Top 10 Disturbing War History Urban Legends

There’s a grain of truth in every urban legend and with that said, here are ten disturbing urban legends that rose up throughout the history of battles and wars.

1: The Templar Knights and Robert the Bruce

One of war history’s urban legends has often been repeated it is even thought of as a historical fact, though, it is not. And it concerns Robert the Bruce and the Templar Knights who were said to contribute immensely to the former winning the Battle of Bannockburn on June 23 to 24, 1314.

According to this legend, a small band of Templar Knights went to Scotland during the time Robert the Bruce was battling with the English, joined the fighting midway, crushed the enemy and secured victory for the Scottish leader. The story has it that the group of men who helped Bruce the Brute was huge and shrouded in mystery, and as they were riding against the English troops, the latter fled from their very eyes.

While the story has a romantic ring and greatness to it, historians rule it out as merely that — a legend. As to how Robert the Bruce won in Bannockburn is not entirely clear, though, since no account about the battle was written until much later.

2: Taps and Its Origin

Taps is, arguably, the most recognizable bugle call as we may have heard it being played countless of times especially during military funerals not just in America but in some parts of the world as well. According to its history, Taps was originally intended to signal lights out but shortly after, it was assimilated as a vital part in the funerals of military personnel within America. It was way back in 1862, during the Peninsula Campaign, when Taps was first used during a funeral ceremony.

But where did the actual tune for Taps come from? Here is where the second of our “ten war history urban legends” enters.

According to the story, the tune used for Taps originated way back in the Civil War. On one of the nights of 1862, Union Captain Robert Ellicombe heard the cry of a wounded soldier on no-man’s-land that stretched between the Union troops and the Confederates near Harrison’s Landing, Virginia.

Braving enemy fire, he went to the area and got the wounded man. To his horror upon returning to camp, the rescued soldier, who died while being carried in the captain’s arms, was wearing a Confederate uniform! And upon closer inspection and to his anguish, it was Ellicombe’s own son.

The captain begged for his son to be given a proper funeral with full military honors but it was not granted since he was wearing the enemy’s colors. Nevertheless, a bugler was allowed to play as the dead body was lowered into its grave. Ellicombe provided for the bugle piece — a series of twenty-four notes written on a piece of paper his son had been carrying with him. It was the Taps, and that was, according to the story, the first time the haunting melody was played.

However, if truth be told, Taps had a lesser disconcerting origin. The only “grain of truth” in the popular myth about it — it was, for a fact, written in Harrison’s Landing, Virginia. But it was Union General Daniel Butterfield who employed it – an ancient and long unused tune named Scott’s Tattoo, tattoo being a Dutch military word which meant that soldiers had to turn off the beer taps and head back down to their camps. Butterfield used Taps as a means for a more soothing call to soldiers after a day’s work was done.

3: The Angels of Mons

It was on August  23, 1914, when British troops were attacked and cornered by the Germans in the Belgian town of Mons, that gave rise to the third of this list’s urban legends — the Angels of Mons.

The common elements of the various versions of this myth are these: the British army was in a dire situation but was able to escape, gathering their wounded and making their way to safety through the help and the guidance of angelic beings who came down from heaven and held off the German army to let the Allied troops get away from them.

Some accounts said that the Angels of Mons were cloud-like creatures while other stories stated that they were knights mounted on horses with wings. Historians have come up with equally different sources for the legends as well.

One was Arthur Machen, who was a fantasy writer. He was said to have written a story in the London Evening Times about an eyewitness account of a soldier who was saved by a heavenly entity during the Battle of Agincourt. The said story was published September 29, of 1914.

The second pinpointed source of the legend was Brigadier-General John Charteris, the general and Chief Intelligence Officer, who was involved in the British retreat in Mons.  Charteris also authored another wartime urban legend.

Whatever the source was, the government and the military did not set the stories straight which gave the public the idea that the country’s war efforts were, indeed, met with divine approval. As a matter of fact, there were church sermons based upon the legend of those times!

4: The Legendary Russian Cossacks

It was also in August on the year the First World War broke out when stories about an enormous Russian army sweeping through Europe heading for the Western Front spread around. There were eyewitnesses who claimed to see this massive deployment of Russian troops being carted via trains through England to France and when there, they were said to sandwich the Germans in between their eastern and western offensives.

There was even photographic evidence of the supposed Russian army coming in throngs, but these were reportedly destroyed by the censors. However, as there were no censors in the United States, media in the said country ran stories that supported the phantom Russian Cossacks.

The Germans, in turn, believed the stories and though not much is known about the legend’s impact on them, it is believed that the Germans made several tactical choices during WWI which had the avoidance of these phantom Cossacks in mind.

The urban legend also had different sources. Some said that it came about when Russian soldiers were seen in England for various reasons with regards to the war efforts coupled with the chronic yet unexplained delays of trains. Another source pinpointed was a telegram which stated that a hundred thousand Russians were headed to London from Aberdeen. The sender had meant eggs in the said missive but as telegrams needed to be very brief and concise, the sent message was that resulting to the rumors.

There was also the story about Scottish soldiers who hailed from Ross Shire passing through but their place of origin was misheard as Russia.

Wherever the legend about the Russian Cossacks originated, the British intelligence did not quell it but instead allowed the rumor mill to spread it around.

5: Germany’s Factory for Corpses

Fighting up close with the enemy in trenches that, sometimes, were just mere meters apart from each other, it was hard for the troops on each warring side not to feel sympathy with one another at some point in time. This may be the reason the fifth in our list of war history urban legends came into being — to show that the enemy was horrible and very inhumane.

