10 Unsettling Urban Legends from the Battlefields of History
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 27 January 2015.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 27 January 2015.
Hidden deep within most urban legends is a small kernel of truth, but finding that truth can be difficult - especially when the legends were born in the heat of battle. Urban legends from the battlefields and from towns, cities and villages living under the looming shadow of war can be a powerful thing, helping to justify a cause, give hope to the people, and allow some to process just what it is that’s unfolding around them.
10. The Wild Deserters of World War One
The no man’s land between the front lines of the battlefields of World War One was a lot of things. It was a wasteland, it was the place for the Christmas truce, it was a place that both sides went to when it was time to retrieve their dead for burial. But according to some of the men who served in the trenches, no man’s land was also home to a wild, feral band of deserters.
First recounted in the 1920 memoir of British cavalry lieutenant Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman, he first found out about the wild men of no man’s land when he was on watch and saw a group of German prisoners seem to vanish out in no man’s land. His attempts at persuading his superiors to go look for them was immediately shot down, because of the other souls that lived out there.
Image: UK Government, public domain
They were described as ghoulish wild men, come together from every army (except, oddly, the Americans) - German, British, Canadian, French, Italian, Austrian and Australian. They had deserted, but they hadn’t been able to run away from the war. There was nowhere to go, after all, so instead the deserters banded together and lived in the once-occupied trenches that now snaked their way through no man’s land. They emerged at night, raiding the bodies of those that had fallen, stealing boots and coats, rations and weapons. They fought amongst themselves for the choicest bits, and it was said that the shouting and arguing and occasional gunfire that drifted across the battlefields at night were the wild deserters, fighting amongst themselves.
The idea of the ragged bands of deserters crops up again and again in memoirs of veterans and even some novels written by others. According to an autobiography written by Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell, when the war was over and those that remained withdrew, they knew that they couldn’t leave the wild men to ravage the countryside - so they gassed them.
9. Pippo, the Italian War Plane
Image: US Navy, public domain
When an Italian television station asked its viewers to send in their memories of World War Two, there was an eerie and unexpected story that kept popping up.
According to many of the stories, Pippo was simply there. He - and he was always referred to as “he” - would only come at night, so he was never seen, but he was heard. Mothers and fathers would tell their children that the plane they suddenly heard overhead was Pippo, passing through the area.
Others said that Pippo wasn’t nearly as harmless as a mysterious, ghostly plane just passing through. Others said that Pippo would bomb homes and drop explosives, flying low over a city or town or village, strafing whatever was beneath him. Both versions of the story agree that Pippo only flew at night, and when you heard him, the sound was unmistakable.
There are virtually no records of Pippo in the accepted sources of war history - all his stories were passed down through word of mouth, and he’s mentioned in numerous letters, journals and diaries. No one’s really sure why he’s called Pippo, either. Some suggest the name is reminiscent of the sound that he made, while others think it came from a popular song that tells of a pompous young man who struts through town, not realizing that everyone laughs at him behind his back.
The stories of Pippo show that he’s no laughing matter, though. He’s called the terror of the night, making people hide in fear, as they were never sure whether or not he was going to drop bombs or flares on them. Some accounts say that Pippo was a man from Romagna, but most simply refer to him as a single lifeless, terrifying entity buzzing over the cities of Italy. Some historians, meanwhile, have suggested that the myth of Pippo may have originated from legitimate night fighters operating in the area, such as the Bristol Beaufighter or de Havilland Mosquito (above).
8. Perak, The Spring-Man
Image: via io9
During World War Two, the battlefield came to Prague. Nazi troops occupied the city, forcing residents into labours that fuelled the German war machine. Reports began to circulate of a mysterious man that prowled the streets of Prague at night; he could be seen jumping over buildings and across rivers, lurking in the shadows and in alleyways. In his earliest incarnations he was a threatening, demonic figure whose presence wasn’t just one to be feared, but rumours of him actually were keeping people off the street - which ended up having a considerably negative effect on Prague’s productivity when it came to producing munitions and other supplies for the German army.
Anti-German graffiti began appearing, and whenever it was in an impossibly high or inconvenient location, it was attributed to Perak. Stories started to circulate about his anti-German night-time activities; some people said that he was an American secret agent, others said that he was a British paratrooper, and still other stories said that he was an acrobat or even a ghost. It wasn’t long before he became the face of resistance in Czechoslovakia, and it was a persistent face.
Weirdly, Perak was the wartime adaptation of another legend that has been traced back to Bohemia, when members of the Roman Catholic Church would disguise themselves as “jumping devils” in order to convince their wavering parishioners that there was, in fact, a very real reason that they needed to be going to church.
Perak didn’t leave Prague when the Nazis did, and although his presence in pop culture was frowned upon in post-war Communist Czechoslovakia, he became something of a super hero, inspiring comic book writers and artists even today. Interestingly, as is the case with many urban legends, Perak bears a striking resemblance to the shadowy Spring-heeled Jack of Victorian Britain.
