“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning” – Winston Churchill
My brain worries me. It rarely seems adequate to the task at hand and has a tendency to formulate ill-conceived plans that in all probability will result in my death, maiming, public disgrace, or economic ruin. That said, I’m rather fond of the old boy as he’s been my constant companion lo these many years. I’ve always wanted to use the word “lo” in a sentence. It makes me feel like a Viking (which of course is my cursed brain conflating Middle English with Hollywood dialogue). You see, I’m not entirely sure we can trust our brains, particularly when it comes to experiences outside the routine. And if one has a particular fascination with the oddities of the universe, this presents an intriguing conundrum. I have a bit of an existential problem in that I’m more intrigued by the oddities among the oddities. A brief and uncomplicated liaison with an extraterrestrial visitor is all well and good, but for narrative purposes I far prefer it when said alien exchanges ten Euros and a buckwheat pancake for a pail of water and a cigarette (knowing full well that that my currency of exchange is the U.S. dollar). Freaking aliens thought I wouldn’t notice. And their pancakes suck. Too busy bumming around the galaxy to learn how to cook, I guess. Anyhow, our brains are reasonably good at rote responses to familiar stimuli, but when assaulted by novel sensory input, that whole vestigial vertebrate “fight or flight” apparatus kicks in with all its hyper-aroused physiological, emotional, and cognitive components. Now this is pretty handy when the novel stimuli happens to have gnashing teeth and a predatory gleam in its eye (my dating experiences have been, well, colorful), one of the relative advantages of civilization is that immediate mortal dangers are infrequent. Our dangers are typically more remote, giving our brains time to reinterpret stimuli in the context of our collective wants, needs, hopes, dreams, and fears – to ransack our consciousness for explanations. These interpretations are the “Cossacks of the Mind”, guarding the troublesome borders between rationality and irrationality, thundering down upon noumenal experience to put it in the ground before it gets unruly. And one of my personal favorites that has been traditionally trotted out is “Collective Hypnosis”, as in the case of the phantom army from Archangel, Russia that descended on Scotland and England in 1914, headed for the front lines across the English Channel.
All England and Scotland were involved in one gigantic delusion of the supposed presence of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, at the close of 1914. Grave parsons had seen trainloads of Russian soldiers, sticking out their heads out of the train windows shouting Russian as they passed some station. Constables guarded bridges over which Russian trains crossed. From Aberdeen came letters to friends in London from persons who had seen four trainloads of Russians dispatched south. Some helped to serve them refreshments at stations and others saw thousands of them off at the docks. What was the psychological situation? The English forces were being driven back, and Paris was in danger of being captured. From whence could help come? Why from Archangel direct to England. This news spread like wildfire and all England drew a breath of relief. Yes, they were coming in thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. All England went out to welcome them. They stood on the bridges and cheered the Russians—they saw them in thousands; they heard their language, but there were no Russians. All England was hypnotized. Anyone who would have denied what all saw and heard would have been a traitor, and would have been shot or imprisoned. Thus a whole nation—even the sober, cold blooded, slow-minded English nation could be hypnotized in twenty-four hours’ time by the Russian Legend (Blomgren, 1922, p37-38).
Plenty of folks saw the Russians, spoke with them, shared food, and cheered them as they made their way to towards Southern England. The main issue is obviously that the phantom Russian army never actually seemed to exist in any phenomenal sense. 70,000 angry Cossacks never materialized on the Western Front to save England’s bacon. No massive Russian force ever embarked from Archangel bound for Scotland (which would have been a logistical nightmare). An entire Russian army appeared from the ether, marched through the green fields of England, and disappeared back from whence it came (which was presumably not the Russia of our reality). Journalists from the four corners of the empire, ever vigilant, began to chase the rumors. Australians, naturally predisposed to be skeptical of the English, poked around and had themselves a good chuckle.
To newspaper men throughout both England and Scotland one of the most astonishing incidents of the war has surely been the remarkable story of a Russian army having passed through the two countries on its way from Archangel to the Continent (remarks’ the “Newspaper World” of September 26), For several weeks it was hardly possible to move about in town or country without meeting some person who knew someone who had seen these Russian soldiers, and telephonic inquiries to the chief newspaper offices became a positive nuisance to the harassed members of the staff. The story was wonderfully constructed, and, like the snowball, the further it went the greater it grew, gathering much circumstantial evidence in its course. Many trainloads of Russian soldiers were said to have passed through various stations on both Eastern and Western main lines. One phase of the tantalizing tale was that Russians In numbers, variously estimated, had been shipped from Archangel, landed at ports in Scotland, a distance of roughly 2000 miles, and were being taken to an eastern or southern port for immediate transfer to the Continent. In the newspaper offices apparent confirmation of these details was received from a hundred sources, and as long ago as August 27, The Yorkshire Post,” being assailed with the persistent Russian rumor, both in their London and Leeds offices, took the trouble to inquire specially of the Press Bureau whether any credence could be placed in it. The Press Bureau replied that there was no foundation for the story and therefore that Journal ignored it altogether. Three days later, however, the rumor had gathered prodigiously in strength, and became so persistent that a second Inquiry was made to the Press Bureau (Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, December 17, 1914).
