Phantoms in the Trenches – Historian Explores the Supernatural Folklore of WW1

Rumours of War -- A Canadian historian has compiled a compendium of paranormal folktales and stories of the supernatural, as told by soldiers in he trenches of the First World War.

Rumours of War — A Canadian historian has compiled a compendium of paranormal folktales and stories of the supernatural, as told by soldiers in he trenches of the First World War.

“Research delves into the supernatural folklore that was endemic to life in the trenches of the Western Front.”

IT WAS A FROSTY NIGHT IN APRIL, 1917 when Cpl. Will Bird and two of his comrades from the 42nd Battalion of the Canadian Black Watch lay dozing on the cold floor of a dugout near Vimy Ridge.

Sometime before dawn, the shivering 26-year-old Nova Scotia native was roused from his fitful slumber by two warm hands on his back. Bird opened his eyes expecting to see one of his squad mates gently shaking him awake. Instead he found himself staring into the face with his dead brother Steve. The young man had been killed in action with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France nearly two years earlier.

The mysterious apparition uttered not a single word as he gazed lifelessly into Bird’s eyes. It then rose and silently walked from the dugout, but not before beckoning the astonished young soldier to follow. Bird scurried after his lost sibling and trailed the spirit out into No Man’s Land. He continued the pursuit over to a bombed out ruin on the edge of the battlefield.

Before he could call out to his brother, the shadowy form disappeared into the darkness and was gone. Overcome with emotion, Bird collapsed amid the rubble. He finally woke several hours later and rushed back to his place in the line but quickly discovered that his bunker was nothing more than a smoking crater. Sometime after the eerie encounter, an enemy shell had slammed into the dugout killing all inside.

Bird would survive the war and go on to become a prolific writer and journalist. For the rest of his life, he was convinced that his brother’s spirit had intentionally saved his life that night. Later, Bird recorded the entire puzzling experience in a book entitled Ghosts Have Warm Hands.

Now the tale, along with dozens of others like it, is the subject of a soon to be published study in The Journal of Military History.

The research, which was compiled by noted military historian and author Tim Cook, delves into the supernatural folklore that was endemic to life in the trenches of the Western Front.

According to the author, stories involving life-saving premonitions or chilling omens as well as tales describing encounters with fallen comrades, ghosts, spirits and even angles had tremendous currency among the soldiers who were forced to endure the unrelenting horror of trench warfare.

“As a threshold borderland, the Western Front was a place for such spectral thinking and haunting, where the strange was made ordinary, where the safe was infused with danger, where death was natural and life fleeting,” Cook recently told Canada’s Post Media News. “The unnatural, supernatural, uncanny and ghostly offered succour to some soldiers, who embraced these ‘grave beliefs’ to make sense of their war experience.”

To read more about the study and the stories within it, check out this article in the Vancouver Sun.

5 comments for “Phantoms in the Trenches – Historian Explores the Supernatural Folklore of WW1

  1. HurstLlama
    12 July, 2013 at 7:03 am

    A very interesting post. A contrasting view on the supernatural in WW1 came to me from my grandfather, a pre-war regular who arrived in France from India in early 1915 and fought through to the armistice, surviving physically, but not psychologically, being buried alive in a trench (the attacking Germans dug him out) and three wounds.

    When I was a about four years old I refused to go to bed one night because I was terrified that a ghost would “get” me. My grandfather picked me up and said in his strong cockney voice, “There’s no such fing as ghosts, boy. If there were Flanders would f*cking full of ’em”.

    • 12 July, 2013 at 7:14 am

      Very sound reasoning! You just made my day.

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