Wars can be wellsprings of unsolved mysteries and unexplained phenomena on top of all the death, with bizarre, puzzling tales blooming up out of the battle torn earth and scattered amongst the landscape of fighting and killing. Most often overshadowed by the historical records and news of politics, battles and intrigue permeating war, these cases have nevertheless managed to flit about the periphery of these tragedies. One of the most intense, horrific wars of human history certainly has its own dark patches of weirdness haunting it, and World War I is pervaded by all manner of strange phenomena and bizarre tales.
World War I broke out across our planet between the years of 1914 and 1918, and spread like a disease from a diplomatic crisis in Europe to infect all the world’s great economic powers of the time with the determination to kill, who were inexorably drawn in to what would be one of the most voracious, bloodiest, and costliest wars in all of history, and which mostly eventually devolved into more or less a battle of attrition and marked the rise of horrific, brutal trench warfare. The world was engulfed in warfare at the time, waged between the Allies, eventually consisting of the Russian Empire, the French Third Republic, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as the United states, Japan, and Italy, and their enemies the Central Powers, including The German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. The carnage that ensued would ultimately change the map of our world, dissolve the German Empire, Russian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and leave an estimated 16 million people dead and large swaths of the landscape in ruin, and it is here from this storm of bloodshed that some decidedly weird accounts originate.
By far one of the more widely circulated and well-known purported strange occurrences of World War I supposedly happened during the bloody Battle of Mons, in Belgium, in 1914, in which the British Expeditionary Force met the advancing German 1st Army in ferocious battle on the French border, at first managing to drive the enemy back somewhat but ultimately suffering heavy casualties at he hands of the well-trained, well-equipped and more numerous enemy forces. In August of 1914, suffering a great toll under the withering assault by the persistent, overwhelming Germans and hobbled by the withdrawal of their French Fifth Army allies, the British decided to finally retreat. It was then that some rather mysterious and wondrous reports of some decidedly odd things are said to have happened.
As the British fell back under fierce, unrelenting enemy fire, English soldiers claim that various mysterious apparitions began to appear to them over the battlefield. The surreal, ghostly entities were variously described as angels, bowmen, or even St. George himself or St. Michael holding a great glowing sword, and in one case even Joan of Arc, and they were all said to descend down between the retreating British and their enemies to allow them a safe escape. Descriptions that came in varied, with some soldiers swearing they had seen literal angels prowling through the gloom of smoke and battle, others saying that they had been mighty and colossal angelic figures that loomed high over all they surveyed like mountains, while still others claimed to have seen just roving bright lights, but all who saw these mysterious apparitions credited them with thir survival.
One retreating British unit claimed that they had been joined by a spectral army of bowmen who were described as looking as if they had come from the time of Agincourt 500 years before, and which lashed forth with a rain of shadowy arrows upon the Germans. It was even claimed that German prisoners would later corroborate these claims, saying that they had been confronted by ancient looking warriors wielding bows and dressed in armor. Hundreds of dead Germans were allegedly found later strewn about the battlefield with no visible physical wounds, leading to suspicions that some sort of poison gas had been used. Another report told of giant winged entities that bloomed out of the smoke to frighten the Germans away as the British skittered off to safety. One report was relayed to a nurse by an injured corporal, who claimed:
Quite plainly in mid-air a strange light which seemed to be quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon nor were there any clouds. The light became brighter and I could see quite distinctly three shapes, one in the center having what looked like outspread wings. The other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from the center one. They were above the German line facing us. We stood watching them for about three-quarters of an hour. All the men with me saw them. I have a record of fifteen years’ good service, and I should be very sorry to make fool of myself by telling a story merely to please anyone.
