Spiritualism in the Great War

Here begins a series of accounts from the war which fall under the heading of “spiritualism”, the general belief in the supernatural and the survival of the dead.  I am by no means advocating a particular interpretation of this phenomena, but intend only to collect wartime-era accounts of paranormal incidents and reproduce them here, for the most part without comment.

In his cultural study of the Great War, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (1995), Jay Winter writes the following about such phenomena:  … the experience of the trenches could not easily be explained in conventional theological (or indeed in any other rational) terms.  For this reason a host of spiritualist images, stories, and legends proliferated during the conflict among frontline troops.  Some tales were about the dead; others about magical forces affecting the living…

And now for the accounts themselves.  The following three stories are taken from the book Psychical Phenomena and the War (1918) by Hereward Carrington. Additional accounts from this book and other sources will appear from time to time on this blog, under the Spiritualism in the Great War banner.

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A Vision Coinciding With Death

A very touching story was told me by a Bournemouth  wife. Her husband, a sergeant in the  Devons, went to France on July 25, 1915. She had received letters regularly from him, all of which were very happy and cheerful, and so she began to be quite reassured in her mind about him, feeling certain that whatsoever danger he had to face he would come safely through.

On the evening of September 25, 1915, at about ten o’clock, she was sitting on her bed in her room talking to another girl, who was sharing it with her. The light was full on, and neither of them had as yet thought of getting into bed, so deep were they in their chat about the events of the day and the war.

And then suddenly there came a silence. The wife had broken off sharply in the middle of a sentence and sat there staring into space.

For, standing there before her in uniform, was her husband! For two or three minutes she remained there looking at him, and she was struck by the expression of sadness in his eye. Getting up quickly she advanced to the spot where he was standing, but by the time she had reached it the vision had disappeared.

Though only that morning the wife had had a letter saying her husband was safe and well, she felt sure that the vision foreboded evil. She was right. Soon afterwards she received a letter from the War Office, saying that he had been killed in the Battle of Loos on September 25, 1915, the very date she had seemed to see him stand beside her bed.

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For the next case I am indebted to the kindness of Mrs. Marie Russak-Hotchner. She has called the case that of

Private Rex

One of the most remarkable stories was told me recently by a lieutenant who had been invalided home in Canada, a man of fine family and unquestionable veracity. The names I shall use in the story are fictitious, but the real ones will be given privately if corroboration of the story is desired.

Lieut. Smith was stationed in No-man’s-land, and one evening was taking some of his men from one place to another. They were marching along, very fatigued, but undisturbed except from the usual dangers of distant shell fire.

Suddenly Lieut. Smith saw one of his men, Private Rex, begin to lag a little behind the rest, and judged that he might be ill. Watching him, he saw his pace continue to slacken until he was marching in line with himself. For a private to fall out and march beside his officer was, of course, unusual, and so the latter challenged the procedure. He asked the private if he were ill, but he replied in the negative ; he asked if he were cold, but the private again said “No.”

But Lieut. Smith clearly saw that something was wrong with the man, and he therefore stepped closer to him and asked him if he were hungry. The private replied, “A little.” The officer had a package of malted milk tablets in his pocket, and gave him some. As he took them the officer noted that his hand was icy cold and that he was very pale.

Just at that moment Lieut. Smith’s attention was diverted by the necessity of giving some commands to his men and of walking to another position. When he returned to his former place, he observed that Private Rex was no longer there, but as there had not been time for him to return to his own squad, the officer thought he might have fallen because ill, or possibly because wishing to desert. So he halted the regiment, and went back some distance to look for the missing man. Thinking there was some trouble, a junior officer came running to Lieut. Smith to give him assistance. The latter told him how Private Rex had fallen out of his place, seeming to be ill, accepted the food tablets, and then suddenly disappeared, and the officer suggested that a search should be made for him.

The junior officer, in great astonishment, replied that there must be some mistake, as Private Rex had been killed in battle and he had attended the burial three days previously. He also reminded Lieut. Smith that he also had been present. The lieutenant then recalled the fact which, because of the stress of subsequent fighting and of the death of so many others, he had momentarily forgotten.

But Lieut. Smith told the second officer, as he repeated emphatically to me, that he had certainly seen, talked to, and touched Private Rex that evening; that it was Private Rex, and no other, who walked beside him ; that he knew him well, and that it was truly his icy hand into which he placed the tablet of food, and his pale face into which he had looked as he asked him the questions about his health.