Those historians that don’t want to come right out and maintain that everyone in England and Scotland went about hallucinating a Russian army for a few weeks, when being charitable, attribute the whole episode to effective military propaganda promoted by the British government to put the fear of god and Tommy into the Germans. If this was indeed the case, I hope those psychological operations folks in the War Department got a big fat raise, since not only were they able to spread a useful rumor about Russian support in England’s time of need, but they were also able to make thousands of stolid Englishmen and Scotsmen actually “see” a Russian army on the move.
The legend of an encircling movement which would end the war before Christmas did not easily die. It was hatched in perhaps the most gigantic mare’s nest ever recorded in the annals of war. The statement was that a Russian force, estimated at 300,000 men, had been transhipped from Archangel, along a route which was officially declared to be open for butter and eggs. The phantom Russians landed in Scotland and were thence entrained for ports in the south, and particularly for Bristol and Southampton, where they embarked for Ostend, Calais, and Dunkirk. It is probable that some such daring stroke was at an earlier date considered by the Cabinet. At the outset of the war in Belgium, the troops would have been of incalculable value. But the scheme was impossible. A single line of railway alone ran to Archangel. The port contained no docks from which artillery and heavy material could be shipped, and open boats would have had to be used. Moreover, it is doubtful whether politically it would have been wise to admit that on the western front, as on the eastern, the war depended on Russia. The intentions of that mighty Power were excellent, but the ultimate settlement was already in men’s minds. The Russians, none the less, made their presence felt wherever men gathered to gossip. Leith was full of them. For days at a time the North-Western Railway was held up in order that trainloads might pass southwards, scores of them a day. A lady who gave cigarettes to the Cossacks at Crewe knew them by their beards. Gloucestershire was alive with the visitors. On Salisbury Plain they were clad in Khaki. They were seen at Ostend. They marched through Maida Vale. Their commanding officers were received by the King. People did not believe that they were Highlanders who talked Gaelic and had their own way of enunciating Ross-shire. Nor was the skepticism quite so unreasonable as it may seem after the event. The Russian myth sprang up spontaneously in the most remote parts of the country. It was everywhere all at once (Wilson, 1915, p198-199).
Ultimately, the entire puzzling affair was attributed to the emotional needs of England at the time, to feel this would be a short war and that despite apparent setbacks, Britannia would emerge victorious yet again.
The phantom Russians grew miraculously from thousands to millions; the time of their encamping on Salisbury Plain and going into khaki was known to the day and the hour; and they turned up again only yesterday in the passes of Servia. The myth itself needed no explanation; it was itself one of many explanations of the emotional state everybody was and still is in. The English are the most emotional people in the world, but their manner of expressing their emotion varies with circumstances and always differs from other people’s because it is their fond belief that they do not show it at all. In the last war the pleasant emotion of self-conﬁdence took the form of noisy send-offs to the troops, of blustering boasts of a holiday walk into the enemy’s capital and back home in time for Christmas (Pennel, 1915, p401).
When things inexplicably appear and disappear, seen and then unseen by thousands of perfectly reasonable people, it tends to make us mistrust our brains. After all, our pesky brains tell us to do all sorts of inadvisable things like tightrope walk between skyscrapers, drive offensively, or get married. Obviously, their judgment is questionable and it seems that perhaps madness is contagious, but are strange theoretical constructs like collective hypnosis, mass hallucination, or group wish fulfillment truly more palatable explanations? Perhaps, out there in the forked multiverse, there existed an alternate reality where Russians from Archangel marched through England on their way to France, and we were given a glimpse of what might have been. As Lewis N. Roe observed, “If you are to believe that there are an infinite amount of universes with an infinite amount of possible variations on the laws of nature, then you are forced to admit that it is quite certain that in one of these parallel worlds dragons exist”. Russian armies, as well.
Blomgren, Carl August, 1865-1926. Three Lectures On Modern Spiritism Delivered At Augustana Theological Seminary Rock Island, Illinois. Rock Island: Augustana Book Concern, 1922.
“Phantom Russians: A Mysterious Canard”. Sydney Morning Herald, December 17th (Thursday), 1914.
Pennel, Elizabeth Robins. “London Under the Shadow of War”. Atlantic Monthly v.115. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co., 1915.
Wilson, Philip Whitwell, b. 1875. The Unmaking of Europe: The First Phase of the Hohenzollern War. London: Nisbet & co., ltd., 1915.