Spiritualism and the First World War
The summer of 1914 was a glorious one. The sun shone, the power of the British Empire was at its zenith and people across Britain were in a holiday mood. They walked in the parks, frolicked on the beaches, toiled in the fields and worked in the cities.
Very few took much notice of the sabre rattling and political manoeuvring reported in the papers and even when war was finally declared on Germany on the 4th August, most people were not alarmed. Young men rushed to the recruiting posts desperate to be part of the adventure, scared they would miss out on a war everyone believed would be decisively won and over by Christmas.
But it soon became apparent this was going to be a war the likes of which the world had never seen before; a conflict during which many of the young men who had joined up in such a fever of patriotism and excitement would pay with their lives. From the very start what would come to be known as ‘The Great War’ generated legends and tales of paranormal phenomena, starting with the Battle of Mons in August 1914 where many of the soldiers claimed they had been guided to safety on the battlefield by an angel or the spirit of a medieval archer from the nearby 1415 battlefield of Agincourt. But it was on the home front where people devastated by the loss of their loved ones turned to spiritualism for comfort, asking mediums for help in contacting their dead.
In darkened parlours across Britain the grieving sitters would gather in a circle with their chosen medium, many of whom were women, waiting for some communication from their sons, husbands or lovers who had been killed. During these séances it was common for the medium to go into a trance, shaking, twitching and mumbling before they made contact with the world of spirit. Sometimes they would speak in their own voice, sometimes through their spirit guide, many of whom were Red Indians, or their voice would change to that of the deceased person.
Some mediums would produce physical phenomena like ectoplasm that would stream out of their mouths to swirl around the room, apports like flowers, stones or jewellery would appear out of nowhere, or familiar perfume and odours would waft through the air. More rarely, the medium’s facial features would change into those of the dead soldier or the spirit would materialise to walk around the room, touching and stroking the faces and arms of the sitters.
These mediums generally charged a fee for holding séances, some of them becoming very well known and making a lot of money. While a lot of them were genuine, honest people with real psychic abilities who gave accurate readings containing lots of information, unfortunately the desperation and neediness of all these people who had lost loved ones attracted too many blatant frauds and charlatans. This was a time in British history when a stiff upper lip and stoic attitude was expected and encouraged, but the losses were so great and the war was so horrific that people needed some form of comfort.
Many felt that the religion they had grown up with had no answers left for them, so they would latch on eagerly to any messages from spirit they were given, even if they were riddled with inaccuracies, totally obscure or just plain wrong. Spiritualism had always attracted sceptics and naysayers looking to de-bunk the possibility of proving life after death of the physical body and these fraudulent mediums played straight into their hands, bring spiritualism even further into disrepute.
One of these sceptics was the famous writer Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his only son Jack at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Despite his own grief, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War Kipling wrote a poem called En-dor, which warned grieving mothers and sweethearts of the dangers of trying to make spirit contact with the young men they had lost to the war.
Kipling had spent time in India during the 1880s, a time when Anglo-Indian society was fascinated with the occult and spiritualism. In 1880 Madame Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, visited the hill station of Simla to hold a series of séances. Kipling’s father John Lockwood Kipling attended one of these gathering and later described Madame Blavatsky as an unscrupulous woman
Although he was clearly interested in the paranormal and it was a theme in several of his books, Kipling was also repelled by it and the personalities who claimed to have psychic powers. This distaste was underlined when he wrote a story in 1888 called ‘The Sending of Dana Da’, which was the tale of a mysterious psychic dying of drug and alcohol addiction who offers to curse or make a ‘Sending’ for an Englishman she owes a debt of gratitude to, who proves in the end to be fraudulent.
Part of this distrust and revulsion may have been fuelled by his sister Trix, who claimed to have psychic abilities and contacted spirit through automatic writing and crystal gazing. However, she also suffered from problems with mental illness throughout her life, which the Kipling family partly blamed on her involvement with the occult.
Do you believe mediums could connect relatives to their dead loved ones during and after the First World War?
But although spiritualism had its detractors during the Great War and the difficult years that followed, it also had many famous followers who promoted its benefits and philosophies. One of these was a prominent man of science, Sir Oliver Lodge, who was a well-known physicist. He was also a bereaved parent as his youngest son Raymond was killed on the Western Front in 1915 by a piece of shrapnel from a shell.
His distraught parents consulted a medium within a week of his death and this medium’s own son, who had also been a victim of the war, came through to say that he had seen Raymond on the other side and that he was well and happy. Raymond’s parents were overcome by this message and Sir Oliver spoke of his remorse that he felt he had neglected his son while he was alive. The spirit of his son then made contact and told his parents that he now lived in a happy place called ‘Summerland’ where everybody lived in luxury in huge mansions where they lacked for nothing and that he had already been reunited with several deceased members of the family.
