World War I was one of the bloodiest engagements of human history, costing countless lives and leaving a blot upon history. During all of the intense fighting going on, some of the most grueling was carried out in the trenches, which were intricate networks of claustrophobic canals on both sides from which the enemies blasted at each other as they hid inside and bodies piled up around them with little to protect them but the earth and any prayers they had, typically separated by what was called a "No Man's Land" of scorched, battle beaten land where no one dared tread. Trench warfare was hellish, brutal attrition that was about as close to hell on earth as one is likely to find, full of death and suffering, so it is perhaps not very surprising that behind the great battles fought there are various tales of the supernatural in these places, and the trenches of World War I were just about as haunted as one might imagine them to be.
Many of the strange experiences in the trenches during the First World War have to do with seeing various inexplicable apparitions lurking about the battlefield. On occasion for the soldiers who saw these entities they said they could be quite frightening, such as is the case with a Scottish soldier who had been assigned as a sentry in France at a battle line on the turbulent Western Front, an area of northern France and Belgium that saw truly fierce fighting. The witness, known only as “Jock,” tells of one evening seeing something very bizarre by the light of the full moon along the trenches. He claimed that at the time he was wide awake and alert, but that passing by he saw a pair of spectral “dun-colored bloodhounds, coupled together by a short steel chain” making their way across the battle torn earth. He would say of the frightening encounter:
First I’d heard one faint note in the distance, and the deep, mournful bay had caused me to grip my rifle and keep alert. In fact, I’d been searching for a hound, as far as my eyes could search the flat, treeless, moonlit countryside. Then, all at once, there they were before my eyes, and just as suddenly they were gone, with the sound of their baying in my ears.
When he told others of these hounds quite a few other soldiers claimed to have seen them as well, and they claimed that the ghostly phantom hounds almost always appeared right before something big was about to go down, as if they were following the smell of incoming death. Another tale from the same area was reported during the vicious Battle of Verdun, which was the longest lasting battle of the entire war and saw a bloody, merciless battle of attrition between French and German forces. Some of the men on the front lines began to tell of a ghostly soldier dressed in old fashioned gear from the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and with a long, flowing white beard and rosy cheeks. This apparition was said to appear out of thin air to come to the aide of the French, and tales of the spectral old man’s escapades are numerous. Sometimes he would supposedly knock the weapons out of the hands of the enemy or cause them to trip. At other times he was reported as guiding the French and showing them where to go or even physically pushing them out of harm’s way, with many a soldier telling of being knocked to the ground by the ghost just as a bullet whizzed by where their head should have been. There were also reports of the ghost tending to the wounded or even offering a drink of water before vanishing into thin air.
The Western Front was full of such stories, and another strange account comes from the Belgian municipality of Ypres, which was also besieged by fearsome combat due to its strategic position as a block against the Germans’ advance into France. The city was absolutely pummeled during the First World War, and was also the victim of mass poison gas attacks at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. It was at this time that a strange account would come from a French engineer who told the tale to an American clergyman, who would explain the mysterious encounter:
They looked out over No Man's Land and saw a strange grey cloud rolling towards them. When it struck, pandemonium broke out. Men dropped all around him and the trench was in an uproar. Then, he said, a strange thing happened. Out of the mist, walking across No Man's Land, came a figure. He seemed to be without special protection and he wore the uniform of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC). The engineer remembered that the stranger spoke English with what seemed to be a French accent. On his belt the stranger from the poison cloud had a series of small hooks on which were suspended tin cups. In his hand he carried a bucket of what looked like water.
As he slid down into the trench he began removing the cups, dipping them into the bucket and passing them out to the soldiers, telling them to drink quickly. The engineer was among those who received the potion. He said it was extremely salty, almost too salty to swallow. But all of the soldiers who were given the liquid did drink it, and not one of them suffered lasting effects from the gas. When the gas cloud had blown over and things calmed down the unusual visitor was not to be found. No explanation for his visit could be given by the Royal Medical Corps - but the fact remained that thousands of soldiers died or suffered lasting effects from that grim attack, but not a single soldier who took the cup from the stranger was among the casualties.
Apparently this stranger would just sort of disappear into the battlefield to never be seen again, leaving us to wonder just who or what it is they saw. Adding to these various visions were numerous accounts of phantom cavalrymen who would go tearing through the war zone at the 1914 Battle of Le Cateau and go right through enemy fire without suffering any noticeable damage and often appearing and disappearing out of nowhere at a moment's notice, sometimes even attacking the enemy while they were at it. One report of these horsemen was told to The Daily Mail by a former Lieutenant-Colonel with the British Expeditionary Force, and the witness would say:
I was riding along in the column with two other officers. We had been talking and doing our best to keep from falling asleep on our horses. As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen. These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we were going, and keeping level with us. I did not say a word about it at first, but I watched them for about 20 minutes. The other two officers had stopped talking. At last one of them asked me if I saw anything in the fields. I told them what I had seen. The third officer then confessed that he too had been watching these horsemen for the last 20 minutes. So convinced were we that they were real cavalry that, at the next halt, one of the officers took a party of men out to reconnoitre, and found no-one there. The night grew darker, and we saw no more.
