The Great War had a unique relationship with the supernatural. Sightings were all but uncommon on the battlefields, and even on the home front, people turned to the supernatural in search of relief for the grief of their loss. As traditional religious beliefs failed, the supernatural became stronger.
The spiritual world was involved in the Great War in many different ways.
The Spiritualist movement had gained much popularity and following, especially in the middle decades of the 1800s. In that time, many mediums came to renown, whether they kept that fame or not. Born in the United States in 1848, Spiritualism soon found great popularity in all English speaking countries and beyond.
But at the opening of the 1900s, it had largely lost its momentum, not least because many mediums had been exposed as frauds.
WWI changed this once more. All through the war and the subsequent interwar years, Spiritualism had a great revival, as people tried to cope with the terrible loss of so many lives.Occultism (The Great War #AtoZChallenge 2021) The Great War had a unique relationship with the supernatural. Sightings were all but uncommon on the battlefields. On the home front, people turned to the supernatural in search of relief… Click To Tweet
The powerless Church
Church attendance had been waning even before 1914. Most people in the Western World would have defined themselves as Christian of one denomination or another. And yet, they confined their religious practices to traditional holidays, like Christmas or Easter.
The young population, in particular, didn’t find their religious practices meaningful for their lives. Tot them, the strictures of the scriptures seem to be outdated by modern life.
The emotional upheaval of WWI could have brought the population back into a community of believers. The contrary actually happened.
Clergymen were often called upon to help rouse young people’s combatant spirit and bring them to join the war effort. This was seen as positive during the first stages of the war, but as the conflict dragged on indefinitely and started to mow down thousands of lives, families found it increasingly difficult to find comfort from the same people who had encouraged their children to join the army.
Bereaved family started to look for consolation elsewhere. Many found in the Spiritualism movement or in ‘supernatural’ practices – sometimes connected with tradition – a way that allowed the living to contact with the dead. Everyone wanted to speak one last time to their loved ones who had disappeared on the battlefields, never to be seen again.
The occult on the battlefields
Closeness to the ‘otherworld’ came also from the battlefields. Soldiers’ diaries and letters often spoke of supernatural sightings, premonitions, apparitions of diverse kind.
Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook says these apparitions were sometimes ghosts of fallen comrades, other times images of loved ones. They often came to warn of danger and occurred almost exclusively on the frontline (never in training camps or rear lines), that is, on the ‘borderline between life and death,’ as he says. In the front trenches, death was a constant companion, a possibility that may happen any moment to anyone.
Dead were so numerous in the Western Front’s trenches that it was impossible to give them a proper burial. Many were then buried directly in the trenches, inside the earthen walls. Bones popping out from the mud of the trenches wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.
No man’s land was another place where death came very near to the soldiers, even when the butchering of the battle had stopped. Retrieving the wounded was sometimes impossible. Their comrades in the trenches sometimes heard their cries for help or pain for hours – and could do nothing for them. No man’s land was also covered with rotten corpses, most of the time. The stench was so strong that fresh troops might find themselves unable to eat.
The danger was unthinkable in any other circumstances, and soldiers longed for comfort in any form it came. Holy images, family photographs kept like keepsakes, objects of any kind adopted as talismans. Belief in these objects’ occult power was very common in the trenches, and no one considered it to go against anyone’s religious belief.
British Library – Faith, Belief and Superstition
Forgotten History – Angels of Mons
Find My Past – ‘Supernatural Occurrences’ Reported From the Trenches
National Post – Soldier diaries tell of ghosts intervening in First World War: Canadian historian
Spartacus – Ghosts and Visions on the Western Front
No More WRiggling Out of Writing… – Speaking to the dead: spiritualism, secularism & seeing the ghosts of the Great War
HIstory Extra – The Rise of Spiritualism after WWI
History – Talking to the Dead: How the 1918 Pandemic Spurred a Spiritualism Craze
World War I Centenary – ‘A solace to a tortured world…’ – The Growing Interest in Spiritualism during and after WW1
Encyclopedia.com – Wartime Occult Phenomena (World War I)
Whatever carries one through has validity in its time… I had not thought of occultism in this context before, but it makes sense that those on the frontline would be so affected, for all their sense would have been heightened in the extreme… and as you say, the desperation of those ‘at home’ left them open to the suggestiveness offered by clairvoyants. YAM xx
Isn’t a bit liek now, with Covid 19? Our loved ones are spirited away and we might not see them again.