Although they had received this hopeful message from their son in spirit Sir Oliver, being a scientist, wanted more proof and he was duly given some obscure facts and details only a close family member could have known. A few days after the sitting another medium, called Alfred Vout Peters, told Raymond’s mother about the existence of some photographs, mostly portraits of the dead soldier but describing one in particular where he was in a group with some other men. His parents were baffled, as they did not have a photograph like this of their son.
However, shortly afterwards one of Raymond’s fellow officers wrote to them to ask if they would like a photograph taken about a month before he was killed of their son with the rest of his regiment. Before it arrived Sir Oliver asked another medium about the photograph and was told that in the picture someone wanted to lean on his Raymond, but they were not sure if that was shown in the photograph. When the picture duly arrived Raymond was seated in the front row and it does appear as if the officer behind him is leaning his arm on his shoulder.
Perhaps the most famous defender of spiritualism during the First World War was the famous creator of the detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Like Kipling, he had been interested in spiritualism since the 1880s and had attended many séances with his wife Jean, but he was a supporter and a believer not a detractor. Like so many middle aged parents at that time his son Kingsley had enlisted and served on the Western Front.
The young man was wounded in the neck on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It was to be a wound that greatly weakened his constitution, so he became an easy victim of the great Spanish Flu pandemic that swept the world two years later in 1918. A few short months later his brother Innes also became a victim of the same disease, leaving their parents utterly devastated.
Conan Doyle’s attempts to contact the spirits of soldiers killed in the war had already begun early in the war as his brother-in-law Malcolm Leckie had been lost in action at the Battle of Mons in 1914. Along with his wife the writer set up a series of séances in order to try to communicate with his lost relative beyond the grave. As the war progressed and their interest in spiritualism grew the Conan Doyle’s stepped up their campaign to promote spiritualism to the world and in 1916 began a series of long, punishing tours which, once the war was ended in 1918, even took them as far afield as the US and Australia.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s critics pointed out that he had been duped by several frauds, especially where it concerned his interest in psychic photography. After the war the nation was fascinated by a series of photographs taken on Armistice Day in London near the Cenotaph by a medium called Mrs Ada Emma Deane.
The first of these photographs was taken in November 1921 when Mrs Deane, accompanied by her friend Estelle Stead, took a picture of the crowds thronging around Whitehall. When the photograph was developed, it had a mysterious cloud on it that was full of the faces of dead war heroes. She took similar pictures in the couple of years that followed, and her eerie photograph was published in the Daily Sketch on November 13, 1924.
However, Mrs Deane’s credibility was dealt a grievous blow a couple of days later when the Daily Sketch announced the photograph was a fraud and rather than showing the faces of soldiers killed during the war, they were actually pictures of famous sportsmen who were still very much alive. One of the faces was identified as being that of Jimmy Wilde the boxer, nicknamed ‘the Mighty Atom’, who once went undefeated across 103 consecutive bouts. Although they printed the photograph next to the pictures of the sportsmen, Mrs Deane’s supporters still protested that the faces in the cloud were too indistinct to be able to identify them. Mrs Deane herself added that if she wished to be a fraudster, why would she have used the likenesses of such well-known men? Her supporters like Conan Doyle also pointed out she had worked as a cleaner until she was 58 before developing her psychic gifts, so how would she have the technological know-how to fake such an image? Her reputation, however, was badly tarnished and she never again took an Armistice Day photo although she carried on with her work.
Conan Doyle was also a supporter of a spiritualist group the Crewe Circle, whose founder William Hope was also a famous spirit photographer. The group took photographs which, when developed, would depict not only the living people who had sat for the photograph but also the image of a loved one in spirit. The Crewe Circle went public with their spirit photographs after they gained the support of Archbishop Thomas Colley, who was an ardent supporter of spiritualism and had been interested in the occult for most of his life. The group was almost caught out several times before in 1922 Harry Price from the Society for Psychical Research was sent to investigate.
Harry Price suspected that William Hope was doctoring the photographic plates to get the results he wanted, so he secretly slipped him some plates that he had had imprinted with an X-ray. When Hope gave the plates back to Price all traces of the X-ray had disappeared, so Hope was accused of switching the plates and creating fake spirit photographs. But Conan Doyle refused to accept the findings of Society for Psychical Research and carried on staunchly defending the work of the Crewe Circle, even though in 1932 Fred Barlow, a man who had worked closely with William Hope, gave a lecture that demonstrated exactly how these fraudulent images had been created.
Spiritualism is always going to be a divisive subject as its supporters will go to any lengths to defend it and sceptics will do all they can to de-bunk it. But it has to be said that for many families who would at that time have had no access to any form of bereavement counselling or help for their grief, it was a way to find some comfort and closure in the belief that the son, husband or sweetheart who had been killed during the First World War had survived the death of their physical body and was safe, happy and well provided for in the afterlife. Undoubtedly many mediums working during the Great War were frauds and only in it for the money and fully deserved being exposed and ridiculed for profiting from the grief of the desperate, but there were also many sincere, genuine psychics working only to help heal the deep pain of people’s loss and prove survival after death.
Sources: Wikipedia, BBC History, The Kipling Society
© 2014 CMHypno