Demigods of the modern mythos: How evolved man creates tales of wonder
By Dr James McGivern (Oxford College Press)
William McGivern of the Highland Light Infantry 16th Battalion (The Glasgow boys brigade) was 20 when his battalion was ordered to gain possession of the Leipzig Redoubt on the 1st July 1916. They went over the top to find the big guns still firing and most of them never made it far enough to discover the barbed wire uncut. In the first 10 minutes, William watched over half his childhood friends cut down but pressed forward only to watch the rest get caught on the wire and, in his own words, ‘hang like shirts half tugged from the washing line by crows’.
William, however, kept moving across the field, weapon still raised until he slipped on the, now slick, field and came to rest in a shell hole beside the handful of other survivors. His companions slowly succumbed to their injuries leaving William alone, tired and heavily armed. As the guns turned to help protect the areas of the German line that was still under attack William spotted a break. Collecting his Sergeant’s machine gun, and all the ammo he could find, William crawled towards the line and opened fire.
Slowly William crept towards the German gunners, leaving no-one alive to return fire. Two hours after the beginning of the Battle of the Somme William seized one of the big guns and turned her around to fire into the German communication trenches. His commanding officer would later say that it was ‘like William had an Archangel on his shoulder, bullets seemed to slide by and a faint shimmer set a glow about his person.’
Officers in the British trenches saw the German defence falter and quickly ordered the 15th HLI and the Royal Scots to draw down the line towards the breach point that William had opened.
Before reinforcements could arrive William ran out of ammo and was forced to defend his position with bayonet and Glaswegian grit. The 15th’s arrived to find William surrounded by ‘the Krauts dumb enough to get close enough for him to reach…throats cut and their weapons turned back on the men following them.’ (Private Frank Dawling – ‘Remembering the fallen’, BBC Radio 4, 1996)
British troops poured through the German front line and down the trench to clear the entire line allowing the Seizing of Thiepval and breaking the back of the war. The British forces routed the Germans by teatime and travelled down the line opening the way for the French. Two days after the first man went over the top the aims of the Battle of the Somme had been met and the Germans were in retreat across occupied territory. Allied forces crossed the German border a week later with William at their head, no-one yet knew why but William seemed invincible and rumours of about him spread through Allied and Enemy forces like wildfire. The Kaiser abdicated on the 19th July and the Armistice was signed on the 1st August 1916.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by the Glasgow Boy’s Brigade, less than 1/6 of the men who left Glasgow would return home, it is hard to imagine the devastation that would have taken place at the Somme without William and military historians believe that the war would have dragged on for months, if not years, longer.
William left the army at the end of the war and returned to Glasgow a resentful hero, in his diary he wrote that he was ‘tormented by the ghosts of not just the friends he had left on the fields of France but of the men he had laid down with them.’ Unable to walk the streets of his former home without seeing the horrors of war William left Scotland to never return. He dedicated his life to carrying out relief works in war-torn countries.
Like a modern day Hercules or Jason, we find whispers and folk tales of the good works William carried out, often travelling to the most dangerous areas and marching straight through hails of bullets to collect the wounded, never taking injury himself. He spent time in Russia during the civil war, where we hear tales of ‘ the man who would not die’. He repeatedly stood between fleeing civilians and the army, military reports telling us that bullets seemed to drop from the air in front of him, that fists would slide past him as though striking a metal sheet and slowly the men attacking him would lose the desire to fight him. From his time in Afghan we hear of ‘The White’ who walked to the heart of an intense fire with buckets of sand until it died down and flickered out to leave him standing, unharmed, over the oil pump. In Spain they speak of ‘the man who walked out of Guernica’, William’s medical relief team had been working in the town when the bombs fell. Only William survived and, where most would have given up all hope, he began to collect the living and carry them to safety. The list could go on for each country he visited and while some may be exaggerations, a clear picture of a haunted man determined to redeem himself from the blood he had spilt becomes evident.
What these tales do not tell is of the men and women William met, the network of ‘Gifted’ he created across the world. But it would all come to an end sharply.
Hearing of the actions of Hitler’s government, in the winter of 1938, William returned to Britain to demand that something be done. But he returned too late, by time he arrived at Dover the war machine had already begun it’s slow churn and he arrived to hear the news that Germany had invaded France.
Refusing to join the army William joined the Quakers Friend Ambulance Unit and left for Europe, once again refusing to take any notice of his personal safety as he evacuated Jews, Roma, homosexuals and the disabled alike. Eventually, he found the nature of their operations too restrictive, too safe, and created a group of like-minded doctors, nurses and former soldiers who vowed to head to the most dangerous areas. He drew his group across Europe and deep into occupied territory, but the soldiers they met never seemed to take notice of their presence.
Those with him wrote about William leaving camp in the middle of the night only to return at dawn with refugees, starved, injured and sick, and often with young soldiers who refused to speak of anything beyond their surrender and that they did not wish to fight any longer. William’s diary entries became darker and he wrote of ‘a strange strength growing within, bubbling and building like fury in me but seemingly making those around me into pacifists regardless of their former thoughts on war.’ He wrote of it being reminiscent to the moment he walked across the Somme saying that ‘like in that moment, so long ago, I find that I simply know that I will survive and that those around me will lay down their arms.’
This continued for over two years until finally the lack of success the war effort was having seemed to grind through what was left of William’s resolve to stay uninvolved in the actions of war and restrict himself to providing aid.
After returning at dawn on the 29th July 1941 with no one following him, William broke down reportedly saying it was ‘too much! Of all the horrors and atrocities I have seen, this is the worst. This is irredeemable and beyond what any of us had ever imagined.’ He left the camp on foot heading North-West into Germany, whispers of soldiers laying down weapons and walking away from their camps following in his wake. Occasionally they would speak of a bright light passing by the camp, leaving peace and calm behind it ‘like a blanket laid over the soul.’
Weeks later, Hitler surrendered. His generals following suit without complaint or attempt to take leadership, each at his trial saying, ‘He arrived and it was like I could no longer think of war.’ Video of Hitler’s surrender shows William stood behind him, the ethereal glow that soldiers spoken of seeing on the Somme visible even in the grainy black and white film in the British Archive.
Allied forces arrived in Berlin at night and they entered the Reichstag building to find Hitler alone at the head of his war table, a pistol rested in front of him and to his left a pile of crumpled clothes with William’s diary resting atop them. Their reports talks of a small, broken and lost-looking man who would only mutter that he ‘could not conceive the madness that has ruled my life…to even take my own life is too much violence to be considered.”
No one knows where William went or why he would leave his possessions so oddly placed but as the Axis powers surrendered, one by one, each spoke of a man made of brilliant light who visited them and altered their thinking. William never returned and, with the knowledge we have now of how powers can grow and develop over your whole life, we must assume he surpassed the point a mortal body could contain him. This powerful, invincible, man finally destroyed by his own strength.
In William’s absence his network came forwards, many of them revealing themselves from within vital parts of the war effort, from Bletchley Park to the Manhattan Project to Churchill’s war council.
They named themselves Mutants.
They asked for nothing but acceptance.
William was the first of a modern age of heroes.