The First World War and the Paranormal

With the publication in the Daily Express recently of my account of the case of Capt Eldred Bowyer-Bower, I decided to review the output from my First World War research project.

During the hundredth anniversary year of the beginning of the First World War in 2014, I was awarded a research grant from the Society for Psychical Research to examine the role of the Society during the Great War. The project, entitled, simply enough, ‘The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War’, resulted in a considerable body of work: nine articles, four conference papers, a website and a full-length book.

2014

  • ‘A Vision in Bermondsey, 1917: A Previously Unreported First World War Anomalous Experience’, Paranormal Review, 71 (July 2014), pp. 28-29.

2015

  • ‘Mrs Salter and the Angels: The 1915 Society for Psychical Research’s Investigation of “Alleged Visions on the Battlefield” and the Angels of Mons’, Paranormal Review, 76 (Autumn 2015).
  • ‘A Previously Unpublished Account of the Angels of Mons’, Paranormal Review, 76 (Autumn 2015).
  • ‘Missing in Archive: How One Hundred Years Later, the Ghosts of World War I Are Still Being Laid to Rest’, paper presented at the 70th Society for Psychical Research Study Day ‘Raiders of the Lost Archives’, London, 24 October 2015.

2016

  • ‘The Authenticity of Angels: Investigating the Paranormal During the First World War’, paper presented at ‘Dissenting Voices and the Everyday in the First World War’ Conference, National Archives, Kew, 8-10 September 2016.
  • ‘The SPR at War: A Report on “The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War” Research Project’, paper presented at the 40th Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, University of Leeds, 2-4 September 2016.

2018

  • ‘The SPR at War: The Society for Psychical Research During the First World War’, Paranormal Review, 88 (Autumn, 2018).
  • ‘Pennies from Hell: Soldiers’ Lucky Pennies and the First World War’, Paranormal Review, 88 (Autumn, 2018).
  • ‘Angelic Intervention in the First World War’, Watkins Review (8 November 2018), https://www.watkinsmagazine.com/angelic-intervention-in-the-first-world-war.
  • ‘The Paranormal and the First World War’, Supernatural Magazine (28 November 2018), https://supernaturalmagazine.com/articles/the-paranormal-and-the-first-world-war.
  • Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War (London: Robinson, 2018), ISBN: 978-1472139597.

Angels in the Trenches was well received, with Alec Russell, Editor FT Weekend, calling it a ‘A fascinating book’, and Dr Tom Ruffles, Hon. Communications Officer of the Society for Psychical Research, giving it ‘5.0 out of 5 stars’, commenting:

Perceptions of the paranormal played a much more significant role than standard histories suggest, and to redress the balance Dr Leo Ruickbie has delved deeply into newspapers, official records and archives to analyse the ways the paranormal came into play as ordinary people, in and out of uniform, tried to make sense of the extreme circumstances in which they found themselves.

Tom Ruffles

Prof. Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire), author of A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith During the First World War (Oxford, 2018), desribed it as ‘A lively and absorbing read […] Ruickbie wears his erudition lightly and Angels in the Trenches proves an insightful and immersive contribution to our understanding of the supernatural and psychical history of the First World War’.

I also designed and launched an accompanying website at angelsinthetrenches.com. Articles about the book also featured on several websites, including paranormalglobe.com, supernaturalmagazine.com and warfare.today, where it was ‘definitely recommended’, and an article appeared in the local press:

‘Cambridge Woman Solved First World War Mystery’, Cambridge Independent (7 Nov. 2018), p. 8.

I gave a further conference presentation in 2019 and have an entry on Helen Salter as well as a chapter coming out in an edited academic volume this year:

  • ‘What the Maid Saw: A Case of Remote Viewing During the First World War’, paper presented at the 43rd Annual International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research, Leicester, 20-22 September 2019.
  • ‘Salter, Helen’, Psi Encyclopedia (2022), https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/helen-salter.
  • ‘Industrialized Magic: Lucky Charms in the First World War’, in Katharina Rein (ed), Magic: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2022).

I also ran a 2-part ‘First World War Centenary Special’ in issues 71 (July 2014) and 76 (Autumn 2015) of the Paranormal Review, with contributions from a number of diffrent authors.

All that’s left to do now is the film…

The accompanying illustration is a detail from The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge by Will Longstaff (c. 1929). It was bought by Capt. John Arthur Dewar and donated to the Canadian Government. It can be seen today hanging in the Railway Committee Room of the Canadian House of Commons.