7. Robert the Bruce’s Templar Knights
Image: James William Edmund Doyle, public domain
At the time Robert the Bruce was going head to head with the English, the Knights Templar were scattered by persecution and exile. According to a legend so popular that it’s often repeated as historical fact, a small group of Templars headed to Scotland, joined up with Robert, and provided the support he needed at the Battle of Bannockburn to swing the tide of battle.
According to the legend, the Templars only joined the battle midway through, routing the English and securing the victory for the Scottish leader. At the time, the unit was a massive, mysterious group of men riding against the English - who fled before them. It’s a beautiful and rather romantic notion, for sure, but is there any truth to the story - as it’s usually portrayed?
Most historians think there’s not, and they point to the fact that actual, written records of the battle just didn’t exist until a good time after the battle. And the story of the Templars only shows up much, much later than that - some think it’s completely a 20th century invention that was reverse-engineered to account for the persistence of the Templars as an organized force. Historians do support the link between the Templars and the building of Rosslyn, overseen by Sir William Sinclair, but the idea that a group of knights fled from southern persecution and found refuge in Scotland is generally viewed as overwhelmingly unlikely - but a great story nonetheless.
6. The Origin of Taps
Image: US Government, public domain
Taps is the tune that has laid to rest countless American soldiers. It’s typically played at military funerals, even though it was originally used as a signal for lights-out. Even for those that aren’t American, it’s an eerie, sad, haunting song that leaves no doubt that there are loved ones in mourning.
According to the popular origin story of the piece, it started in the Civil War. A Union captain heard the cries of a wounded soldier on the battlefield nearby, and went out to retrieve the wounded man. When he returned to camp with the soldier, he realized that not only was the man wearing a Confederate uniform, but that it was his own son. The boy died in his arms. Because he was wearing the colours of the enemy, the captain wasn’t allowed to give the boy a funeral with the proper military honours. Instead, he was only allowed to have a bugler play, and he played the piece of music the boy had been carrying in his pocket - Taps.
Image: US Navy, public domain
Like many urban legends, it contains just a bit of truth to make it believable. Taps did come from the Civil War, but it was originally written as something along the lines of a bedtime lullaby. Union troops were using a French song to signal lights-out for the day, but General Daniel Butterfield wanted something less grating than the typical song. He started using a song called Scott’s Tattoo, which, with a few adjustments, became Taps. Not long after, it was used at the funeral of the Confederate’s General Stonewall Jackson, beginning its long tradition as the song of military funerals.
5. The White Tights
Image: Belledin via Badass of the Week
According to Russian legend, the White Tights - or beliye kolgotky - are blonde, beautiful women who are as deadly as they are attractive. The stories began to circulate during the Chechen Wars, when men would tell of a group of women hired as assassins, targeting anyone they’re paid to dispatch.
The legend gives them something of a background, too. They’re reputed to be members of a biathlon team, doing their training right out in the open where they’re groomed for long-distance marathons that end with putting a bullet in someone. They’re also said to be originally from the Baltic states, born with a grudge against Russia that makes them the perfect, cold-blooded killers.
Russian soldiers would report their units receiving radio transmissions from the women, giving them fair warning that they were coming. Their goals were often to wound the regular soldiers and kill the officers - not with a head shot, but with a shot to the groin.
It’s one story that definitely walks the line between truth and fiction, and when members of the Russian Biathlon Federation issued a statement saying that their athletes absolutely weren’t a part of the secret society of assassins, it’s said that they had to double-check first just to make sure. There’s a historical basis for the idea, too - as far back as the Russian Civil War in 1918 women were often employed as snipers. They were patient, they were calculating, and it was easier for them in infiltrate certain areas - especially if they were armed with a child. But the White Tights take the idea of a secret group of deadly, beautiful blonde women who can kill with a single shot to a whole new level.
4. The Angels of Mons
Image: Alfred Pearse via Military History Online
On August 23, 1914, British troops were cornered by the German army in the town of Mons, in Belgium. The situation was dire, but the British were ultimately able to make their retreat. According to the legend, they gathered their wounded and made their way to safety under the guidance of strange, angelic beings who had descended from the heavens to hold back the Germans and allow the Allies their escape.
There were a couple different versions of the stories that made its rounds across England. In some, the Angels of Mons were cloud-shaped creatures, in others, they were knights riding winged horses. The government and the military certainly didn’t argue about the story, which seemed to give divine approval to their war effort. Churches gave sermons based around it, and it was in large part thanks to a fantasy author named Arthur Machen.
Image: via Wikipedia, public domain
Machen wrote a story in the London Evening Times, published on September 29, 1914 and telling an eye-witness account of a soldier who had been saved in battle by the presence of angelic archers from the Battle of Agincourt. With the help of the angels and the saints, the German army was defeated. Another likely source for the story was the general and Chief Intelligence Officer who was involved in the Mons retreat; Brigadier General John Charteris was also responsible for another wartime legend - the corpse factory.