Lieut. Smith said that it was quite a common occurrence for men in the war zone to see the ghosts of their comrades who had been killed. And he added, “It takes away all fear of death, for I know that Private Rex lives, though dead.”

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The following group of cases are from the Journal of the English Society for Psychical Research, and, it will be seen, are very well authenticated. They are (usually) preceded by editorial remarks by the editor, Mrs. Salter. The first case was published in the Journal for May- June, 1917. This is the incident:

A Dream Vision

March 15, 1917.

My son, Lieut. A___ L___ J___ , of the 1st King’s Shropshire L. L, was killed at daybreak on Saturday, April 22nd, 1916.

At daybreak on the next morning, Easter Sunday, about 24 hours after his death took place, when I was lying half awake and half asleep, I had the vision or dream, an account of which follows.

I saw two soldiers in khaki, standing beside a pile of clothing and accoutrements which, in some way, I knew to be Alec’s, and my first feeling was one of anger and annoyance that they should be meddling with his things, for they were apparently looking through them and arranging them. Then one of them took up a khaki shirt which was wrapped around something so as to form a  kind of roll. He took hold of one end of it and let the rest drop so as it unrolled itself and a pair of heavy, extremely muddy boots fell out and banged heavily on the floor, and something else fell which made a metallic jingle. I thought “That is his revolver,” but immediately afterwards thought “No, it is too light to be his revolver, which would have made more of a clang.”

As these things fell out on to the floor the two men laughed, but a sad wistful kind of laugh with no semblance of mirth in it. And then the words, “Alec is dead and they are going through his kit,” were most clearly borne in on my mind. They were not spoken and I heard no voice, but they were just as clear as if I had done so. And then I became fully awake, these words repeating themselves in my mind and with the fullest conviction of their truth which I never lost. I suppose I still tried to persuade myself that it might not be true, but it was useless and when the official telegram arrived it only confirmed what I already knew.

G___ J___

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In a letter of the same date, March 15, 1917, Dr. J___ adds the following comments on his statement:

. . . Two points have to be borne in mind in estimating the importance of the dream as an intimation of my son’s death and not as a mere coincidence.

(1) He went out to the front in October, 1914, and was there continuously (with three short leaves) until his death on April 22, 1916 Easter Saturday. During these eighteen months I never had any dream or any impression of his being in serious danger, although I often knew that he was in the midst of hard fighting and he was wounded in three places in August, 1915, at Hooge.

(2) At the time when I had the dream I was under the impression that his battalion was resting and that they would not be in the fighting line until the middle of the week. Hence, my mind was quite easy about him and I was not feeling at all anxious. In the ordinary course of events they were not due in the trenches until the “Wednesday, but they were unexpectedly called upon on the evening of Good Friday to move up at once to recapture a trench which had been taken by the Germans some days before. It was after having accomplished this, and whilst the position was being consolidated, that he was killed.

I had never in my life had any dream so vivid as this one was, and when I saw in the Sunday papers that his battalion had accomplished this “fine feat,” as they called it, I had no doubt whatever that my boy was dead. “When the official telegram came on Wednesday I felt that it was hardly necessary to open it. …

I shall always think (as a nephew does to whom I told my dream on Sunday afternoon) that this vision was Alec’s way of letting me know what had happened.

A minor point that may be worth noticing is that when I heard the metallic clink when the shirt unrolled and let its contents fall on the floor, I at first thought “That is his revolver,” but then immediately thought the noise was too “jingly” to be made by the fall of a heavy Colt such as he had. When his things came home, however, I found that instead of a heavy Colt he had a light automatic pistol which, in falling, would have made exactly such a sound as I heard.

I do not suppose that his kit was actually being gone through at the time of my dream, nor do I think that it makes much difference whether it was so or not.  But the regimental surgeon (since killed himself) who came to see me early in June told me that he believed that they really were going through Alec’s things about the time of my dream.

G___ J___ .

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In a subsequent letter he writes :

March 25, 1917.

. . . The only person whom I told the dream to, before the arrival of the War Office telegram, was my nephew who was here on Sunday, the 23rd April (1916).

