Angels in the Trenches, by Leo Ruickbie

Angels in Trenches cvr

Angels in the Trenches: Spiritualism, Superstition and the Supernatural During the First World War (2018) examines a side to the Great War not often heard about, and then mainly in connection with the Angel of Mons.  However, 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.  While he has cast his net widely, he has particularly made use of the files belonging to the Society for Psychical Research (he edits the SPR’s magazine Paranormal Review).

There were paranormal aspects to the war even before it began, with predictions of conflagration and Europe deluged in blood, though it did not require a clairvoyant to spot the rise of German militarism and increased tensions between the great powers.  After the declaration of war there were minor incidents interpreted as psychic, such as a strange waking dream construed as relating to the sinking of HMS Amphion on 6 August 1914, but the major one was at Mons, when a hard-pressed British Expeditionary Force was apparently able to escape the advance of the much larger German army by means of a miracle.  Despite its controversially mundane origins in fiction, there was widespread belief in this apparently heaven-sent relief, a belief happily promoted for propaganda purposes.

Trust in such assistance reinforced the sense that the allied side was in the right in the mighty struggle against evil, a more noble cause than one couched in terms of international capital.  Despite the title, though, the issue of divine intervention only constitutes a small part of Ruickbie’s book, but it is emblematic of the paradoxically mystical side of the mechanisation of war and consequent slaughter on an unprecedented scale.  As he demonstrates, the bloody business of aggression between nations can generate coping mechanisms, such as superstitious practices and the wearing of amulets, which may seem irrational but provide comfort and give an illusion of control.

As well as the battlefield, Ruickbie covers the Home Front.  With death touching nearly every family, many of the bereaved, in trying to come to terms with the magnitude of the losses, yearned to speak to loved ones who had passed over.  With the established Church implicated in the war machine and providing a form of consolation that seemed empty to many, interest grew in Spiritualism, with its promise of direct contact now rather than deferred.  The legal system meanwhile took a dim view of exploitation, and as the examples here show, fortune tellers trying to predict the future for money ran the risk of being prosecuted for preying on the vulnerable.

Ruickbie spends time on the SPR’s ‘senior management’, including Sir Oliver Lodge, who wrote the most famous of the descriptions of the beyond claiming to be transmitted by those killed in the war, Raymond, or Life and Death (1916), following his son Raymond’s death at Ypres in 1915.   The book has come in for derision from sceptics, but was influential as part of a mini-genre purporting to show what the afterlife was like and bring comfort to those in a similar situation to Sir Oliver’s.  Yet the SPR made little of its opportunities.  Ruickbie is critical of the Society’s limited efforts to collect spontaneous accounts from the public; by contrast, Charles Richet made an extremely successful appeal to French soldiers.

Instead, the SPR appealed for accounts only from members and personal contacts, obtaining few of them.  Despite what was going on around them, they concentrated the bulk of their efforts on the cross-correspondences.  This was an extended project designed to demonstrate the survival of bodily death by means of communications received independently through several mediums.  These communications could be put together to make a meaningful message not deducible from the fragments themselves, thereby indicating direction by discarnate intelligences.  As a result the SPR missed a significant amount of material from everyday life, while managing to exasperate many of the Society’s members who found the cross-correspondences convoluted, unaware of their implications for the mystical project known as The Plan (something Ruickbie touches on).  Experiences were being reported in the press from all walks of life and classes, but the patrician SPR proved inflexible and found it difficult to adjust to a changing world.

Ruickbie, and Owen Davies in his A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War, have amply demonstrated the extent to which the paranormal played a significant part in the conflict.  There is much less in Ruickbie’s book on the French and Germans, and as he lives in Germany perhaps at some point he will consider delving into the equivalent archives of the then-Central Powers to see to what extent their servicemen and civilians had similar experiences.  Angels in the Trenches is very readable, though devoting a section to each year of the war means he often leaves a thread and comes back to it later.  This results in a certain choppiness at times, particularly evident in the various appearances of the Lodge family, but the strength of the approach is seeing how paranormal aspects developed over the course of the war, and a good index allows the reader to follow a particular thread.

Dr Ruickbie has also contributed several articles to Paranormal Review spinning off from his research:

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

‘Mrs Salter and the Angels: The 1915 Society for Psychical Research’s Investigation of “Alleged Visions on the Battlefield” and the Angel of Mons’, Paranormal Review, Issue 76, Autumn 2015, pp. 6-9.

‘A Previously Unpublished Account of the Angels of Mons’, Paranormal Review, Issue 76, Autumn 2015, p. 10.

‘The SPR at War: The Society for Psychical Research and the First World War’ (a version of a talk given at the SPR’s conference in 2016), Paranormal Review, issue 88, Autumn 2014, pp. 8-13.

Paranormal Review, Issue 71, July 2014, and Issue 76, Autumn 2015, have substantial sections devoted to a 2-part ‘First World War Centenary Special’ containing articles by a variety of authors on aspects of the conflict.

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