After the war, there was some further investigation into the story, and it was found that there was another likely reason that it had spread so far and gripped the minds and hearts of so many people. Many of the men that were involved not only in the retreat but in other battles that reported seeing similar, angelic figures appearing to them were living through some of the most horrible conditions on the earth - long, sleepless nights, terrifying waking moments…it was likely that many did believe what they saw, hallucinations formed to help them deal with the tragedy around them.
3. Mythical Russian Cossacks
Image: John Warwick Brooke, public domain
In August of 1914, rumours of a massive deployment of Russian soldiers to the western front were sweeping across Europe. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the trains, carrying fierce Russian soldiers through England and into France, where they would sandwich the German troops between their western offensive and their eastern. There were hundreds and hundreds of trains, carrying Russians that were said to still have snow on their boots. Other witnesses claimed they’d seen thousands of the soldiers marching through London on the way to the train station, and there were other reports that seemed to serve to make it less overwhelming and more real.
Londoners were hearing shouts and demands for vodka drifting from trains; station workers said that they were confronted with a massive amount of soldiers asking for “lunchsky baskets”. Vending machines were jammed by roubles, and there was considerable photographic evidence - that was destroyed by the censors. There were no censors in the United States media, though, and those papers ran stories that supported the idea of the Phantom Cossacks.
Image: Ed. H. W. Wilson, public domain
The stories were believed by the German intelligence, and while it’s not known just how much of an impact they had, it’s thought that there were some tactical choices made by the Germans with the idea of avoiding all the Russian soldiers in mind.
It’s thought that the rumour came from a couple of different sources; members of the Russian military were in England for various reasons relating to the war effort, and the sight of the soldiers, coupled with the chronic and unexplained train delays, seemed to give credence to the story. Another suggestion on where it came from was a telegram stating that 100,000 Russians were heading to London from Aberdeen - it was referring to eggs, but telegrams are notoriously short and to the point. There was also a detachment of Scottish soldiers passing through, and it’s been suggested that their explanation of hailing from Ross Shire was misheard as Russia.
Nevertheless, the rumours started, and British intelligence decided to let the rumour mill do its thing.
2. The Corpse Factory
Image: Project Gutenberg, public domain
Part of fighting a successful war includes making sure that your troops don’t start sympathizing with the enemy. A particular challenge with the up-close-and-personal fighting that was going on in the trenches of World War One, British intelligence came up with an urban legend of absolutely unforgivable proportions that was guaranteed to show just how horrible their enemy was.
In 1917, The Times ran a story about how the German army was disposing of their dead - they were recycling the bodies of their fallen soldiers for war materials. Bodies were yielding glycerin, oils, and rendered fats, with even bones being ground into powder and used to feed the nation’s pigs.
Image: Imperial War Museum, public domain
A few months later, more information was coming out in the papers. All the corpse processing was being done in a factory called Deutsche Asfallverwertungsgesellschaft, or the German Refuse Processing Plant. Bodies were simmered in cauldrons and rendered into their base components, and they claimed to have the eyewitness testimonies to support it - even though there were German statements issued that called the rumours preposterous and absolutely untrue.
Cartoons and similar stories started to pop up throughout the Allied nations, and when the British government was directly questioned about the truth of the rumours, they were extremely non-committal. The rumour lasted in full force until 1925, when the government made an official statement saying that there was no actual, real basis for the rumours.
1. The Philadelphia Experiment
Image: National Archives, public domain
According to the story, the United States government was not only involved with experiments on invisibility and time travel, but they figured it out.
In 1943, an urban legend grew up around the U.S. Navy Destroyer escort the USS Eldridge. It was said that while it was sitting in the shipyards of Philadelphia, experiments to make the ship invisible were successful. Not long after that, it was said the Navy attempted to not only make the ship invisible but to teleport it to their shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. Supposedly it returned to Philadelphia moments later, and sometimes there’s the addition of horrific details like screaming, mangled crew members that returned from the experiment.
The whole thing was popularized in large part thanks to one man, writing under a pseudonym, who convinced astronomer Morris K. Jessup that he had been on a nearby ship and had witnessed the appearance - and disappearance - of the USS Eldridge first-hand.
Image: via Humans Are Free
Needless to say, it’s not true - but, like many urban legends, there is just a tiny bit of truth at the centre of the story. The Navy was, in fact, experimenting with invisibility, but a different kind. The U-Boats prowling the waters of the world during World War Two made it an infinitely dangerous place for all ships, and the Navy was experimenting with degaussing, a process by which electric cables are run along a ship’s hull to disrupt its magnetic field and make it invisible to the sensors on mines. That kind of invisibility actually does work, but there was never anything more sinister going on than that.
The USS Eldridge had a rather sad ending for such a controversial ship at the heart of an urban legend about time travel, invisibility and teleportation. In 1951, the destroyer was transferred to Greece, and after the Cold War it was sold to a scrap firm.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]