by Kyle Falcon

Every October ghost tours spring up around various historical sites. Sometimes these are harmless ways for heritage sites to share local history, but other times, they exploit the past for commercial gain. The ugly side of our fascination with dark tourism is especially pronounced in places such as asylums, plantations and the battlefields of the American Civil War, where the history of eugenics and slavery are often sensationalised, distorted or erased.[1] At the same time, the popularity of ghost tours at such sites suggests that their dark past continues to haunt the present. The First World War is renowned for stimulating a plethora of supernatural experiences, and yet, it actually has a very small catalogue of traditional ghost stories and no active ghostly tourism industry.[2] Even paranormal investigators who have a vested interest in such tales admit that, “relatively few ghost experiences have been reported around the Somme, Verdun and the battlefields of Flanders in the century since.” Nevertheless, a few stories can be found. Might they shed light on the conditions needed for ghostly tourism to take off on the former battlefields of the First World War and therefore offer clues as to why this conflict differs so drastically in this regard from the American Civil War?

Ghost tours offered in Oxford. Photo by the author.

The first such story, “the Phantom Hun,” comes from a 1935 book Crime and the Supernatural by Edwin T. Woodhall. A former Intelligence Officer who served in France during the war, Woodhall became an advocate of psychical research in the interwar years and a crime writer in interwar Britain. He shared the following story as a true account from an original eye-witness:

In 1916, the British Army was using a farmhouse as a munitions reserve in a small abandoned village between Laventie and Houplines, France. Guard duty was assigned to a soldier who would be replaced on a weekly basis. It was a welcome escape from the frontlines but the experience could also be a lonely one amongst the ruins of a war-torn village. At night there was an eerie feeling and stories quickly began circulating among the soldiers of strange noises and shadowy human figures. Fearful that the enemy had compromised the site, a British Intelligence officer and gendarme were assigned to investigate. On their second night at the farmhouse they were awoken by strange noises that sounded like “iron-shod boots” walking on the near-by road. Outside, they saw a German soldier frantically digging, fully dressed in uniform and wearing the distinctive Pickelhaube helmet. But something was off—his uniform was covered in clay, “as if it had been buried.” After they made their presence known, the individual revealed himself under the moonlight to be not a man but instead a skeleton. The men fired their weapons and the figure mysteriously vanished.

The next day an investigation was launched and Intelligence Officers were able to track down a former resident in a nearby town. It was discovered that the village was once the site of German occupation in 1914 and that a sergeant major and twenty of his men had resided in the farmhouse. One night the sergeant major was intoxicated and made advances on the farmer’s wife. Her husband had fled before the Germans arrived and she was left to take care of their baby alone. In her attempts to deal with both the assaulting Germans and the needs of her child, she sought out the local priest. The Germans were forced to leave but not before the sergeant major shot and killed the woman, her child, and the priest, accusing them of espionage. The priest survived just long enough to curse his perpetrator, proclaiming “evil man, your sprit will live on, and you will return when your hour comes to haunt this place until God sees fit to absolve your soul!” As the sergeant major fled the farmhouse he was struck by artillery shrapnel and died on the road leading out of the village. The three victims and the German were buried amongst the ruins in separate graves.[3]

Artist depiction of the Phantom Hun, from Edwin Woodhall’s Crime and the Supernatural.

Although the product of fiction, elements of this story can be historically grounded. Woodhall claims that the event took place in a small village in the Nord department of Northeastern France. This area was indeed overrun by the German invasion in 1914. Reports of violence here have survived. Twenty-one civilians were killed in Querenaing on August 25, less than a 100 km south of Houplines, and another fifteen that same day in Vicoigne further north. Unfortunately, evidence for incidents in these regions is limited due to a scarcity of witnesses that remained at the time of German contact.[4] Historians note that refugees fleeing Belgium made their way into these regions, spread news of attacks against civilians, and caused mass panic. Most young men had already left to serve and some villages were home to only a handful of civilians too old or sick to leave once the Germans arrived. The killing of priests was also known to have occurred. Fears of civilian resistance were a major factor in most of the German atrocities and the clergy were believed to be the ringleaders of this partisan activity. But the deliberate killing of children and pregnant women was the product of hysteria and propaganda.

