Alert: This is a Thinking Spaces opinion piece, not an official piece of academic research (yet) – please engage and enjoy but do not take it as fully rounded arguments, these are often musings, not findings. Enjoy!
This post is about ghosts and the military. It is part of the research I have carried out into superstition, magic, faith, and myths on the Front Line which makes up my upcoming article Private Potter and the Magic Trench. If you looking for more an academic approach, click here. For a more casual discussion – read on!
It is not impossible to imagine that the environment around the typical First World War soldier encouraged myths and stories of ghosts and mysterious goings on. Across the mud-laden battlegrounds of Northen France and Belgium, men lived close to death daily. A soldier from 1915 recalled how the mud could swallow the dead. In 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres, commonly known as Passchendaele, the fear of drowning and being swallowed the mud, caused by the onslaught of the rain, surpassed the terror of the enemy shells. Uniforms on both sides became ever more alike as foes became clad in indistinguishable mud stained attire. Worse, shells often resurfaced submerged corpses returning the dead to the lines they had left, bringing disease and psychological terror with them.
Now, this seems all very poetic, but in truth, it was horrific, miserable, gloomy, and terrifying. It is unsurprising that tales of ghosts and hauntings arose as corpses rose from the earth and the nights were lit by shell explosions.
One such account can be found in the memoirs of Canadian Soldier Private Will R. Bird who first published his report of the First World War in 1930 under the title, And We Go On, later to be edited and republished as Ghosts have Warm Hands in the 1960s.
Within his fascinating account, something that has recently been faithfully restored and reprinted by Historian Dennis Williams and is well worth a read, Bird describes events where his deceased brother appeared before him to guide him out of danger. His brother Steve had died early into the war, while Will had been too young to enlist. Will describes first witnessing his brother’s phantom marching around a haybale on their home farm dressed in full uniform and covered in mud. Upon meeting this silent image of his brother Will immediately signs up and sets out for war.
What follows is several instances where Steve protects Will by encouraging him to relocate before a shell hits his previous location, avoiding an enemy patrol, and catching his attention to dodge an attack. Obviously, at this junction, it is probably appropriate to consider the sheer level of psychological stress that Will was under, combat, grief, fear, adrenaline, hunger, alcohol, could all combine to create these illusions. Additionally, it is possible to suppose that these events are fictionalised, or misremembered as over a decade had passed before the first publication. Will was also a novelist with a flair for storytelling, therefore again the cynical, rational mind will question the events depicted. However, I argue that debating the validity of the stories is pointless. It does not matter if they are authentic, it is more important that men shared and told these stories.
One of the most famous tales from the First World War is the ‘Angel of Mons’. In 1914 as the British Expeditionary Force was being pushed by the German Army outside the town of Mons, at the peak of defeat, angels and ghost soldiers rose to the defence of the beaten British forces. Fearing all was lost suddenly men became aware of a shadowed army fighting beside them, regiments of bowmen from the battle of Agincourt over 500 years dead. Men swore they heard the ghosts cry honour to St. George accompanied by a disembodied voice thundering over the din of battle, “Array, Array!”. German prisoners apparently taken in action said they were bewildered that their British opponents had reverted to wearing armour and shooting arrows.
In actuality, the story of the ‘Angel of Mons’ is regarded as being a fabrication extrapolated from the work of author Arthur Machen who published a short story titled The Bowmen in the Evening News, inspired by the several accounts that he had read from the battle at Mons in September 1914. What is key about this tale is how quickly the press and the British soldiery were keen to appropriate it. The end of 1914 was rife with anti-german, pro-British propaganda where the enemy was reduced to a caricature of murderous baby skewering, village pilages, raping, sometimes vampiric, villans.
The onslaught in Belgium, the attack at Scarborough, and the stories of murdered women and children fanned racial hatred and eagerness for war. (It also, although I’m sure this was not a considering factor at the time, made for excellent newspaper sales and gossip.)
Stories such as these seem to stem more from faith than fancy. Comfort and reassurance than pure entertainment. The Angel of Mons provided the ideal of righteousness, heralded by the magnificent St George (who is actually not a saint) and therefore demonstrating the support of god. I have written and published on the relationship between religion and war in the past – Saving Bodies and Souls: Army Chaplains and the RAMC in the First World War, and what is apparent is how comfort and faith invariably play a significant role in moral and the psychological makeup of fighting soldiers.
More on this as it develops in Private Potter and the Magic Trench but the point to be made here is that fact or fiction these stories developed and remained after the war as a form of interpretation, and often justification, for the actions that many had to undertake. Also, let’s be honest, in the dark, in the mud, in the dead of night, and closer to death than most had ever come before. Who knows precisely what accompanied and stalked the living within those fields of dead men.