Archival research by Canadian historian Tim Cook has found First World War diaries are more rife with supernatural encounters than one would expect
May 28, 2014 • January 25, 2015 • 3 minute read •
More than 8,000 academics are gathered at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., this week for the annual Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences, presenting papers on how we live, love, learn and clash. Over the coming days, the National Post will highlight some of the most compelling research. Today, Tristin Hopper looks at belief in the supernatural as evidenced in First World World diaries.
Outside the Belgian city of Mons in August 1914, as the British Expeditionary Force was thrown into its first major engagement, legend has it the “Angels of Mons” — a battalion of phantom longbowmen — swept down to help the outnumbered Brits hold off the Germans.
Start planning the victory party
In the century since, the popular legend has largely been discounted as mere rumour and literary invention, but archival research by Canadian historian Tim Cook has found First World War diaries are more rife with supernatural encounters than one would expect.
“There are spectral visions; people see ghosts, they see images of their mothers, they see dead comrades,” said the Canadian War Museum historian and the author of the First World War histories Shock Troops and At the Sharp End.
He told conference delegates about the “dozens and dozens” of supernatural accounts he has unearthed in 20 years of studying diaries, letters and memoirs.
One of the most vivid accounts comes from Ghosts Have Warm Hands, a memoir by Canadian veteran Will Bird published in 1968.
Its defining moment comes when the writer, sleeping in a dugout, describes how he was awakened by the ghost of his brother Steve, who had been killed two years before.
“Steve grinned as he released my hands, then put his warm hand over my mouth as I started to shout my happiness,” he wrote.
Saying “get your gear,” Steve gestured for Mr. Bird to follow him before disappearing. Moments later, the shelter in which he had been sleeping was hit by a shell.
Other accounts found by Mr. Cook reported a “calming presence.” Seconds after a shell explosion buried him in corpses during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, Wallace Reid crawled out to find the battlefield had become silent.
“I waited, scarcely breathing, for something — waited, it seemed minutes that could only have been seconds. Then it came — invisible, intangible, but nevertheless, very real. Something came to that place of desolation, stopped a moment and passed on again,” he wrote to his mother.
One Canadian infantryman, Glenn Iriam, also described the otherworldly feeling of surveying a devastated battlefield.
“You could feel the pulse of the thousands of the dead with their pale hands protruding through the mud here and there and seeming to beckon you,” he wrote in his memoir In the Trenches. “You could feel the presence of something not of this earth. Akin to goblins.”
Premonitions were also rampant. Mr. Cook uncovered numerous accounts of soldiers describing comrades becoming eerily certain that they would not survive a coming battle.
Mr. Cook quoted one wounded soldier, Amos Mayse, who wrote home after his injury, “it seems strange that one should have the premonition of coming events as your dream yet it very often happens, the night I was hit, before leaving the front line trenches I had the feeling which I could not rid myself of that something was going to happen.”
Mr. Cook found no evidence of spectral visions during training or among soldiers in non-combat roles. Instead, the phenomenon was reserved exclusively for the front lines, in what he calls the “borderland between life and death.”
So many bodies piled up in the cramped trench systems of the Western Front that it was impossible to bury them without skulls or skeletal arms eventually popping out of earthen walls.
In nearby No man’s land, meanwhile, the smell of thousands of rotting corpses was so pungent that fresh troops found themselves unable to eat.
“Not only are these guys living on sites of mass murder, but they are literally cheek to jowl with the dead,” said Mr. Cook.
Front-line troops were also sleep deprived, sometimes going up to five days without sleep, a condition known to induce hallucination.
But to Mr. Cook, the supernatural accounts of the Great War—an oft-overlooked aspect of life in the trenches—should be given their due as much more than deranged aberrations.
Until their dying day, many veterans who would never report another spiritual encounter still held fast to the belief that they had seen something ethereal on the battlefields of France.
“I don’t think it’s just sleep deprivation, I don’t think it’s just tired guys, and I don’t think it’s soldiers trying to trick people in letters; I think that they actually believe in this,” he said.
Anyone who studied history know this accounts are quite common among men are asked to make or break life alternating decisions. We are not the ones out there facing death, sleeping with dead people, and smelling the stench so we can not say if what they saw was real or an illusion created by a frighten mind. Any religious theorist of any religion who isn’t afraid to talk will agree there is much more to life than the physical eyes can see.
The Union soldiers at Gettysburg supposedly saw the soldiers from the American Revolution who came to aid them when the South started winning. Some say they saw winged men and women in shinning armors running beside them when the black soldiers started praying. Begging God to help them win.
Those during WWII often said Doughboys were with them. They describe the scenes so vivid unto how sticky the flour were on the past soldier’s uniforms.
Veterans of Vietnam say they saw lots of WWI and Korean War braves when in the jungles of Vietnam. Some swear that’s who warned them of the danger ahead.
Perhaps the oldest account of such happening is, The Men of Gideon.
The LORD said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the other men go, each to his own place.”
Bible Gateway Judges 7 :: NIV – MIT
http://web.mit.edu › Bible › NIV › NIV_Bible › JUDG+7
Gideon and his 32,000 men were outnumbered by more than four to one. God told Gideon he had too many soldiers in his outnumbered army. The other soldiers sent to replace Gideon’s men were members of the heavenly army.
The reason God required Gideon to reduce the size of his army was so that Israel would not be able to say that they had won the battle against the Midaianites by their own power.
I know some are thinking of Leonidas and his 300 royal guards but this pre-date the Spartan king by nearly a thousand years.
Gideon-Judg 6:33-35, In c.1208BC, the Midianites and Amalekites camp in the Vale of Jezreel. Gideon assembles a mixed force of Israelites. The Vale of Jezreel.