In 1917, a story came out in The Times stating how the Germans were disposing of their dead in the First World War — the dead bodies of their fallen soldiers were recycled and made into war materials. The bodies were used to yield glycerin, oils as well as rendered fats. Even the bones of the dead soldiers, said the story, were powdered and fed to the pigs.

After a few months, another round of information about the story mentioned above rose up. The “corpse factory” of the Germans was named — the Deutsche Asfallverwertungsgesellschaft [German Refuse Processing Plant]. Additionally, more gory details came up. Supposedly eyewitness accounts recounted how the dead bodies were placed in boiling cauldrons until they were reduced to their most basic components. The Germans tried to counter the stories by saying they were untrue. But the British government remained mum about them when questioned.

The myth about this corpse factory lasted until 1925. It was that year that the government issued an official statement saying there was no basis for the rumors, thus, they were untrue.

6: WWI’s Wild Deserters

Many urban legends rose up from the Great War, and one of the most unsettling was about the conflict’s wild deserters — men who, according to the accounts, deserted their posts in the war but unable to leave it banded together and lived between the trench lines, in the area known as no-man’s-land. These men were described as ghoulish in appearance and behaved diabolically.

According to the myths, these wild deserters came from the various armies who participated in the conflict – Australians, French, Germans, Austrians, British and Canadian, Italian – though it was quite odd that none came from the American troops. In accounts which could have inspired Night of the Living Dead, these wild deserters were said to live between the trenches across no-man’s-land.

They only came out at night raiding corpses for clothing, rations and weapons. They fought among themselves, and it was said that the occasional gunfire heard across the battlefields at night were from these feral-behaving band.

Legends about these WWI wild deserters was first recounted in the memoir of British cavalry lieutenant Ardern Arthur Hulme Beaman in 1920. Eventually, in the autobiography written by Army Captain Sir Osbert Sitwell, it was stated that after WWI ended and the troops withdrew, these wild deserters were gassed so as not to ravage the countryside.

7: Pippo, the Night Terror Plane of WWII

If WWI teemed with urban legends, so was WWII. And one of the myths that came out during the Second World War was about the night terror plane named Pippo.

The stories about Pippo were prevalent among Italian households. Though not one story tackled about the ghostly plane’s origins, the myths said that Pippo had just always been there flying at night, and the plane was always referred to as a “he.” Pippo wasn’t a harmless ghostly airplane that mothers and fathers would tell their children about once they heard an aircraft flew over their homes during the night.

It was said that Pippo dropped explosive devices, bombed homes and strafed anything underneath him once he passed through villages, towns or cities. It was also said that the sound coming from his engines were unmistakably his own, and once you heard them, you would know it was Pippo.

Nevertheless, no matter how scary Pippo appeared to be in these accounts of him, there are no accepted sources of him within war history. Historians have come to believe that the legends about the night terror plane of WWII sprung up from the real night fighters which operated over Italy like the Bristol Beaufighter or the de Havilland Mosquito.

8: Prague’s Spring-Man, Perak

The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia resulted to the eight of this list’s war history urban legends, that of Perak, the Spring-Man said to prowl through the streets of Prague during the Second World War.

Perak was the city’s mysterious man who jumped over buildings and across rivers while hiding in the shadows of the city during the night. The supposed existence of this demonic and threatening being dampened the productivity of Prague’s citizens who the Germans used for the production of munitions and other materials for their army.

Soon after stories about Perak the Spring-man circulated, anti-German graffiti began appearing and whenever this was on locations that were impossibly high or inconvenient, they were immediately attributed to the works of the Spring-Man.

According to some, Perak was an American secret agent while others said he was a British paratrooper. There were also those who believed he was a ghost or an acrobat.

It is very interesting to note, though, that the legend and attributes of Perak resembled closely an urban legend character from Victorian Britain, the shadowy Spring-heeled Jack.

9: The Philadelphia Experiment

In the Philadelphia experiment urban legend, it was said that not only was the United States involved in experiments regarding time travel and invisibility but the country’s authorities figured out how these concepts really worked.

Stories surfaced about how the USS Eldridge, a US Navy Destroyer Escort, was made invisible as it was docked in the shipyards in Philadelphia in 1943. Furthermore, the stories went on to relate how not only the ship was made invisible; US scientists also were able to teleport it to the shipyards in Norfolk, Virginia. Reportedly, the ship returned to the Philadelphia shipyards moments later with some accounts adding that it did so with much screaming and mangled crew members.

The stories surrounding the vessel wasn’t true, and the USS Eldridge had a rather sad dull ending for such a vessel involved in an “urban legend” this controversial — it ended in a scrap firm after the Cold War.

10: The Beliye Kolgotky [White Tights] of Russia

One war-related Russian urban legend speaks about the beliye kolgotky or the white tights, women who were beautifully blonde yet very deadly.

Stories about the white tights started circulating during the Chechen Wars and stated how these women were paid to assassinate. Legends gave out their background, too. Accordingly, these beautiful but deadly women were members of a biathlon team and that they were trained for long-distance marathons ending up with killing someone they were ordered and paid to do so.

Furthermore, stories about the white tights said that these women originally came from the Baltic states and that they were born with natural grudges against Russia, thus, making them the perfect killing machines.

The stories went on to say that members of the white tights only wounded regular soldiers. They were trained to kill officers, not with a bullet in the head but with a bullet piercing the groin.

Though the stories about the white tights were far-fetched, they have a ring of truth to them. It is known that even during the Russian Civil War in 1918, Russian authorities have long employed and trained women to be snipers.

Not only were they patient and calculating, but they also could easily infiltrate certain areas especially if they were carrying a child with them.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE