A soldier’s luck: Superstition in the First World War

Fums up. [charm][c.1914-1918]. Collections CCGW/CCGG
Fums up. [charm][c.1914-1918]. Collections CCGW/CCGG
Today is Friday the 13th, which, for those of us who believe in such things, is an ill starred day indeed. Superstition, though derided in the Enlightenment as one of the forces of ignorance, still has a place in our lives today, even if only laughingly. For the First World War soldier however, superstition was a very different thing. 

Fatalism was an enduring feature among front line soldiers of any nationality during the First World War. They were in a situation far beyond their control, where death could come at any moment. Most of the time, it was unlikely that you would see your killer, or indeed any of the enemy at all, and it was just as likely that a small wound could kill you as a large one. Desmond Morton entitled his excellent examination of the Canada soldier during the Great War “When your number’s up” for good reason; for most soldiers, death would come when it wanted and there was little they could do about it.

When dealing with an unknown, humans seem to always have the need to make it definable or preventable; medieval herbalists gave out charms against the Plague, which, though probably not actually effective, gave their bearer a sense of control over their surroundings against an enemy they could not see. For Great War soldiers, this enemy was death. If there was no way to actually fight death, maybe there was a way to prevent it. Many soldiers carried charms and nearly every war memoir has a story of someone who was saved by a cigarette offered at the right moment, or a cigarette case.

The doll seen above is one such charm. Called “touch wood” or “fums up”, these little dolls usually had a wooden head, so that their holder was always touching wood for good luck. They also have only thumbs, which were considered lucky, and in some cases wings on their heels. The Fums Up figure is an odd element of Victorian England; the charms were traditionally given to soldiers and are said to have been modelled on the idea of the Roman gladiator’s thumbs up signal. They appeared on playing cards, as large dolls and as the tiny charms seen here, which could be secreted away in a pocket, safe from the predations of one’s company sergeant major.

As with trench humour (written about earlier this year), the idea of luck was taken somewhat ironically. Soldiers might have mocked each other for their charms and rituals, but no man would ever be the third one on a match. As Donald Fraser wrote in his journal “I was smashed up and out of the Great Adventure for good, disabled for life. But everyone gets it at Ypres.”[Journal of Private Fraser, 144]; whatever could be done to lessen that chance of “getting it” soldiers did.


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