It is also the case that rumours and fanciful tales spread like wildfire at the front.  In 1915, French civilians existed behind a relatively stable front and came into contact with Allied soldiers. It was in French villages that soldiers could be billeted or visit during times of rest. Here stories of German espionage proliferated. Will R. Bird recounted in his memoir how the local village of Wailly was so “filled with rumours and spy stories” that it became “a feature” of the area. Upon hearing a rumor that an old French woman had been killed for sending carrier pigeons to the Germans from her bedroom window, Bird and his companion unsuccessfully attempted to question the locals.[5] Some espionage tales bordered on the preternatural and made them a target for parody. . Reginald Grant believed that Belgians were signaling in code to the Germans by turning windmills the wrong way or changing the hands of clocks on village steeples.[6] The Canadian trench newspaper The Listening Post in 1916 wondered if the Germans were capable of developing enhanced hypnotism techniques that could compromise Canadians behind the lines.[7] In an environment where official communication was not always trusted and reading material was in demand it is no surprise that rumours were rampant. The story of the “Phantom Hun” begins in a lonely isolated place where reports of strange sights and sounds in the dark circulate amongst rotating soldiers and snowball into a full-formed apparition.

Whatever stories Woodhall brought back with him to Britain, his account was responding to the postwar context. By 1935, British attitudes had grown skeptical regarding German atrocities in Belgium and Northern France. As another potential threat emerged in Germany, Woodhall had reasons to resurrect the ghosts of the past. He did so in an ingenious way by grounding the story in the psychical sciences. Quoting the physicist and psychical researcher, Sir Oliver Lodge, Woodhall argued that “violent emotions” could be “unconsciously stored in matter” and that tragic events can imprint themselves on the landscape. Any subsequent generation spiritually “sensitive enough” could feel the emotions of the past.[8] Psychic phenomena could be used to unearth crimes, including those of the barbarous Huns nearly thirty years earlier. Woodhall also took advantage of popular crime writing and criminology—a booming industry in interwar Britain—to sensationalize and commodify the war.[9] 

The second story, the “Ghost of Gallipoli” is much more recent and involves a young Australian named Tim:

Tim did not know much about the battle of Gallipoli, and he had no personal attachment to the site. What knowledge he did have came from Anzac Day celebrations and what he had learned in school. But this national consciousness was enough to motivate him to visit and pay his respects at Anzac Cove. After all, he was going to visit Troy, only an hour away from the Gallipoli peninsula. How could he return home and explain that he did not make the short trip to such an important site in Australian history? Before arriving he researched the battle and was amazed by the bravery of his countrymen and felt ashamed for having been so cavalier about Anzac Day.

Upon arriving Tim chose to make his way down to the shore in order to see what the peninsula would have looked like to the invading troops. While walking the trail down to the beach he tripped over a small rut and sprained his ankle. In pain and grasping his left foot he saw a man on a donkey riding towards him. It was difficult to see under the setting sun but he appeared to be wearing a military uniform and was holding a canteen above his head as if to signal that he was coming to Tim’s aid. Tim closed his eyes for a moment as he winced in pain but when he opened them the man had suddenly vanished. Was it all a hallucination? Did Tim hit his head when he fell? Or did he see the ghost of ANZAC stretcher-bearer John Simpson Kirkpatrick, who according to legend carried 300 soldiers to safety on the backs of his donkey?[10]

Like the “Phantom Hun,” Tim’s story can be grounded in historical context. Every year on Anzac Eve thousands of young Australians camp out on the battlefields in order to attend the dawn service that commemorates the initial landing. Pilgrimage to Gallipoli is nothing new—it began after 1923, when Turkey ceded parts of the battlefield to the British Empire. Families and governments feared that these distant graves would be forgotten or desecrated if left in the wrong hands. The first pilgrims went to Gallipoli to tend the graves of their loved ones or to grieve at the site of their death, serving as “proxy mourners” to those who could not afford the trip themselves. Their stories were covered in the press and resonated with a still mourning public.[11]

John Simpson Kirkpatrick (centre) with his donkey “Duffy” carrying a soldier wounded in the leg during the Battle of Gallipoli. Photo by J.A. O’Brien, taken sometime between 25 April and 19 May 1915.

