Causes of the First World War (by Dennis Wheatley)


I’m always interested in novelists’ versions of the beginning of the war, and none is more challenging to conventional historians’  ideas than that of Dennis Wheatley in The Devil Rides Out (1934).  The wise and experienced Duc de Richleau is explaining to his companions in adventure the power of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

“War, Plague, Famine and Death. We all know what happened last time those four terrible entities were unleashed to cloud the brains of statesmen and rulers.”
“You’re referring to the Great War I take it,” Rex said soberly.
“Of course, and every adept knows that it started because one of the most terrible Satanists who ever lived found one of the secret gateways through which to release the four horsemen.”
“I thought the Germans got a bit above themselves,” Rex hazarded, “although it seems that lots of other folks were pretty well as much to blame.”
“You fool!” De Richleau suddenly swung upon him. “Germany did not make the War. It came out of Russia. It was Russia who instigated the murder at Sarajevo, Russia who backed Serbia to resist Austria’s demands, Russia who mobilised first and Russia who invaded Germany. The monk Rasputin was the Evil genius behind it all. He was the greatest Black Magician that the world has known for centuries. It was he who found one of the gateways through which to let forth the four horsemen that they might wallow in blood and destruction – and I know the Talisman of Set to be another. Europe is ripe now for any trouble and if they are loosened again, it will be final Armageddon. […] We’ve got to kill Mocata before he can secure the Talisman and prevent his plunging the world into another war.”

Is this an example of the 1930s habit of exculpating Germany (the sort of thing Macdonell satirised in Lords and Masters)? An interesting website devoted to Wheatley defends him against charges of being pro-Nazi, I think rightly. (Few other thriller-writers of the thiries, I think, included a Jew among their clubland heroes.) But he had a loathing of Russia that may have influenced this suggestion.
The Devil Rides Out was the second of Wheatley’s Richleau novels to be published. The first, The Forbidden Territory, is about rescuing one of his friends from Soviet Russia. Stalin’s secret policemen are presented as foes almost as vile and implacable as the Satanic presences of The Devil Rides Out. Wheatley is scornful of Communism, but the book suggests that Russia’s attitudes are more deep-seated than the current regime.

Wheatley fought in the war, but does not seem to make much use of his war experience in his fiction. (Though I say this having read very little of it. Maybe there are books I don’t know about that look back to 1914-18. Thriller writers like Buchan and ‘Sapper’ show their team of heroes as being brought together by the war, and defeating evildoers by means of skills practiced in wartime.  Dornford Yates’s Mansel similarly gets his authority from his war experience, though he recruits younger helpers. Even Leslie Charteris’s Saint began in a book that looked back to the war on his first outing. Wheatley’s heroes, though, are brought together by chance, and do not look back to war careers. Perhaps this is just because Wheatley begins writing thrillers over a decade after the war, and after the war-books boom. But maybe it reflects his attitude towards the war. I have got hold of the volume of his memoirs that deals with his war years, and shall see if it casts any light on the question.


  1. Bill
    Posted October 20, 2016 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Wheatley went back and filled in the Duc’s past, including in particular “The Second Seal”, which is set in the lead up to the Sarajevo assassination, with the Duc working as an undercover British agent within, I think, The Black Hand, and failing to prevent either assassination or war. He has, of course, previously fought for Turkey in the wars against Serbia and holds an Austrian title, so he has a multi-faceted view of the situation. But for a self-styled soldier of fortune, the Duc de Richleau has a strangely ambivalent view of war. I don’t have the book to hand and can’t remember who Wheatley blamed at the time.

    • Posted October 20, 2016 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Bill. That sounds like a book I should investigate. No, to be honest, it sounds like a book I would enjoy.

  2. janevsw
    Posted October 21, 2016 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    I read all Dennis Wheatley in my teenage years (borrowing my father’s copies off the bookshelf) but wearied of them quite suddenly, so my memories of them are fainter than they might be. I don’t, however, particularly associate any of them with the Great War except for The Second Seal.

    • Posted October 21, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      I missed out on Wheatley as a teenager. I thought I’d try ‘The Devil Rides Out’ when my reading group were looking at literature of the supernatural. i really admired the gusto with which he includes every possible cliche about Black Magic. Then I tried The Forbidden Territory, whose picture of Russia in the thirties is rather interesting.

  3. Bill
    Posted October 21, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Wheatley always struggles with the segue (dreadful word) between thriller plot and history text-book (even more in the Roger Brook series). I find this quite fascinating, but those with more straightforward tastes may well be irritated. The film of “The Devil Rides Out” is one of the high points of 60s English gothic (along with “Witchfinder General”).

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