I enclose the letter which he sent me when he had definite news of Alec’s death. I also enclose a copy of part of a letter which the regimental surgeon (since killed) wrote to his father. I do this in order to show the conditions under which the attack was made, especially as to mud.

One does not want to read too much into such an experience, but I have often thought that what I saw had a certain amount of symbolism in it. The fact that the boots which fell out of the rolled-up shirt were so exceedingly muddy, and that the other thing which dropped out was, as I at first thought, his revolver, point to the terribly muddy condition of the attack, and to the fact that it was an attack, for otherwise the revolver would not have been carried. But this is a minor point.

G___ J___ .

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The letter of Dr. J ‘s nephew, Mr. N. C. R___, to which reference is made above, began as follows:

May 4, 1916.

I hear Alec has died at Ypres. Your dream has come true. Alec appears to have been trying to let
you know. . . .

N. C. R___,

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The reference in* the above letter to Dr. J___ ‘s dream implies that Mr. R had heard of it before
he heard of Lieut. J___ ‘s death, but we asked also for an independent statement from Mr. R___ that Dr. J___ had related his dream to him on the day on which it occurred, April 23, 1916, before Dr. J___ himself knew of its verification. In reply Mr. R___ wrote as follows :

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April 3, 1917.

I have been asked by my uncle, Dr. G___ J___ , to send you a statement to the effect that he told me of the dream or vision which he had of his son’s death before actual confirmation.

This I can do.

I was spending the afternoon of Easter Sunday last year (April 23, 1916) at his house, and while at tea he came in from paying a professional visit somewhere.

After tea lie spoke to me of his dream. I regret to say I cannot remember all he said, but I do recollect his saying he saw two officers looking over and packing his son’s kit. He was angry at their meddling, but it suddenly dawned upon him that his son was dead. Whether A___ J___appeared in the dream I forget.

Some days afterwards I heard that A___  J___  was dead, confirmation having reached him, Dr. J___ , on a date after the 23rd April.

N. C. B___ .

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As regards the circumstances under which Lieut. J___ lost his life we print below extracts from the letter to which Dr. J___ refers on March 25, written by the regimental surgeon:

April 27, 1916.

. . . You will have seen by the papers about the gallant attack the Btn. made the other night to retake some trenches lost by another Btn. It was as the Army Commander said, “A magnificent feat of arms,” and you can guess what the higher command thought of it when they honoured the regiment by mentioning them by name an honour which has only been paid twice all the time out here. Unless one is on the spot, though, one could not realize the conditions under which the attack was made or the apparently hopeless job it seemed. I don’t think any other Btn. could have done it. The mud, to take one point only, was so deep that the men had to throw themselves down and crawl putting their rifles and bombs ahead a few feet and then struggling up to them. Of course the rifles were so covered with mud that they could not shoot, so the men just struggled on until they could use the bayonet.  We had men utterly engulfed in the mud and suffocated. It was a glorious achievement, and the cost was heavy. . . .  J___ who used to write “At the Front” in Punch was shot through the heart gallantly superintending his company consolidating the captured position. As dawn broke he was so busy with so much to see to, that he would not take cover, but kept walking from end to end of the trench over the top to save time. He was picked off by a sniper.

T.I.

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In a letter to Dr. J___ from one of Lieut. J___ ‘s fellow-officers, giving an account of his death, the muddy condition of the ground is again emphasized. He writes :

May 7, 1916.

… As you know the conditions were simply awful.  Pitch dark, and wading up to our waists in mud. . . .  It appears from the evidence given above that at the time when Dr. J___ had the dream which he regarded as an intimation of his son’s death, Lieut. J___ had been dead about twenty-four hours. It is a strong point in favour of the assumption that some other factor than chance-coincidence was involved, that during the year and a half that his son had been at the front Dr. J___ had had no other similar impression about him, and that on April 23, 1916, he had reason to believe that Lieut. J___ was temporarily out of danger.

If it is the fact that Lieut. J___ ‘s kit was being examined about the time of Dr. J___ ‘s dream, it may be that he received an impression of an actual scene which took place. But it seems more probable, as he suggests, that the dream was a piece of symbolic imagery representing the fact, telepathically conveyed to him, that his son had been killed in the attack on the previous day.

We are indebted to Dr. J___ for the trouble he has taken in providing us with evidence for which we asked.

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Further paranormal stories from the Great War will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.

BJ Omanson