As memory faded into history, families with these types of strong emotional ties to Gallipoli dwindled. People like Tim are not haunted by past experiences at Gallipoli or by the death of a friend or family member. Instead, the modern Gallipoli pilgrim is part of a trend in national identity formation. As one traveler told the historian Bruce Scates: “traveling to Gallipoli gives you something to tie yourself to while you are travelling overseas—gives you an identity of who Australians are.”[12]

The experiences of thousands of young backpackers have become metaphysical and spiritual, as they have attempted to relive, imagine, or connect with the past. It was common before 2000 when the practice was banned, for travellers to sleep on soldiers’ graves on Anzac Day Eve. Some other acts are too sacred or taboo to recreate, such as swimming in Anzac Cove. But many chose to conduct several “physical feats” such as climbing Shrapnel Gully, or following in the steps of John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey. Scholars have interpreted these “deliberate impositions of hardship” as part of a way for new generations to physically connect with the past.[13]

Tim’s story is unusual but reminiscent of other pilgrimages to Gallipoli. Tim also attempts to recreate a physical feat and gain the perspective of the invading forces. In the process he becomes one of many who have been injured on this sacred ground, and like many an injured Anzac, the legendary Kirkpatrick and his donkey were to come to his aid. Tim’s story, published in a popular book about ghost stories, is also similar to the controversial 2001 BBC reality television series The Trench—which saw young volunteers live in recreated trenches. Both tread a fine line between telling stories of young men genuinely attempting to understand the sufferings and hardships of a now vanished generation and exploiting them for entertainment.

What then do we make of the scarcity of ghost stories like the Phantom Hun and the lack of ghostly tourism at the former battlefields of the First World War? I would offer two possible explanations. The first is that, unlike the American Civil War, Europeans and North Americans have managed to confront the First World War’s past. The story of the Phantom Hun is a piece of anti-German propaganda long since discredited and overshadowed by the brutal atrocities of the Second World War, the realities of which Germany has worked to confront.[14] The same, perhaps, cannot be said of the American Civil War and slavery which continues to sow discord in the United States, leading to historical distortions and leaving an opening for exploitation and lackluster methods of confronting the past while simultaneously alluding to its haunting presence. The second possible explanation stems from the first. While at times entering the problematic domain of commodification and dark tourism, the context underpinning Tim’s story reminds us that perhaps more mature forms of spiritual expression have developed at the former battlefields of the First World War. The grounds are unburdened by an unburied past and considered sacred to those who visit. Whenever I visit such sites with students, I notice that this is intuitive to many of them. Their very real need to connect with these sites comes in the form of silent contemplation of the surroundings and active engagement in rituals of remembrance. They might leave a message in a CWGC notebook or read a soldier’s biography at the foot of his headstone. While there are always exceptions, one does not need to explain to them that these actions are far more respectful and much more useful ways of connecting with the past than spinning a good yarn about a ghost.

[1] See for example, Tiya Miles, The Haunted South: Dark Tourism and the American Civil War Era (The University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking Press, 2016).

[2] The best work on this subject is Owen Davies, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Edwin T. Woodhall, Crime and the Supernatural (London: John Long, Limited, 1935), 90-107.

[4] John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2001), 67.

[5]Will R. Bird, Ghosts Have Warm Hands (CEF Books, 1968).  

[6] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

[7] “Huns Hypnotized Hundreds?” The Listening Post, no. 16, June 17, 1916, 97.

[8] Woodhall, Crime and the Supernatural, 107.

[9] For more on crime fiction and popular criminology in interwar Britain see Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (The University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[10] Tom Ogden, Haunted Cemeteries: Creepy Crypts, Spine Tingling Spirits and Midnight Mayhem (Rowmen and Littlefield, 2010), 178-186.

[11] See Bart Ziino, A Distant Grief: Australians, War Graves and the Great War (University of Western Australia Press, 2007).

[12] Bruce Scates, “Manufacturing Memory at Gallipoli,” in War, Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remebrance and Commemoration, ed. Michael Keren and Holger H. Herwig (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2009), 64. See also Bruce Scates, Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[13] John Hannaford and Janice Newton, “Sacrifice, grief and the sacred at the contemporary ‘secular’ pilgrimage to Gallipoli,” Borderlands 7, no. 1 (May 2008): 25-33.

[14] See Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).