Wartime Occult Phenomena (World War I)
The emergence of Spiritualism heightened interest in the
separations and deaths caused by war. Thus it was not surprising
that a number of stories of supernatural events should have
crystallized around the international circumstances of World
War I. Perhaps the most striking of these was the alleged vision
of the Angels of Mons. The first account was the story in the
London Evening News of September 14, 1915, by writer Arthur
Machen describing a statement by an officer who had been in
the retreat from Mons. This officer saw a large body of horsemen
who later vanished. Machen suggested that they were the
spirits of the English bowmen who had fought at Agincourt.
Although this story was fiction, it stimulated corroborative
reports of phantom armies. The most significant of these were
repeated by a Red Cross nurse, Phylis Campbell, who claimed
to have heard several different stories of phantom soldiers. In
his book On the Side of the Angels (1915), Harold Begbie repeated
the claims that soldiers saw a vision of angels during the retreat
from Mons and gives the narrative of a soldier, who states
that an officer came up to him ‘‘in a state of great anxiety’’ and
pointed out to him a ‘‘. . . strange light which seemed to be
quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon,
nor were there any clouds in the neighbourhood. The light became
brighter and I could see quite distinctly three shapes, one
in the centre having what looked like outspread wings. The
other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from
the centre one. They appeared to have a long, loose-hanging
garment of a golden tint and they were above the German line
facing us. We stood watching them for about three-quarters of
an hour.’’
All the men in the battalion who saw this, with the exception
of five, were killed. Begbie went on to say that a nurse told him
that a dying soldier spoke to her of the reluctance of the Germans
to attack the British line, ‘‘because of the thousands of
troops behind us.’’ It is believed this man had heard these
claims from German prisoners and believed in the ghostly nature
of those supporting hosts.
Ralph Shirley published a pamphlet titled Prophecies and
Omens of the Great War (1914; 1915) dealing with various oracular
utterances on the struggle.
Stories were also common in the early period of the war regarding
the appearance of saintly and protective figures resembling
the patrons of the several allied countries. Thus the English
were convinced that in certain engagements they had seen
the figure of Saint George mounted on a white charger and the
French were equally sure that the figure in question was either
Saint Denis or Joan of Arc. Wounded men in base hospitals
asked for medallions or coins on which the likenesses of these
saints were impressed in order to verify the statements they
made.
Sources
Brown, Raymond Lemment. The Phantom Soldiers. New
York Drake, 1975.
Machen, Arthur. The Angels of Mons The Bowman and Other
Legends. New York G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,
1993.