Haunted Battlefields: The Ghosts of the Somme

by JoHarrington

The Somme Offensive was one of the biggest, bloodiest battles of the First World War. It's little wonder then that ghosts have been reported on the haunted Somme battlefield.

In the whole of history, only the Battle of Stalingrad registered more casualties than the Somme.

On the first day alone, 68,000 men lay dead. After an intense battle lasting four months, two weeks and three days, over 1 million people had been killed at the Battle of the Somme. Other statistics also boggle the mind. The total aircraft destroyed was 782.

The Somme now lies as a memorial to the horrors of war. But for some, World War One is not yet over.

The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front

The No Man's Land Ghost at the Somme

The spectral figure bore an uncanny likeliness to Lord Kitchener, whose famous face adorned all of those recruitment posters. But the officer was already dead.

Nobody was getting much sleep during the early hours of November 5th 1916.

At midnight on the 4th, a relatively small German force had started firing its arsenal, determined to over-run trenches currently occupied by the British 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment.

The whole area around Albert, in Picardie, France, shook with explosions and the thunder of artillery. So far so ordinary for a night at the Battle of the Somme.

But what happened next was far from ordinary.

Captain W.E. Newcome took up the story in his official report back to headquarters. He told of personally witnessing a 'brilliant, white light' appear to rise from the muddied ground between the opposing armies.

Within a few seconds, the light had formed itself into the figure of a man. It was a British officer, wearing a uniform which was slightly out-dated.

But the aspect which stunned the entire Suffolk regiment was the ghostly figure's face. He looked exactly like Lord Kitchener. It was a visage which was familiar from the recruitment posters. Just about every man there had answered the legend printed beneath it, 'Your Country Needs You'. Their regiment was one of Kitchener's own.

But the former Secretary of State had been killed five months before, in June 1916. He could not be at the Somme.

British flares flew into the air, illuminating No Man's Land. Still the distinctive figure of Lord Kitchener walked along, parallel to the trenches, his face turned towards them. It felt like an inspection in the most dangerous possible circumstances.

The luminous form shifted his attention to the other side. For a moment, all German barrage ceased, as those men too tried to make sense of what they were seeing. For over a thousand yards, the specter strolled, looking first this way, then that. 

But the flares had signaled for assistance from the distant British artillery units. Suddenly shells were cascading down onto No Man's Land and edging closer to the German position. Naturally they fought back. 

Within the ensuing chaos of war, everyone seemed to lose sight of the apparent ghost. It had disappeared by the time the smoke cleared.

Paranormal Ghost Stories of the Somme Battlefield

Another Documentary about the Paranormal Somme

Ghosthunters - Battlefield Of The Somme

A psychic is taken onto the Somme Battlefield in this episode of Ghosthunters. What he found there will make your hair stand on end.

View on Amazon

Strange Experiences of Two First World War Artists

William Orpen and Henri Joffroy visited the same Somme location two days apart. They really wished that they hadn't.

An imposing memorial stands at Thiepval dedicated to the missing of the Somme. Carved upon it are the names of 73,367 British and Commonwealth soldiers, who have no known grave. Their bodies still lie under the surrounding countryside.

It is an area of military graves, acres upon acres of identical white headstones, all bearing the name of yet one more dead soldier. They overlook a delightful rural landscape.

The greenery of the rolling hills and the lush woodland surrounding the memorials are deceptive. They provide no testimony to the village of Thiepval, which once stood there before the Battle of the Somme crowded at its doors. Nor to the utter carnage in mud and terror that churned up this landscape in September 1916.

By November 1917, when two official World War One artists were in the vicinity, it all looked more like this.

Dublin born William Orpen had made a good living from painting the rich and famous before the Great War. Now he had been commissioned to produce artwork based on scenes from the Western Front.

In November 1917, Orpen carried his heavy canvas and easel into Thiepval Wood. It was over a year since hostilities had ceased in this particular location, but the wreckage was still there. He was surrounded by skeletons in the rags of their uniforms.

The artist's first indication that he wasn't quite alone came with a peculiar sense of strangeness, after he had already been painting for a couple of hours. The sun was still shining, but the day seemed dark. Orpen was overwhelmed by feelings of dread and fear. He sat down upon the blasted trunk of a blackened tree.

Suddenly something unseen seemed to rush at him. He was flung backwards and hit his head heavily on the ground. Then it was gone.

Struggling panic-stricken to his feet, the artist realized that his canvas was now quite destroyed. It too had smashed down hard, and an unknown soldier's skull had ripped through the center. Yet Orpen had the strongest compulsion to keep on painting. It appeared to him that the issue had been the fact that he'd stopped.

He continued on with no further ghostly interruptions, though the sense of dread went on.

