that far outweighed any strategic significance. For the British Army the First World War ended where it began, with the first and last English soldiers both killed on outskirts of Mons in 1914 and 1918 (2).

On the morning of 23 August 1914 the professional soldiers of the small but well trained British Expeditionary Force collided with the advancing German army along the Mons-Conde canal. The BEF were heavily outnumbered, but they managed to hold back the German First Army long enough to allow their French allies to regroup on the Marne and save Paris.

The retreat from Mons inspired the Welsh-born author of fantasy fiction, Arthur Machen, to write The Bowmen. He dismissed his short story as an ‘indifferent work’ but spent the remainder of his life insisting it was the genesis of the Angels of Mons. But his protests made little impression upon those who came to believe that real angels had intervened on the Allied side, not only at Mons but elsewhere in the war.

Why was he disbelieved? The ferocity of the battles that followed the retreat and their uncertain outcome encouraged an expectant atmosphere on the Home Front that was receptive to all kinds of supernatural ideas. During 1915 rumours spread that Machen had been tipped off by a military source, or the idea for The Bowmen had been placed in his hand by ‘a lady in waiting’ sent by a highly-placed source in the British Royal family. There was also Harold’s Begbie’s theory that Machen had received a telepathic impression of ‘the vision’ from the brain of a dying soldier on the battlefield (3).

Arthur Machen (author's collection)

Arthur Machen (author’s collection)

Speculation about Machen’s source continues in the present day. In 1992 Kevin McClure wrote in Visions of Angels and Bowmen that Machen’s explanation was ‘not the whole story’ and ‘the men of the BEF, or a number of them, anyway, were aware of reports of a cloud or of angels before the publication of The Bowmen’ (4). But was that really the case?

In The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War Machen provides a clear account of his inspiration. It took one week for news of the battle of Mons to reach London. On his way to mass on the morning of Sunday, 30 August 1914, he saw billboards that told of ‘heavy losses’ and the desperate need for reinforcements at the Front.

As the priest sang and incense drifted above his gospel book, he saw: ‘…a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British Army’. During the ritual he imagined the archers who fought for Henry V at Agincourt invoking the Celtic saints for protection. Thinking of the BEF, he saw ‘our men with a shining about them’.

In writing The Bowmen, Machen admitted he dipped into a deep well of legend and myth that stretched far beyond Agincourt.  His story drew upon a range of sources, from Herotodus’s account of supernatural intervention in the Persian Wars to Kipling’s Lost Legion. In The Bowmen a ‘Latin scholar’ amongst the BEF is encouraged when he sees an image of St George before they leave England. During the retreat from Mons he calls out Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius (St George help the English!) in desperation when his pals are cut off and face imminent death.

Suddenly ‘a shudder and an electric shock’ pass through his body and the roar of battle dies down. A chorus of voices cry out ‘St George! St George!’ and a long line of ‘men who drew the bow’ appear beyond the trenches to reign arrows on the advancing German infantry. As the enemy soldiers crash to the ground the he knows ‘St George had brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English.’

Whether by accident or design, the editor of the Evening News published The Bowmen on 29 September 1914, the feast day of the archangel Michael. In Victorian art and iconography, St George and St Michael were interchangeable. Both appeared as shining warrior angels that protected Christian soldiers and slew dragons. The clincher for those who knew was the reference to ‘a long line of shapes with a shining about them.’

In 1915 Machen wrote that ‘in the popular view shining and benevolent supernatural beings are angels and nothing else and so, I believe, the Bowmen of my story have become “the Angels of Mons”’ (5).Cover

During my research for The Angel of Mons (2004) I was unable to locate a single reliable eye-witness account of a vision of either bowmen or angels that could be confidently dated before The Bowmen. But one odd literary coincidence has led me to reconsider whether Machen’s imagination really was the only source for the vision of phantom bowmen.

Before he gained employment as a journalist, Machen was fond of exploring the slippery boundary between fact and fiction but he was not the only wordsmith to produce tales of magical armies from the cauldron of war.  During the summer of 1914, as Europe stood on the brink of war, the creator of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, was at work in Chicago expanding his trilogy of Martian novels. In his first story, A Princess of Mars, former Confederate soldier John Carter is transported by astral projection to the red planet where he is drawn into a series of magical adventures.

Mars is known as Barsoom to its warring tribes and the alien warlords and creatures he meets mirror those from ancient mythology (6). The fourth novel in the Martian cycle, Thuvia, Maid of Mars, appeared in 1916 and The Phantom Bowmen of Lothar appear in chapter seven. The Lotharians are an ancient race who have become trapped in their city surrounded by mountains. The few remaining Lotharians have developed extraordinary psychic powers to defend their isolated city from attacks by hordes of green barbarians, the Torquasians.

When the Torquasians lay siege to Lothar they encounter the bowmen, ‘a fantastic army of mentally projected phantoms created by the sheer willpower of the few living Lotharians’.  Richard Lupoff’s biography of Burroughs describes the bowmen as being so realistic ‘….a vast number of casualties are inflicted on the Torquasians… and the green men are repeatedly driven off.’ (7)

His 1976 study of the Martian cycle makes the link between the bowman of Lothar and The Bowmen of Mons and drops a bombshell: Burroughs’ notebooks show that Thuvia, Maid of Mars, was written between April and June 1914 (8).  According to Irwin Porges, Burroughs completed the story during a furious writing schedule that took him from California to New York during the summer of 1914 (9).

The finished typescript was sent to his editor at All-Story Weekly soon after 20 June. If these dates are accurate his story was completed at least two months before Machen’s fantasy was inspired by news of the BEF’s stand at Mons. Lupoff maintains ‘there was no possible way for Burroughs to have read Machen’s story before writing his own tale or vice versa’. Even if this was a coincidence he described it as ‘one of the most remarkable such in modern literature’ (10).

Did the idea for phantom bowmen at Mons and on Mars occur independently to two authors separated by the Atlantic Ocean? If so this may be an example of literary synchronicity: an idea that was simultaneously visualised by powerful minds during the world crisis. The concept of synchronicity was first described by Carl Jung who, by coincidence, refers to the Angels of Mons in his 1958 book Flying Saucers as ‘a visionary rumour.

Perhaps the two ideas were, as Jung opined, examples of a type of rumour that was told in different parts of the world ‘but differs from an ordinary rumour in that it is expressed in the form of visions, or perhaps owed its existence to them in the first place and is kept alive by them’.


  1. Paul Fussell, The Great War in Modern Memory (OUP 1975)
  2. Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment died at Obourg, near Mons, on 21 August 1914. He was 15 or 16 and had lied about his age on enlistment. George Ellison, 40, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, died nearby one and a half hours before the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. His grave in the St Symphorien military cemetery faces that of Parr.
  3. See my book The Angel of Mons (Wiley 2004) for a full discussion of Machen’s sources and his clashes with those who believed in divine intervention such as Harold Begbie, author of On The Side of the Angels (1915).
  4. Kevin McClure, Visions of Bowmen and Angels (Harrogate, 1992).
  5. Arthur Machen, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (London 1915).
  6. The first Barsoom story was serialised as Under the Moons of Mars in the pulp magazine The All-Story during 1912. It appeared as a novel in 1917.
  7. Richard A. Lupoff, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure (Canaveral Press, 1965).
  8. Richard A. Lupoff, Barsoom: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Martian Vision (Mirage Press, 1976).
  9. Irwin Porges, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Brigham Young University Press, 1975)
  10. I am grateful to Thomas Miller and Alan Bundy, members of Caermaen, the newsgroup of the Friends of Arthur Machen, for drawing my attention to Lupoff’s biography of ERB.


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