Monday, October 29, 2018

Ghosts of the Great War

Ghosts of Vimy Ridge by William Longstaff 

“People see ghosts, they see images of their mothers, they see dead comrades,” Canadian historian Tim Cook reports from his archival research of First World War letters and diaries.* For example, Sergeant Frank S. Iriam’s description of the Western Front, taken from his memoir, In the Trenches 1914-1918, provides one such account of the supernatural:
This part of the line had a weird and gruesome look that seemed to whisper of death and devastation. The very ground here seemed to speak and the night wind seemed to pluck at your sleeves and counsel you beware. You could feel the pulse of the thousands of the dead with their pale hands protruding through the mud here and there and seeming to beckon you .... You could feel the presence of something not of this earth. Akin to goblins.**

Winifred Letts, an Anglo-Irish writer who served as a VAD and a masseuse for wounded soldiers, published a collection of war poetry in 1916 titled Hallow-e’en and Poems of the War. “Halloween, 1915,” describes those on the home front who welcome the “ghosts of our well-beloved dead.” A previous post on this blog also discusses the popularity of spiritualism during the First World War.  Letts’ poetry includes numerous references to the spirit world; one example is her twilight-lit, melancholic poem “If Love of Mine.” 

If Love of Mine

If love of mine could witch you back to earth
It would be when the bat is on the wing
The lawn dew-drenched, the first stars glimmering,
The moon a golden slip of seven nights’ birth.
If prayer of mine could bring you it would be
To this wraith-flowered jasmine-scented place
Where shadow trees their branches interlace;
Phantoms we’d tread a land of fantasy.
If love could hold you I would bid you wait
Till the pearl sky is indigo and till
The plough show silver lamps beyond the hill
And Aldebaran† burns above the gate.

If love of mine could lure you back to me
From the rose gardens of eternity.
            —Winifred Letts

In her poem “Loss,” Letts writes, “In losing you I lost my sun and moon / And all the stars that blessed my lonely night.” The poem concludes, I lost the master word, dear love, the clue /That threads the maze of life when I lost you.”

It wasn’t only the dead who were lost; survivors also often found themselves buried by grief and adrift in cultural changes resulting from the war. In 1957, Letts described herself as “a period piece, a has-been, totally unknown to this generation.”†† 
* Tristan Hopper, “Soldier diaries tell of ghosts intervening in First World War,” National Post, 28 May 2014,, Accessed 27 Oct. 2018.
** Glenn R. Iriam, “Ypres Salient,” In the Trenches 1914-1918, eBookIt, 2011. 
† Aldebaran (or Alpha Tauri) is the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus (it is the red star that marks the bull’s eye).  The “plough” named in the previous line alludes to one of the most famous constellations in the night sky, known in the United States as “the Big Dipper.”
†† Bairbre O’Hogan, “Winifred M. Letts,” Herstory,, Accessed 27 Oct. 2018.


  1. Whether loss occurs through war or disease, it feels the same. Letts' words eloquently express my feelings.

    1. I'm sorry for your loss -- no words are adequate, but I hope Letts' poem brings some small measure of comfort.