But the story wasn't quite over. Shortly afterwards, Orpen was in conversation with a fellow Great War artist named Henri Joffroy. Though he didn't discuss the strange happenings there, he did mention that one of the British skulls had an unusual cleft in the jaw-bone.

Joffroy wished to make a study of it, but didn't have the transport to go to the location. Orpen offered to take him there, then return later to pick him up. As it happened, Orpen arrived much earlier than planned, as he'd picked up some lunch and decided to share his food with his fellow artist.

When Orpen strolled into Thiepval Wood, he found Joffroy lying prone on the ground away from the place where he'd been left. The stricken artist complained that the smell had made him feel ill, and that he was upset about an eye remaining in the skull's socket.

Orpen was understandably confused about this. A year had eroded the stench of the dead, and the eyes had long since gone from every skull.

William Orpen: An Onlooker in France

This book is where the artist recounted his strange experiences.

History Books about the Somme Offensive

Read these accounts to learn more about the Battle of the Somme, one of the world's most bloodiest battles of all time.

Mametz Wood: The Most Haunted Part of the Somme

Paranormal tours of the Somme will always include a trip to Mametz Wood, with very good reason. It is the location of most of the battlefield's ghost stories.

Image: Red Dragon Memorial at Mametz WoodThe experiences of Orpen and Joffroy seem indicative of many reports from the woods and copses around the Somme Battlefield.

Allied soldiers have been spotted amongst the trees of Delville Wood.  Eerie feelings have been a hallmark of a walk in just about them all.

But the spookiest of all came from a writer traversing the Nairne Street trench, in the midst of the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John copses. The hair stood up on the back of his neck, before he clearly heard a male voice speak right into his ear, "We're still here."

However all of these tales pale into insignificance when compared to the sheer volume of ghost stories emanating from Mametz Wood. While each tale told individually may not add up to much, the fact that there are so many highlights this as ground zero for most of the Somme's paranormal investigations.

Even the locals, who have grown up in and around the vast battlefield, tend to avoid this place. Too many of them have reported hearing bugle calls or the ghostly sounds of battle re-enacted within.

The centerpiece of the whole woodland is a huge Ddraig Goch (Red Dragon) holding a piece of broken barbed wire. This memorial should provide a huge clue to the nationality of the men who died there, at least on the Allied side. On the other was the Lehr Infantry Regiment.

During the first twelve days of July 1916, the Welsh Division was practically wiped out in their ultimately successful attempt to take the woods from the Germans. Over 4,000 men were killed; most just simply getting to the area in the face of fierce machine gun fire, and the rest in unrelenting hand-to-hand combat amongst the trees.

Words from Mametz Wood

These reflections are from Welshmen who were at Mametz Wood. They include Capt. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, David Jones, Un o'r Ffosydd, Rupert Graves and Harry Fellows.

Are the Germans Still Watching from Mametz Wood?

The Lehr Infantry Regiment held that position against all comers for eleven days, while the Welsh casualties piled up. On the twelfth day, the Welsh broke through.

Image: Mametz Wood by Christopher WilliamsThe vast majority of ghostly reports from Mametz Wood concerns the sensation of being watched.

People walking from Flatiron Cemetery, along the track before the trees, up to the Red Dragon monument find themselves feeling uneasy.

Even those who know nothing of the history, in this particular spot, gain the sense that dozens of eyes are charting their every step.

Of course, that's precisely what would have happened there in July 1916. The Lehr Infantry Regiment were watching from the trees. Their machine guns were at the ready. These men were known to be a formidable enemy, but they were also very human. Their fear and discomfort amongst the trees would have been palpable.

It wasn't only the Welsh who died at Mametz Wood. The Lehr-Infanterie-Regiment was left in such tatters that it couldn't be deployed again until September 1916, when fresh German conscripts had replenished its ranks and been trained to fight.

But for the Welsh Division coming, there was the reality of being sitting ducks out in that field and on that track. For most of them, this was their first taste of war, as their regiments had only recently been created by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George.

While the Germans were battle-hardened and weary, the Welsh were suffering the shock of arriving fresh from their native valleys. This was supposed to be full of honor and glory. Instead they'd had their leader, Major General Ivor Philipps, relieved of command under the slur that his Welsh Division wasn't 'determined' enough, because they hadn't taken the woods on day one.

Filled with shame, guilt and the injustice of it all, the Welsh were forced to clamber over the bodies of those who'd died on every day of the assault previously. Right into the German machine gunfire.

Meanwhile the Germans were also living with the sight and close proximity of all those Celtic dead. Teutonic eyes spent days staring out over the corpses, knowing that they'd have to add to the piles or be killed themselves.

Until the Welsh finally broke through, then it was hand-to-hand combat with fixed bayonets, daggers and point-blank gunfire.

Such high emotion, from both sides, can leave residual energy in the atmosphere. It is almost certainly this which modern day visitors to Mametz Wood are feeling.