In other reports lost soldiers told of glowing angels both male and female and dressed in white appearing to them to guide the way, and in still others there was talk of strange amorphous clouds of flickering light that spread out to block the retreat of the enemy or spook the horses of their cavalry to send them running away in fear. In most cases light bathed beings would fan out and chase off the German enemies in some fashion. Many captured Germans would later allegedly concur that something strange had been going on, reporting seeing the entities themselves roaming about, and claiming that they were unable to be shot and killed with their conventional weapons. Reports of these specters were so common at the time that they became a worldwide media sensation, and were seen by many as a sign from God, a heavenly force sent in to save them from the darkness of defeat. Indeed, the British lost far fewer men than they had any right to during the battle, which was seen as evidence that it was all true. Before long, the reports of the “Angels of Mons,” were being heavily used by Allied media to illustrate that theirs was a righteous cause condoned by God Himself in the face of the evil Germans and their sinister cabal.
Of course, there has been much debate as to the veracity of these reports, and it does seem a little convenient that they should come at a time when Allied morale in the face of their ruthless enemy was low. It has also been pointed out that this could have all been put down to mass hallucinations and hysteria fueled by all of the death, tiredness and fear that was flying about during the fighting, bolstered by religious superstition and strong, desperate hope for some sort of savior. Further complicating matters is the fact that although such reports were widely circulated at the time, most of them could not be tracked to any concrete source, and later attempts to actually find any live firsthand witness were mostly met with failure, with the military saying that their identities were being protected and leading many to suspect that the whole story of the Angels of Mons could have been designed and carried out as morale boosting propaganda bolstered by unfounded rumors amongst the soldiers, after which it spun off into myth and legend. Whatever the case may be, it is all quite the bizarre story indeed, and still manages to capture the imagination to this day.
Another story of ghostly forces fighting can be found within the pages of James Wentworth Day’s 1954 book Here are Ghosts and Witches. In the account, Day describes a very peculiar experience in November of 1918 at Bailleul, Flanders. He claims that he and another witness, a Corporal Jock Barr, witnessed spectral French and German soldiers atop a hilltop who seemed to be reenacting a World War I cavalry battle from 1914. Throughout the whole violent, eerie encounter there was no noise and the ghosts did not seem to actually harm each other. When locals were asked about the incident they simply said that around that time of year the spectral forces would always come out, do battle, and then vanish. Although this is all presented amongst supposedly real ghostly occurrences, it is uncertain just how much veracity the account holds, as Day was well known for his love of spooky folklore and his propensity for exaggeration.
Reports of ghosts or apparitions of some sort appearing on the battlefields of World War I in the darkest hours are plentiful. In one account from the battlefield of Mons, two British soldiers who lie dying in the bloody muck beneath them claimed that as they were wounded and helpless they spied the ghostly form of an old woman dressed in a bonnet and a bright blue skirt stalking about and always seeming to wander right into their line of fire. At first they thought they were going mad until a third soldier claimed to see the woman too, and chillingly stated that it was his dead mother and that he believed she had come for him. Just as he made this unsettling revelation he is reported to have been blown to bits by shrapnel.
While in this case it seems the ghost was their to collect her son’s soul, there are other accounts of benevolent dead family members, comrades, or friends appearing in battle to offer help as well. One rather sensational account printed in the Liverpool Echo was a sighting made by an entire company of men, who swore that their dead commanding officer had appeared to them on the battlefield. The officer in question had sustained grievous injuries from a grenade blast in a prior battle, including two missing arms blown from his body, from which he would die on the way to the hospital, yet nevertheless suddenly appeared before the company commander, who walked forward to get a better look before the apparition vanished. Startled and disbelieving his own eyes, the officer frantically rushed along a trench to the company headquarters, where he asked if anyone else had seen the dead man too. One of the men responded:
See whom? Do you mean the Colonel? Yes, we saw him, standing still, looking down the trenches just here; we looked at him for fully a minute, and suddenly HE WAS NOT THERE. Can’t make it out at all. All of the men saw him too, and I don’t know if you noticed it or not but he had BOTH his arms.
Another such ghostly account comes from a soldier’s letter home, in which he described having his life saved by the ghost of his mother. The soldier claimed that in the heat of battle his mother had appeared and urged him towards her. As the dumbstruck soldier had shambled in her direction, not knowing what to make of what he was seeing, an artillery shell hit near where he had been standing before his sighting. The soldier wrote, “Had it not been for you, I certainly would have been reported missing. You’ll turn up again, won’t you, mother, next time a shell is coming?”
