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Spiritualism and the First World War

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Cynthia is an administrator, has a degree in Business, Economics, & History, and is a qualified Hypnotherapist. She loves to write & travel.

Soldiers with wounded, Battle of the Somme 1916

Soldiers with wounded, Battle of the Somme 1916

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.

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.

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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 photographed with a spirit by Ada Deane

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle photographed with a spirit by Ada Deane

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.

William Hope of the Crewe Circle with spirit

William Hope of the Crewe Circle with spirit

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 CMHypno


CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on April 16, 2014:

Glad you found the hub interesting Wiccan Sage. In the midst of so much suffering it was perhaps inevitable there would be some peole who would prey on their grief for monetary gain. It also did a huge disservice to the genuine mediums and healers who were really trying to help people

Mackenzie Sage Wright on April 15, 2014:

I've always found the spiritual photographs quite interesting, and it's understandable how so many people just did not have access to the information to understand how easily they were hoaxed. Never put the 2 and 2 together on the war and the rise in interest in spirutalism but it makes sense. Love this article, great work.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on March 01, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub oceannsunsets and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I think it is hard for us to understand now the grief which was sweeping around the world at that time as the Great War was swiftly followed by the Spanish Flu pandemic. People needed comfort, felt they weren't getting it from their religion or society, so turned to spiritualism

Paula from The Midwest, USA on March 01, 2014:

Hello CMHypno, this is a rather interesting hub, though a little sad too. I think many of us can't imagine the loss many people felt during that time. The need to connect by any means may be strong, and I never really thought about it happening at this particular time in history to this degree. I have my own thoughts on what might be going on, but the short of it is that I respect whatever is going on, and heard enough stories, that i just keep a fair distance. I mean from dabbling in that realm that so many have.

Thanks sos much for sharing, I had no idea the degree that it was going on at that time in particular.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 27, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed it cmoneyspinner1tf and thanks for the tweet

Treathyl FOX from Austin, Texas on February 26, 2014:

Great HUB! I agree with UnnamedHarald. No point saying what he already said. Tweeted!

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub and leaving a comment Foodeee. I think it depends on personal experience whether you believe there are more frauds or genuine mediums working out there. I have always been luck to have worked with honest people and have not encountered too many frauds.

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Glad you enjoyed the hub bac2basics. It's always the few who manage to ruin it for the many isn't it? But I'm glad you have had positive experiences of spiritualism and that you found comfort from some of the messages

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub Dolores. It does make you wonder what the world would look like today if all those young men had not been killed. Would it be a better place or worse?

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub glassvisage. The men in the trenches would not have had a lot of opportunities to visit mediums unless they were on leave. They did have access to regimental padres who conducted services etc, but I'm not sure they would have approved of spirit contact. The home front in the Great War is often overlooked, but the people left behind suffered, although in a different way, as well as the troops

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Thanks Alicia and I agree that modern spiritualist churches have a lot to offer and give good evidence. But there are a still a lot of frauds around unfortunately

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 25, 2014:

Thanks Nell for reading the hub and glad you enjoyed it. During really tough times like the First World War people really did need some magic and comfort. They were looking for a miracle.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2014:

This is an interesting and informative hub, Cynthia. The fact that some people are eager to take advantage of others in trouble is a sad commentary on humanity. It's also sad that spiritualism has had such a troubled past. Modern spiritualist churches that are genuinely trying to help others have a lot to offer people.

glassvisage from Northern California on February 24, 2014:

I think it is really intriguing how you used well-known figures to frame this topic in a way that relates to us a little better. I didn't know how much of a role spiritualism played in the war and for some reason when I opened this article I expected more about spiritualism amongst the soldiers, etc. I think it's great that you highlighted the huge struggles of those at home. Thank you so much for this article.

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on February 24, 2014:

I've always been fascinated by this topic. WW1 was such a devastation, and the Flu Pandemic of 1918 made matters even worse. People felt cheated by the war and so many were made bitter, asking the question "what was it all for?" I know that when you lose someone you love, especially a child, and if you lost that child in what you see as a pointless conflict, you want some kind of answer. You want a sign or a message. I think even the fake mediums may have provided these grief stricken people with some small solace. If you think that he is happy, gone to a better place, maybe it can relieve the terrible burden of loss.

