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Superstition on the battlefield: The culture of death among Canadian soldiers in WWI

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Terry Soleas

Tim Cook, a renowned Canadian Historian of the First World War, spoke today at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities at Brock University. His lecture, “The borders between life and death: Stories of the supernatural and uncanny among Canada’s Great War soldiers“ discussed the superstition of soldiers and their relationship with death. Cook explained that he would be discussing the supernatural through the eyes of a historian. 

Soldiers in World War I fought in trenches that were subject to mortar bombardment, gassing, machine gun fire, and frequent incursions by enemy troops. These trenches were also subject to rampant pest infestations like rats, lice and pathogen outbreaks. Approximately half of all Canadian soldiers in the war became casualties, by it wounded in action, grievously disfigured, or outright killed. Quite simply, soldiers were visitors to the realm of death; many never left.

This consistent immersion in death inspired a “death culture” among the war’s participants according to Cook. The immense firepower of the weapons of that period forced militaries to exist mostly below ground, in order to find shelter from eviscerating machine gunfire and mortar blasts. In the grand scheme of things, digging a trench was “by extension to dig your own grave”. This led soldiers to develop a fatalistic outlook on life. A morbid sense of humour developed among soldiers as a sort of camaraderie. Cook described how soldiers would joke that “the bells of hell, ring for you, not me.” Soldiers would taunt each other that death would find them first. In response to a question about how soldiers kept going despite the ever flowing stream of death, Cook quipped that “There is a great book on the topic by Tim Cook called ‘Shock Troops’ ”.

The stress of battle and the fear of death cultivated a respect for a sixth sense that veteran soldiers had. There are numerous records of veteran soldiers perceiving an incoming mortar shell that others would not hear or get a whiff of gas and react before others even had initial perceptions of danger. Some accounts were even more explicitly superstitious. Some soldiers described “crisis apparitions”; soldiers described supernatural appearances like friends and relatives long since dead guiding them to safety.

One soldier turned author, Will R. Bird, described his own experience with the supernatural. After a long day of marching, Will and his unit had found a billet to get some sleep, Will had woken up to see his brother gesturing him to follow him. Despite knowing that his brother had been declared missing in action two years earlier, he followed. As it turns out following his brother saved his life as the shelter that was selected by the battalion was obliterated by mortar shelling. Will would describe his experience to his commanding officers to mixed results.

These stories were controversial on the homefront as well.

Despite the mixed reception, it is strange to note soldiers returned from the war rarely debunked or disputed the validity of the supernatural stories told by their comrades. There is an understanding that these stories kept men going and helped them make meaning of the destruction, death, and hell that they were participants in. This topic has tremendous relevance to Canada in the presence as the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I approaches later this year. In response, to a question about how to commemorate World War I, Cook commented on how commemoration was the right word and not celebrate and how he hoped that the festivities would not be a nationalistic outcry of “chest-thumping and back-slapping”.

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Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014