In still another account a soldier claimed that he had been apparently saved by the spectral presence of his deceased brother. On this occasion, in April 1917, a soldier in the 42nd Battalion of the Canadian Black Watch, a Corporal Will Bird, was fast asleep on the cold, hard dirt floor of a dugout at Vimy Ridge, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. The area was the location of the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge, fought between Canadian and German forces. Bird woke to a pair of hands gently shaking him, which he thought at first to be those of a squad mate, but upon opening his eyes he was instead greeted by the visage of his brother, Steve, who had died while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France in a battle a couple of years earlier.
The dead brother allegedly urgently beckoned Will to follow him, which he did. He followed the ghostly apparition over the scorched, bombed out moonscape of the no man’s land until they reached the husk of a destroyed building on the fringes of the battlefield wasteland. At this point, the dead brother Steve took a long, thoughtful look at Will and then vanished into thin air. Scared, puzzled, and exhausted, Will did not have the inclination to make his way all the way back to his own dugout, and instead slept there in the ruins. When he awoke a few hours later he reportedly started his journey back to his group, but when he arrived he found a bombed out shell where the dugout had been and body parts strewn all about by the men who had been “dismembered beyond all recognition.” No one had survived, except Will that is, because he hadn’t been there, led off into the dark gloom away from danger by his dead brother. Bird would later on in life write a book about the experience, called Ghosts Have Warm Hands.
These last two accounts were written of by the author, historian and military researcher Tim Cook, who has compiled many such spooky, supernatural cases during the war into a study in The Journal of Military History. According to Cook, such cases were not so unusual among these scared men in a bloody, frightening land far from home. He thought such stories were born of fear and uncertainty, mixed with the death all around them, and that these tales could not only boost morale and offer a ray of hope in the otherwise deep dark oblivion of the ravenous war they faced, but also give them something they could try and make sense of among all of the senseless carnage. Cook says of such paranormal accounts during World War I:
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. The unnatural, supernatural, uncanny and ghostly offered succour to some soldiers, who embraced these ‘grave beliefs’ to make sense of their war experience. It was a common response for some soldiers who lived in a space of destruction and death. As I read the memoirs, letters, and diaries of soldiers I kept encountering the uncanny, the supernatural, and even the spectral.
Or maybe they were just ghosts? Who can say? The poet Robert Graves gave several of his own personal accounts of ghosts, one of which occurred in June of 1915 as he had dinner with his fellow troops at Béthune, in Northern France. As they ate, Graves says that he saw an old comrade of his, a Private Challoner of the Royal Welch, standing there at the window smoking a cigarette, which was odd since Challoner was very dead at the time, having been killed at Festubert the previous month. Shocked, Graves ran outside but saw no one there, merely a cigarette butt still smoldering on the ground. He would later say of the strange encounter, “I could not mistake him or the cap badge he wore; yet no Royal Welch battalion was billeted within miles of Bethune at the time.”
Graves would have another brush with the paranormal when he was on leave in Wales, where he was staying with a woman who had lost her son in battle. Graves stayed in the son’s room, which was reportedly left exactly the way it had been when the doomed soldier had gone off to fight, with fresh clothes and even cigarettes left out every day by the grieving mother as if he would return at any time. As creepy as this was, Graves agreed to sleep in the room, but he would later regret it when he was constantly awakened at night by inexplicable bangs, thuds, knocks, and raps emanating from the floor and walls around him. The following day Graves decided that he had had enough, and later said of the bizarre evening, “In the morning I told my friend “I’m leaving this place. It’s worse than France.””
If any of these accounts are real, then it shows that perhaps some of the dead linger on about the places of their violent deaths, and other reports seem to suggest that other mysterious and even evil forces can linger there as well, perhaps suckling and feeding off of the potent fear and madness of war. One strange account comes from the paranormal writer Dennis Wheatley, who also happened to have served on the Western Front during World War I. In his 1973 book The Devil and All His Works, Wheatley describes a strange and frightening experience he had during the war which he claims happened as he and his unit took up shelter in the abandoned ruins of a bombed out mansion after the fierce fighting at the Battle of Cambrai. Apparently the decrepit, burned out building was a ghoulish affair to begin with, with bloodied German uniforms scattered about, apparently discarded there by the troops who had occupied it. One night Wheatley claims that he was working after dark building a makeshift mess when he was gripped by a profound, inexplicable dread that forced him to retreat from the premises, and he would later proclaim that it had been a demon which he referred to as “an elemental,” which he believed had been attracted to the strife, death and violence of the location.