These phantom horsemen were seen by many others who all described the same thing, and at times these were witnessed by far more than just one war-addled soldier. On at least one occasion the horsemen appeared to a whole unit of soldiers, and a Lance-Corporal Johnstone would tell The London Evening News of his own company’s encounter as follows:
We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour's rest in between, we found ourselves in the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry, all formed up into squadrons - fine, big men, on massive chargers. I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying: Thank God! We are not far off Paris now. Look at the French cavalry. They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through.
The phenomenon of these horsemen has been mostly lumped in with another mystery called “The Angel of Mons,” in which angels were seen above the battlefield at the same time frame, and although it has been mostly attributed to tiredness and the constant stresses of war, those who saw these mysterious cavalrymen insisted that it was all very real. When asked whether he could have been hallucinating his own sighting of the horsemen, one Lieutenant-Colonel said:
Of course, we were all dog-tired and overtaxed, but it is an extraordinary thing that the same phenomenon should be witnessed by so many different people. I myself am absolutely convinced that I saw these horsemen, and I feel sure that they did not exist only in my imagination. I do not attempt to explain the mystery - I only state facts.
In some cases the apparitions seen were not some sort of unknown entity, but rather something altogether more familiar, seemingly the ghosts of friends or family coming to those in need in this time of fierce warfare. Such stories are actually quite numerous, and one was first uncovered by Canadian historian and researcher Tim Cook, who tells of a Canadian soldier in the trenches who was apparently saved by the ghost of his dead mother who appeared and drew him away from where a German shell would hit moments later. In a diary entry he wrote:
One night while carrying bombs, I had occasion to take cover when about twenty yards off I saw you looking towards me as plain as life. I crawled nearly to the place where your vision appeared. 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?
A rather well-known tale of the ghost of a loved one descending upon the battlefield of World War I is the story of a Corporal Will Bird, of the 42nd Battalion, also called The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, during a battle at Vimy Ridge in April of 1917. He says that he had fallen asleep in the cold down there in a dugout but was awoken by two warm hands upon him. When he looked up he allegedly saw standing there his brother Steve, who had been killed in action in France two years prior. The apparition of his brother stood wordlessly and silently walked off, beckoning Will to follow. He would follow his dead brother to a bombed out ruin of a building squatting out on the battlefield, after which Steve would dissipate right before his eyes. It was not long after this that an enemy shell slammed into the bunker where he had been just moments before, completely obliterating it and killing everyone inside. Bird would go on to write of the strange encounter in his 1968 book Ghosts Have Warm Hands: A Memoir of the Great War.
We also have an account from December of 1915 from the trenches of Ypres, where Second Lieutenant William M. Speight of the 3rd Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment was taking cover from the enemy onslaught. At the time Speight was afraid, as the fighting had become a true bloodbath and his close friend had died earlier that very day. Yet as he sat there cowering under the booming shells and gunfire outside, his dead friend suddenly came nonchalantly strolling into the trench with him. Speight called for another soldier to come see what he was seeing, but the friend vanished into thin air. The following evening the apparition returned, this time walking to a spot in the dugout and pointing at the earth below before once again evaporating. Acting on instinct, Speight grabbed a shovel and dug at the spot to find a load of enemy explosives with a timer set to blow them to smithereens in 13 hours, plenty of time for him and his fellow soldiers to evacuate before they were killed.
There are many more accounts such as these during the relentless and truly terrifying trench warfare of World War I, and one wonders if there was anything really supernatural going on or if this was just the work of scared men facing death at any moment and sometimes going days on end without sleep. Did they really see something out there or was this just delusions and hallucinations projected upon the fog of war? It is hard to say, but the historian Tom Cook has given his thoughts on these experiences during the war, "There are spectral visions; people see ghosts, they see images of their mothers, they see dead comrades. I don’t think it’s just sleep deprivation, I don’t think it’s just tired guys, and I don’t think it’s soldiers trying to trick people in letters; I think that they actually believe in this." It certainly seems they truly did believe it, and whether these ghostly happenings existed beyond their minds or not they make for a compelling look at the supernatural, often ignored side of one of the greatest, costliest wars in human history.