It must leave such a sense of unclosure, of loss, and confusion.
I totally understand both the families and the soldiers at the front, adn i agree with you: any strategy is good if it helps you go on.
Oh, how I love this sentence! “Tot them, the strictures of the scriptures seem to be outdated by modern life” I think it applied to the whole century. So many changes were caused by people deciding to stop having blind faith both in religion and clergy.
Your description of the trenches made me so sad, I tend to think about the war having been fought by a faceless mass of soldiers but thinking about what they went through, those circumstances you’ve mentioned, makes it “more human” and much, much more dreary!
That’s very true. I always thought I wasn’t interested in studying any war, because I thougtht about wars as armies fighting one agaisnt the other for political reasons. But my stories forced me to look into WWI – and then I discovered that wars are actually about people more than anything else.
I’m happy I had the opportunity to learn this. I’m learning a lot about us by researching this war that happened more than 100 years ago.
Great post! I had a storyteller mentor who said ghost stories carry a fear of the past. No wonder so many ghost stories are attached to war…
The Multicolored Diary
Ghosts stories as fear of the past. What a fascinating subject!
Melanie Atherton Allen
This was a really neat post! And your discussion of how common it was for soldiers to report supernatural sightings on the battlefield really puts the whole Angels of Mons thing in context for me.
A brief outline of The Angels of Mons, for those who don’t know about it: in 1914, Arthur Machen published a work of fiction called “The Bowmen” about phantom bowmen rescuing the British troops at Mons, and people were quite soon reporting the story as a fact. Sometimes it was phantom bowmen; sometimes it was angels. But some otherworldly force, it was widely believed, saved the British at Mons.
Machen kept trying to tell people it wasn’t true, but no-one was really listening. It got out of control and became this huge thing. The story found fertile ground, and soon no-one was willing to hear that it was a work of fiction (though some loudly decried it as a hoax).
If, as you indicate, people were rather used to hearing soldiers report supernatural events on the battlefield, no wonder this story, which was framed as such a report, gained ground to the extent that it did.
So… there’s that. I hope I’ve got the details right!
Thanks for mentioning it, Melanie. I actually research the Angels of Mons for this post, but then I couldn’t fit them in, LOL!
Actually that supernatural sightings and that it served a spiritual need makes a lot of sense given the challenges of war. Great post.
I agree. These people – especially the men in the front lines – felt so very vulnerable. No suprise they resorted to any means to keep their sanity and to find the courage to go on.
Excellent post since the seances were so big that even Arthur Conan Doyle believed in them. The Battle at le Mons is a perfect account at how our imaginations get the better of us. There are occurrences that one can’t explain like that man who saw his brother and told him to move. The very sad one is the man who died a minute before the war ended.
ARthur Conan Doyle lost son in the Great War, which is when he started believing in the afterworld. I think this was very common. It was a huge loss for so many people. It must have been like now and the pandemic: maybe your family didn’t endure any loss, but you know lots of other who did.
Many people believe those who died suddenly, violently, and unexpectedly are more likely to stay on Earth as ghosts. They either don’t realise they’re dead, or need a lot of time to make peace with their passing. It seems natural for such souls to hover on the battlefield where they left the material world.
I heard once that the sites of former battlefields are believed to be aong the most haunted places on earth.
So much death and violence and loss. It’s easy to understand how both fear and desire set the stage for so many sightings.
Very true. Both during and after the war.