Angels in the Trenches

Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural during the First World War

The mechanised slaughter of the First World War brought a sudden and concentrated interest in life after death, living in spite of death and predicting when the merciless killing would end. Could one communicate with the dead? Were the British on the side of the angels? Could amulets, such as black cats and lucky shillings, avert bombs and bullets? Could the fate of nations be foretold?

After their miraculous escape from the German military juggernaut in the small Belgian town of Mons in 1914, many British soldiers really did believe that they had been saved by angels. On the home front, the number of spiritualist meetings in the United Kingdom increased dramatically. While the Society for Psychical Research set out to discover the truth of such events, W.B. Yeats entertained his fellow members of the Ghost Club with stories of his own experiences. From apparitions on the battlefield to the popular boom in spiritualism as the horrors of industrialised warfare reaped their terrible harvest, the paranormal – and, significantly, its use in propaganda – was one of the key aspects of the First World War.

People at every level of society were struggling to come to terms with the ferocity and terror of the war, and their own losses: soldiers looking for miracles on the battlefield; parents searching for lost sons in the séance room.

Famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would also lose a son and many other close relatives during these terrible years. One of the foremost scientists of the day, Sir Oliver Lodge, would be similarly stricken by loss and like Doyle would also champion spiritualism, writing one of the most persuasive books on the existence of life after death.

Based on original sources and archival research, the story told here is the very human one of people forced to look beyond the apparent certainties of the everyday; it is a story that still challenges those certainties today.

Published by Robinson, 8 November 2018.

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