This edited article about rumour and the First World War originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 731 published on 17 January 1976.
The men had marched off to war confident that they would be home for Christmas, but things did not seem to be going according to plan. As August 1914 continued its terrible course, the papers were full of British and French victories, yet somehow the maps told a different story. The Germans, storming into Belgium and northern France, were clearly winning the war.
By August 30, it was obvious that nothing short of a miracle could save the Allies from defeat, and at this grim moment the people of Britain seized on a story which buoyed up their spirits into believing that salvation was at hand.
Far to the East, the Russians were fighting the Germans, too, and appeared – wrongly – in late August to be beating them, though actually they were on the brink of catastrophic defeat. This bleak fact was unknown to the British, who suddenly heard a whisper that rapidly grew into mass conviction that a gigantic force of Russians – 200,000 of them – had been sent from the port of Archangel to France via Scotland.
Naturally, the “operation” was cloaked in the deepest secrecy, though everyone seemed to know about it. The troops had first gone to Norway, then had sailed to Aberdeen. From there special troop trains carried them to ports along the South Coast. No wonder, said the knowing, that the Liverpool-London train service had suffered a 17-hour delay on August 27th, for all lines had to be clear for the Russians, and every other train delayed during those desperate days was clearly held up for the same war-winning reason.
Soon there was a mass of “evidence” to back up the rumour. The snow on the Russians’ boots gave the game away, snow that they stamped off on railway station platforms (in August!). It was known for certain that an Edinburgh railway porter had been busily engaged in sweeping up the snow after they had gone, while odd-looking uniforms had been spotted in troop trains by watchers on platforms in England.
One body of opinion held that the Russians were being shipped from Harwich to go to the rescue of Antwerp, the other school of thought holding that they were being sent from Dover to save Paris. The recent naval battle off Heligoland was all part of the plot, for it had clearly been a cunning diversion to cover the crossing of the Russian saviours to Belgium.
Everyone knew someone who knew someone who had seen the Russians, and some were prepared to give exact descriptions. One Scottish officer saw men “in long gaily-coloured coats and big fur caps”, and claimed that they had their own horses. Obviously that group had been Cossacks, thought the knowing. One Scottish knight wrote to a relation in America that his estate had been crossed by 125,000 Russians.
The largest number of Russians claimed to have entered the country was 500,000, but gradually word of mouth levelled out at some 80,000. Naturally, there was nothing about all this in the papers which were strictly censored, the entire story being carried by word of mouth. And there was no radio in those days, let alone television, to drop hints for or against the “top secret” story. Final proof seemed to come when a Newcastle official found a Russian kopek coin jammed in an automatic machine.
In America, not yet in the war, there was no censorship, and the reports of the mass movement of Russians were published in newspapers all over the United States, the information being supplied by excited travellers returning from a rumour-ridden Liverpool. Meanwhile, Europeans picked up the exciting story. In a Paris threatened by German attack the railway stations were crowded with onlookers waiting to greet the men who were on their way to help save them. Even the Germans heard the news and began to be seriously worried about the effect of an extra 80,000 or more enemy troops on their Western front at a time when everything seemed to be going their way.
Finally, on September 15, when the German advance had been halted by heroic French and British troops, the rumour was officially branded as false by the Government Press Bureau, the authorities having become seriously alarmed at the grip the story had taken on what appeared to be the entire population of Great Britain and much of the rest of the world.
How had it all come about? How had so many been taken in? Surely it could not have been simply that they wanted to believe that help was on the way, so were prepared even to swallow the legend of the “snow on their boots”?
The explanation, though it does not account for all the refinements of the rumour, is simple enough. It seems that in August 1914, troop trains transported the Lovat Scouts to an army camp at Luton in Bedfordshire. These fine soldiers came from the north of Scotland and many of them were herdsmen and ghillies, tough, rough-looking men, some of them with beards, and all of them looking foreign to the English. When they were asked where they came from, some of them answered “Rossheer”, meaning, of course, not Russia but Ross-shire.
This was enough to start a right royal rumour doing the rounds, and matters were speeded up when a telegram was received by a certain wholesale dealer which read: “Two hundred thousand Russians are being despatched via Archangel”. The dealer knew that this meant that 200,000 eggs were en route to him, but the postal workers not surprisingly put a very different interpretation on the telegram.
There remains the little matter of the snow on the Russians’ boots, for nothing caught the public’s imagination as that touch. Alas, there can only be one explanation of that “fact”: someone invented it, making an already good story better, and soon others had imagined porters at Edinburgh actually shovelling snow out of carriages. Naturally there were plenty of ignorant English to believe that Aberdeen is regularly snowbound in August and that the snow could last the journey to Edinburgh, but the Scots seem to have been fooled as well. The point to remember is that everyone wanted to believe the great rumour which, in the last resort, is what really matters in the tall story department.
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