A similar story comes from the book An Onlooker in France 1917-1919, and was told by the war artist William Orpen, who in November of 1917 was at the battlefield of Somme to work on a painting of nearby Thiepval Wood. Although the fierce battle had ended more than a year before, the area was still apparently littered with human remains and the stench of decay, its soil permeated with the blood of the fallen and signs of the carnage everywhere. As he painted, Orpen claimed that he was constantly beset with the heavy, stifling feeling of being watched, and a strange unshakable sense that there was a force or presence there with him. He also said that although it was midday and sunny, the day nevertheless had a dark pall over it, some quality of murkiness as if viewed through darkened glass. After being steadily unsettled by all of this for several hours, he claimed that he had then been rushed by an unseen hostile force, which had sent the startled artist flying backwards to hit his head on the ground. When he came to his senses the ghostly presence was gone. He too believed that he had been attacked by some demon or supernatural entity that was drawn to and feasting upon the lingering death there.
Besides angels and ghosts, some really strange phenomena during World War I are really hard to truly classify. One account is the disappearance of an entire regiment at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. in August of this year, the British 5th Norfolk Regiment, also known as the Sandringhams, marched into the hellish Dardanelles campaign of the war. Made up of mostly soldiers employed by the estate of King Edward VII and led by the land agent Frank Beck, the regiment proceeded to march into battle and vanish without a trace. In later decades, some veterans would claim that between six and eight “loaf shaped clouds” had descended over the soldiers during the battle, which hovered over the troops before producing a fog which the battalion marched right into and never emerged from, with the strange objects then rising up into the sky to apparently take the whole contingent of over a hundred men with them. Turkish authorities would later claim that they had had nothing to do with the disappearance or the fate of the men. It is a case which I have covered here at Mysterious Universe before, and although it may be more wartime legend it is fascinating nevertheless.
While it is unclear as to just what happened to “The Vanished Battalion,” or whether it was UFOs or just a spooky bit of war folklore, it is not the only far out story of unidentified flying objects from the war, and just about as dramatic is that time the Red Baron shot down a flying saucer. Wait, what? Let me explain. The so- called Red Baron was the German ace pilot Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen, who was both renowned and feared for his unrivaled flying skills, often considered to be “the ace of aces” and racking up at least 80 air combat victories. In the book UFOs of the First World War, by Nigel Watson, there is a curious account that seems to show that human pilots were not the only ones the Red Baron hunted down and engaged. The story goes that as he was flying over the Belgian trenches in the spring of 1917 with fellow pilot Peter Waitzrick, the Baron spotted an unidentified object that was described as “an upside down silver saucer with orange lights” hovering in clear blue skies. After a moment of awe, fear and wonder, the Red Baron did the human thing and opened fire upon it, and Waitzrick, who reportedly saw the whole thing, described what happened next thus:
We were terrified because we’d never seen anything like it before. The Baron immediately opened fire and the thing went down like a rock, shearing off tree limbs as it crashed into the woods.
It gets even weirder still. As they passed over the wreckage two humanoid figures were supposedly seen to climb out of the otherworldly wrecked craft and scurry off into the trees, after which they were not seen again. Waitzrick would keep the whole bizarre story to himself until 80 years later, in 1999. There are certainly some suspicious aspects of the whole tale, not the least of which is that Waitzrick chose to come out with his amazing experience after 8 decades of silence to The Weekly World News, which many readers will recognize as perhaps not the most trustworthy of news publications. Also, the planes they were piloting were claimed to be Fokker triplanes, which is odd since these planes would not be used in the war until some months after the alleged event, in August of 1917. Perhaps Waitzrick just didn’t know anyone who would take his story seriously and didn’t know any better so it just happened to be that the Weekly World News picked it up, and perhaps with the planes his memory after nearly a century was not what it once was, but one thing he seems to be quite sure of is that the infamous Red Baron shot down a UFO, saying:
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Baron shot down some kind of spacecraft from another planet and those little guys who ran off into the woods were space aliens of some kind.
