With Remembrance Day just around the corner, Kay Hunter take a look at what one Australian journalist is saying about the relationship between wars and Spiritualist belief.
November 11 approaches, when the Cenotaph in Whitehall will be the scene of the annual commemoration of those whose earthly lives were ended as a result of two disastrous world wars.
Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, Chris Womersley explores the effect wars have had on Spiritualism.
In 1922, four years after the First World War ended, Estelle Stead, who ran a Spiritualist church in London, received several spirit messages from her late father, W.T. Stead, instructing her to photograph the Cenotaph during the traditional two-minute silence.
Estelle commissioned spirit photographer Ada Emma Deane, and the results of the photographic plates she took that day were remarkable. In addition to showing the large crowd actually present, there hovered above them a milky fog through which could be seen, very faintly, the faces of dozens of men purported to have been killed in battle.
“The more one examines this result,” Estelle later wrote in her Faces of the Living Dead: a Straightforward Statement, “the more interesting and bewildering it is.”
Rather than provoking alarm among bereaved families, the apparent evidence of such spirits was, for many, a great comfort. It was widely believed that this was scientific proof of an afterlife.
A great interest had already developed in spirit photography by 1922, and the Victorian age saw Spiritualism grow rapidly.
In the 1870s even Australia’s future prime minister, Alfred Deakin, was an active member of Melbourne Spiritualist Motherwell Circle. He married a powerful medium, through whom the spirit of John Bunyan is said to have dictated a book entitled A New Pilgrim’s Progress. This was published in 1877 under a pseudonym.
Other prominent men who were adherents of Spiritualism at that time were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, poet W.B. Yeats and Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection.
Interest in Spiritualism faded during the early years of the 20th century, but regained momentum during World War I, when the number of fatal casualties ran into millions. Global grief was unprecedented, and the bereaved reverted to less conventional modes of mourning. Séances, talks and presentations took place in suburban halls and churches.
Among the men in the trenches, stories of ghosts and spirits were rife, the most famous being the legend of the Angels of Mons, said to have been bowmen from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, who surrounded the British troops with fog to protect them from the Germans.
Many soldiers claimed to have seen the vision. It was said that visible through the fog was a tall golden figure. There were variations on the story, one being that there was “a tall man with yellow hair in golden armour, on a white horse.”
Now, 92 years after the end of the Great War, we continue to remember the war dead, whose numbers have escalated to include the millions in the Second World War, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chris Womersley states that the purpose of Remembrance Day has become obscure. “Do we require something from our dead?” he asks, “Or do we fear what they might say to us should we fail to appease them?”
The First World War poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed a week before the Armistice, describes in his poem Strange Meeting, an encounter in hell between a dead soldier and the one who killed him, to whom the victim shows great kindness.
Wilfred Owen’s brother Harold claims to have known of Wilfred’s death before he was officially informed, thanks to a visit from his brother’s spirit on board the ship on which he was sailing off the African coast.
Should we remember our war dead? Of course, says Chris Womersley. “The living and those who have died in the war exist symbiotically. They require us to keep their memory alive, and we need them to continually remind us, year after year, of the promise that we, as a species, are so far unable to give – the assurance it will never happen again.”