In Ivor Gurney’s nightmarish vision, the dead among the living bear dire warnings and mockery.
Ballad of the Three Spectres
As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee,
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.
The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
That walks the dark unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
And laughing for a nice Blighty.’
The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
Then look his last on Picardie.’
Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
Then live one hour of agony.’
Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one – two – three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.
by Ivor Gurney
Engulfed as they were by death, the dead and knowledge that at any moment they too could die, it is no wonder that soldiers on the western front were superstitions.
It was an unreal world. David Jones wrote:
The day by day in the wasteland, the sudden violences and long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment.
Paul Fussell devoted a chapter to “Myth, Ritual and Romance” in The Great War and Modern Memory (1976). He writes of the superstitious and myth-ridden mental world of many of the troops.
The war may have been fought with every new modern contrivance of death and mass destruction (machine guns, flame throwers, tanks, gas, high explosives and the all the rest of the mechanized warfare) but those fighting it were as fragile and vulnerable and exposed as sacrificial lambs to the slaughter.
Literally, they lived below the surface of the earth for the most part with a narrow view of the sky and connected by miles of parallel lines dug into the ground. Communications were primitive and often broken. Rumor and legend thrived – fed not only by their conditions but also by distrust in the official information and the propaganda and deceptions of the government and popular press.
It was fertile psychological ground for rumors and superstition. When the rational world was so crazed, the irrational seemed plausible. After the war the experience left many deeply cynical about newspaper and official pronouncements and increasingly skeptical and secular.
In all the armies, soldiers held to what Paul Fussell termed “a plethora of very un-modern superstitions, talismans, wonders, miracles, relics, legends, and rumors.”It was a world of “conversions, metamorphoses, and rebirths in a world of reinvigorated myth‟ (Fussell 1975) French officer Marc Bloch – who after the war became a distinguished historian – wrote: “The prevailing opinion in the trenches was that anything might be true, except what was printed.”
Apparitions, ghosts and visitations haunted the men in the trenches. The apparition of the “Angel of Mons” appeared above the battlefield to protect British soldiers from advancing German columns in August 1914. Dead bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt returned to help them.
A shell hit the Madonna at the top of Albert Cathedral leaving it hanging at an impossible angle that seemed to defy gravity.
The superstition was that the war would end when the statue fell. Soldiers even took to firing at it to hasten the day. It finally collapsed during a British bombardment in 1918.
Images of phantom soldiers rising from the dead and the haunting of the living continued after the war as people began to come to terms with what had happened and its lasting impact.
Just as the wasted and despoiled countryside, farmlands, villages and towns of the western front struggled back to life, salvage parties searched for the human remains, buried them in military cemeteries. and built the memorials to the dead and the missing.
Artists of the post war era – Stanley Spencer, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and others – depicted images of wastelands peopled with ghostly soldiers rising from shallow graves. Spiritualism flourished.
The Australian artist Will Longstaff was present at the unveiling of the Menin Gate, the memorial to the missing in Ypres. Affected by the ceremony he said he had a vision of helmeted spirits rising from the cornfields around him. He returned to London and painted what he had seen while claiming he was still under psychic influence.
His painting shows a host of ghost soldiers rising from the fields strewn with poppies and moving toward the monument. His painting was widely acclaimed, toured to Manchester and Glasgow and was viewed by Royal Command. It was championed by spiritualists like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and it had strong popular appeal as a comfort for the grieving. It is now part of the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The French film J’Accuse (Abel Gance 1919) has a similar scene of soldiers rising en masse from the dead. When they materialize out of the ground, however, it is with bitterness and accusation. Shellshocked, Jean returns home to tell the villagers of his battlefield vision: Soldiers rising from their graves and marching home. He challenges neighbors to say whether they have been worthy of so great a sacrifice as they stand in horror while the spectres of their loved ones appear before them.
Other poets wrote of encounters with the dead including Thomas Hardy (“The Man he Killed”), Charles Sorley (‘When you see Millions of the Mouthless Dead”) and Wilfred Owen (“Strange Meeting”) and the memoirs of the war are full of anecdotes about superstitions, strange coincidences and beliefs.