Anne from United Kingdom on February 24, 2014:

Hi CM.

I think the belief in spiritualism is as alive and well these days as it was in the great war. This is a fascinating and very well written hub and the title is spot on , it drew me in immediately as I am a believer in spiritualism too. There will always be fakes and con artists simply interested in extracting money from the vulnerable associated with spiritualism but I know from personal experience that when a reputable medium makes contact with a loved one who has passed over there can be no denying that they are indeed communicating with someone you know and love on the other side. I have been to spiritualist gatherings and have had messages that made no sense to me at all and others that blew me away with the accuracy of the messages and evidence presented. Voted this hub way up and have also shared.

Foodeee from Pennsylvania on February 24, 2014:

Thank you for this article. I can't say I support spiritualism for reasons that not important here. I do, however, believe the spirits of the dead exist. You said "a small number of people who muddy..." I think it is more accurate to say a large number of people muddy the water compared to those who are genuine. All for money. With something that is hard to prove or disprove it attracts criminal minded individuals looking for a fast buck. Spiritualism is infested with them as is Christianity. Many "preachers" are also fakes and doing so called miracles are getting rich in the process. Its sad to see something that is so real ruined by liars and cheats. Again thanks for bringing this hub to us.

NathaNater on February 23, 2014:

Just realized my error. In my mind, I knew it was the First World War but my fingers typed out WW2. I'm going to have to learn to coordinate my brain and my fingers.

Brenda Thornlow from New York on February 23, 2014:

Very interesting hub! It is horrible that there are people out there who exploit those who are hurting. I do believe there are genuine psychics around, however, as with everything, there are always a few who ruin it for everyone. Voted interesting!

Nell Rose from England on February 23, 2014:

Great article, and yes back then it was a case of people trying to hold on desperately to something in such a terrible war, it was also the time of the Cottingley Fairies too, people wanted something magical to happen because they were so stunned and worn out. Sir arthur conan doyle was so much into it then and this I believe helped the people too, voted up and shared! nell

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 23, 2014:

Glad you find the subject of spiritualism in the Great War so fascinating NathaNater. Thanks for the read and leaving a comment

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 23, 2014:

Thanks for reading the hub Harald and leaving a great comment. I've often wondered if military leaders ever saw the irony of praying to god before a battle for victory. It was easier in ancient times when they were likely to have been praying to different gods, but in the First World War they were supplicating the same deity - how did they expect him to choose between them?

CMHypno (author) from Other Side of the Sun on February 23, 2014:

Thanks Jodah and glad you enjoyed the hub. It's a shame that it is always a small number of people who muddy the water for others. I have worked as a spiritual medium myself, so know that many psychics are genuine, honest and hard working. You generally don't get paid in spiritualist churches, so you are serving for your bus fare not to make a fortune. But where there is a buck to be made, people will exploit others grief

NathaNater on February 23, 2014:

The 1880s to WW2 is a very fascinating period in history for many reasons, particularly the spread of spiritualism that took place. Very interesting subject matter, I learned many new things and was captivated by the whole story of spiritualism and WW2. Thanks.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 23, 2014:

It's easy to understand the interest in spiritualism during the Great War. After all, all sides had God on their side. Before battle, they were were blessed; after battle came the last rites. But when the ultimate answer is "God moves in mysterious ways", well, for some, there's a void and where there's a void, there are charlatans waiting to fill the desperate hopes of the bereaved. Very nicely researched and written.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 23, 2014:

Great hub, I found this very interesting. It was a shame that there were so many charlatans posing as spiritual mediums to take advantage of the families of those killed in battle. However I do believe there are genuine psychics out there. I had read os Arthur Conan Doyles interest in and promotion of spiritualism, but I didn't know of Rudyard Kipling's opposition to it. Well done, voted up.

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