In the boggy horror of the Western Front in World War I, death was everywhere. With the attendant emotional stress and the great highs and lows of battle, the world of the supernatural crept into soldiers’ muddied view. Pessimism and low morale gave rise to ghostly harbingers of doom, optimism and feats of courage produced stories of phantom officers saving men from No-Man’s Land, and superstitious beliefs and unearthly tales were traded along with jokes and cigarette cards.
Here are six of the strangest supernatural stories from the Great War.
1. ‘A Strange Cloud’ – The Angels of Mons
On 23 August 1914, less than a month after the beginning of the First World War, the British Expeditionary Force was in action across the Channel. The innumerable German invaders had swept through most of Belgium and were now approaching France.
The beleaguered British offered stout resistance in the muddy fields of Mons, in Belgium, but the fresh troops of the German Empire looked set to encircle and annihilate the exhausted Brits.
But the British managed to escape and continue their fighting ‘Great Retreat’ to the Marne.
The legend goes that at Mons their prayers were answered in the form of a ghostly host which descended from the sky and stopped the Kaiser’s men in their tracks as they closed in on the British, the spooked German horses rearing up and braying at an army of angels.
On 29 September 1914, fantasy author Arthur Machen (1863-1947) published a short story called The Bowmen in a London newspaper. In this story Machen takes the rumours of divine intervention at Mons and lets his imagination run wild, telling a tale of a host of phantom archers from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt saving the troubled Tommies.
The public read the fable as fact, and many returning soldiers seemed to confirm the angelic anecdote. Despite Machen later admitting that he had made the story up, the legend lived on.
Weirdly, in 1915 an officer told the paranormal journal Light that a ‘curious phenomenon’ had been witnessed by several officers and men at Mons. ‘It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British’, the officer said. This cloud, he said, ‘had the effect of protecting the British against’ the enemy.
2. That’s the spirit! – The ghost of Desmond Arthur
Established in February 1913, the Royal Flying Corps (later RAF) station at Montrose was the first military aerodrome in the United Kingdom.
Maverick Irish pilot Lieutenant Desmond Arthur (1884-1913) was based there. He was killed in a plane crash on 27 May 1913.
Over the course of World War I, it became apparent that whisky and rum were not the only spirits at the bar of the Scottish base. The ghost of Lt. Arthur was reputed to haunt the vicinity of the officers’ mess.
According to one eyewitness account, the apparition of the aviator ‘glided up to the door of the old aerodrome bar and then vanished’.
Many other personnel based at the base repeatedly saw the ghost of Arthur around the bar.
The official investigation into the crash said rather callously that he was ‘killed by his own foolishness’. It was after the publication of this report that the sightings began. It was Arthur’s old pal Charles Grey (1875-1953) who believed that the Irishman had returned to haunt his old station because of the disparaging findings of the inquiry.
The new inquiry blamed the crash on a poorly repaired plane.
After one last sighting in January 1917 the ‘Montrose ghost’ was apparently never seen again.
3. Superstitious British – The story of the leaning virgin
In January 1915, the church in the French town of Albert, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières, was shelled. The golden statue of the Virgin Mary that topped its belltower was hit. Instead of crashing to the ground it held on for dear life, teetering on the edge of the church tower in a near-horizontal position.
The British troops in the town, which was just a few miles from the front lines of the Somme, quickly established a superstition that if the statue fell the war would end, with the Entente powers presumably losing. The powers that be did not want to tempt fate, so they fixed the ‘Leaning Virgin’ in place with cables.
Hearing this, the Germans tried for three years to shell the belfry and knock over the statue, to no avail.
The Germans captured the town in 1918 and occupied the tower. Ironically, it was British artillery that eventually brought the Golden Virgin crashing down onto the street below. A few months later the war was over – with the Allies as victors.
The church was faithfully rebuilt after the war and a replica of the original statue now watches over the town.
4. Beyond the Graves – Robert Graves and the ghost of Béthune
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a poet and scholar, and a captain in the British Army during the First World War.
‘Corporal Stare’, a poem from his 1918 book Fairies and Fusiliers, is a ghost story in verse, taking place in Béthune, France, during the war.
But this was not pure invention. This poem is an account of what Graves claimed was a real otherworldly encounter he had.
One June evening Graves and his men were enjoying a night off after a bitter and bloody tour at Cuinchy, near Béthune.
A joyous affair - ‘Seven courses, the most gorgeous meal’, as the poem says - spirits were high, and apparently nearby, as well.
Halfway through the meal Graves looked up and saw a Private Challoner at the window. The private saluted and then walked away.
‘There was no mistaking him’, Graves recounted later. Graves leapt up and looked out of the window. He saw nothing except ‘a fag-end dropped on the silent road’, as the poem says.
Most chilling of all was that fact that Graves knew Challoner had been killed in battle that May – ‘Torn horribly by machine-gun fire!’, as the poem describes.
Graves had known Challoner from service at barracks in Britain. The last time Graves had seen Challoner alive was in Britain, when Challoner shook his hand and said, ‘I’ll meet you again in France, sir’.
5. Eerie Ypres – Saved by a spook
The area around Ypres in Belgium saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Great War, and in the gory battles that bear the city’s name, the casualties on both sides numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
One of the many who died at Ypres was an unnamed friend of Lieutenant William Speight’s.
One gloomy night in December 1915 Speight was sat in his dimly lit dug-out when who should walk in, but his deceased comrade in arms. The next night Speight invited another officer to sit in the dug-out with him in the event the phantom of his expired pal should return.
Speight recorded that, ‘The dead officer came once more and, after pointing to a spot on the floor of the dug-out, vanished.’
A spooked Speight had his men dig a hole at the spot the spirit had pointed to. They discovered a small tunnel a few feet down – packed with explosives. The Germans had rigged the tunnel to blow 13 hours hence. The bombs were defused, and the men of the trench saved by the spectre of the Ypres Salient.
6. Ghoulish Grantchester – The poet’s phantom
‘If I should die, think only this of me:
That there is some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.’
These are arguably the most famous words associated with the First World War. They are the opening lines of the 1915 poem The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915).
While en route to fight at Gallipoli Brooke was bitten by a mosquito, dying of sepsis on 23 April 1915.
Another of Brooke’s famous poems is ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’, a dreamy, comic poem of pre-war England and a love letter to the grand Jacobean house near Cambridge where Brooke had rented rooms in the early 1910s.
But did it continue to be a favourite haunt of his after his death?
In a 1936 collection of ‘true’ ghost stories, a Dr. Copeland tells a ghostly anecdote from 1919, when he was living in rooms at the Old Vicarage in Grantchester.
One still, cold winter’s night he was relaxing in the sitting room, smoking and reading by the fire ‘in the soft lamplight by which Rupert Brooke had also once smoked and read’.
His bulldog Caesar suddenly woke up and growled at the window. The physician put down his book. He then heard ‘slow, regular footsteps’ moving around the house and approaching the French windows beside him. He jumped up and ‘threw open’ the window but saw no trace of anybody at all.
Copeland was afterwards told by the owners of the house that the phantom footsteps had been heard since Rupert Brooke was killed in 1915.