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Christmas Lesson

John Simkin

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The final lesson before the Christmas holiday is a good time to cover the topic of ghosts and visions during the First World War. It is a subject that students usually find very exciting.

The students are given the following sources concerning ghost stories from the First World War:

(1) The Daily Mail, quoting an anonymous Lieutenant-Colonel, who took part in the retreat from Le Cateau in August, 1914 (14th September 1915)

We came into action at dawn, and fought till dusk. We were heavily shelled by the German artillery during the day, and in common with the rest of the division had a bad time of it. Our division, however, retired in good order. We were on the march all night of the 26th, and on the 27th, with only about two hours' rest. The brigade to which I belonged was rearguard to the division, and during the 27th we were all absolutely worn out with fatigue - both bodily and mental fatigue. No doubt we also suffered to a certain extent from shock, but the retirement still continued in excellent order, and I feel sure that our mental faculties were still... in good working condition.

On the night of the 27th 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. The same phenomenon was seen by many men in our column.

(2) Lance-Corporal Johnstone, letter to The London Evening News (11th August, 1915)

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.

(3) All Saints Parish Magazine in Clifton reported that two officer servings at Mons told Sarah Marrable about what they saw on the front-line (May 1915)

Both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during the retreat from Mons... One of Miss Marrable's friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since. The other man... and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them ... They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels. The German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded. The men tugged at their bridles, while the poor beasts tore away in every direction.

(4) An English engineer, who had been serving in the line at Ypres in August 1915, during one of the early German poison gas attacks. He told his story to an American clergyman from Massachusetts in 1956 and it eventually appeared in Fate Magazine in May 1968.

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.

After reading these stories the students can try and come up with some logical explanation for these events. Later they can carry out a search on the web for these stories. This will bring them to my website where they can read about the context of seeing these visions. They will also discover that the full quotations reveal that the soldiers themselves were aware that these visions were linked to the fact they were suffering from extreme tiredness and stress at the time.



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