Other UFOs encountered during World War I are the so-called “Flaming Onions” which were typically described as glowing green balls that would zip around, do flips, and very often chase aircraft, easily outpacing and outmaneuvering them but not actually attacking in any way. This strange phenomenon was purportedly seen throughout the war by both sides of the engagement, and it always terrified those who experienced it. One theory as to what the Flaming Onions were is that they might have been flares fired by the Germans, but flares typically do not actively chase aircraft and seasoned pilots can usually recognize flares as such. They remain a curious unexplained mystery of the war.
Besides spaceships and weird lights, another baffling aerial phenomenon reported during the war began with a very strange sighting made by a Lieutenant Frederick Ardsley as he was on a morning patrol in northern France on January 9, 1918. As he flew along, another biplane of the same make and model as his own positioned itself next to him, and when he looked to see who was in the cockpit he was surprised to see a beautiful woman with long flowing blonde hair blow him a kiss and do a Can Can dance in her cockpit before swiftly flying away. Ardsley attempted to chase the mysterious pilot, but she was reportedly a far superior pilot and was able to easily lose him. Unbelievably, the mystery woman would show up at other times during the war and engage German pilots, usually easily beating them and shooting them down, and sighted by both pilots and civilians alike. Some reports even say that her plane was impervious to bullets or that she would vanish into thin air. She came to be known as “Lady Sopwith” or “The Valkyrie,” and became legendary. No one knows who she was or whether this is all just another wartime myth.
Another inexplicable account is the strange phenomenon of the zombie-like ghouls of the No Man’s Land of the war. These ghoulish maniacs were said to haunt the empty tracts of war-torn land between sides, where no one dared to tread, where they prowled about looking for new victims. They were mostly said to be deserters who had wandered off into this crater blasted wasteland, and these defectors of all nationalities are said to have banded together out in the blood-soaked moonscape of the No Man’s Land to live underground in dim tunnels, where they went insane and began to emerge to kill, loot, and eat the fallen. Some thought they were not even human at all, but rather some sort of revenants or demons from Hell itself, but whatever they were the end result was always the same; these ghoulish creatures raiding fresh corpses to take their equipment and feast on their flesh, or even by some accounts attacking and killing soldiers from both sides of the fight.
One of the most sensational accounts of these mysterious figures was given in the book The Squadroon, and describes a whole platoon of soldiers walking across No Man’s Land only to be grabbed from below by unseen forces and pulled down one by one as if sucked into the earth itself amidst screams of pain and terror until there was no one left and no sign that anyone had been there at all. It has also been variously reported that the Allied forces took this threat seriously, going so far as to gas the whole area in a bid to kill off the freakish marauding thugs. I have written of this phenomenon in much more detail here at Mysterious Universe before, and although it stinks of a war legend born from the chaos of the battlefield and exaggerated at best, it is all still rather disturbing and spooky nonetheless.
From the depths of our darkest, shameful pieces of history, from among the fighting and death there often spring many such tales of the unexplained, yet the nature of the untamed chaos of war often makes it difficult to know which are perhaps factual and which are merely the mutated progeny of tired and addled minds consumed, demented and twisted by atrocities and fear. Peering through the fog of war it is often hard to differentiate fact from fiction, and the lines between where reality begins and feverish fantasy begins can become blurred. Making matters more complicated is that accurate records are often not kept of these anomalies, instead being spread through word of mouth and second or third hand accounts, and concrete sources can be elusive, not to mention the fact that these soldiers were there to fight, not chronicle the unexplained, making these oddities more of a distraction for them than anything else. These alleged events have become faded and obscured by history. It is quite possible we will never know to what extent any of these tales are real, but they continue to lurk there between the pages of history books, intriguing yet evasive as they stay in the shadows.