Is the Lehr Infantry Regiment still watching? Probably not, but it feels like they are. At least to anyone with an ounce of clair-sentience in their soul.

Going Over The Top on the First Day of the Somme

Going Over the Top, Soldiers Climbing over Trench on First Day of Battle of Somme, July 1, 1916

Clair-Sentient Dread at the Somme Danger Tree

Emotional energy left in the atmosphere is also a factor at another location on the Somme.

Ghost story chronicler Edward Butts recorded how visitors to the battlefield 'have experienced a distinct chill; not the sort that comes from a fresh breeze, but something that reaches right to the bone.'

This wasn't at Mametz Wood, but at an area marked by 'The Danger Tree'.

One of the most tragic aspects of the Somme was how whole communities would sign up, fight and die together. In an instant, they would all be wiped out.

Such calamity beset a whole male generation of Newfoundland and Labrador. On July 1st 1916, the whole Newfoundland Regiment were sent over the top, supported by the British Essex men of the 29th British Division. It was an order which meant almost certain death.

Newfoundland and Labrador Ghost Stories

As they squeezed through a gap in the barbed wire marked by a tree, there was no cover from the gunmen in the German trenches. Nor was there any other distraction, as the rest of the fighting had shifted down the line. In short, machine guns could be opened upon them without pause for a mad dash of 750 yards.

Next morning at roll call, only 68 Newfoundlanders replied. The day before there had been 810.

Today the barbed wire has gone, but still there is the remains of what the Newfoundland Regiment dubbed the Danger Tree. Edward Butts continued describing the effect on unwary Somme tourists wandering too near it. 'They have felt an overwhelming sense of dread and depression, and a sudden urge to get away from the place as quickly as possible.'

It seems like a fair enough response given the emotion felt by those needlessly sacrificed to folly there.

Memorabilia from the Battle of the Somme on eBay

The Somme Soldier Stuck in a Foreign Land

Presumably Sergeant Thomas Hunter just wants to go home to Australia. Or else he just wishes to communicate that he's still here.

Image: Sergeant Thomas HunterSergeant Thomas Hunter made it out of the Somme, but he didn't make it home. The native of Kurrii Kurrii, New South Wales, died of his injuries, while lying in an English hospital bed.

Sergeant Hunter was a member of the Tenth Corps Australian Expeditionary Force. He was right in the thick of action at the Somme during the opening days in July 1916.

Once wounded, he was airlifted out and flown to Peterborough, in England. There he died in the infirmary on July 31st 1916 and was buried in the nearby Broadway Cemetery. His memorial plaque, pictured here, is in Peterborough Cathedral.

However that was not the end of him.

The First World War infirmary building has since changed purpose. It now forms the premises of Peterborough Museum. It's along these corridors, and on a specific staircase, that the ghostly form of Sergeant Hunter is often seen. Curators alone in the building also hear footsteps pacing in the rooms above. Investigating the sounds always reveals them to be deserted.

Unlike the majority of ghosts connected with the Somme, this one is sentient. Visitors to the museum have reported feeling a hand clamp down upon their shoulder. It's an icy sensation, which chills them to the bone.

Though the museum's curators assume that the ghostly hand is down to Sergeant Hunter too, they can't be certain. For those who experience this will turn around to find nobody there, though the freezing pressure remains solidly on their shoulder.

Fields of Poppies - the Somme Today

Fields of Poppies, Valley of the Somme, Nord-Picardy (Somme), France

More Supernatural Stories from Battle Sites

The Battle of Sharpsburg, aka Antietam, was the bloody start to the Maryland Campaign of the American Civil War. Today it's one of America's most haunted sites.
On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.
History knows it as Custer's Last Stand. It was more like Sitting Bull's Last Stand, along with thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Are they still holding firm?
The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point during the American Civil War. It's been the location of countless ghostly tales ever since.
Updated: 09/12/2014, JoHarrington
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Stephen Crowther on 09/16/2017

Re. The soldier stuck in a foreign land - no casualties were "airlifted," he would have been moved by motor transport and train.

JoHarrington on 07/04/2013

I think it would break my heart to go there. In researching this article, I discovered that my great-uncle had been at Mametz Wood. He survived that, but not the war.

kate on 06/20/2013

Thanks Jo. I have been to Thiepval & Mametz Wood amongst other places along the western front. Although i didn't see anything supernatural they were both tremendously moving places to visit. Not far from Mametz woods there are mini-cemeteries housing whole villages of 'pals' who joined the army together at the start of the war - all side my side still. hard not to choke up when you visit

JoHarrington on 06/17/2013

Let's do this thing! I'll take you to a random field first, second or third, then somewhere in the middle will be the actual Marston Moor. Good luck!

Paul on 06/17/2013

I'd definitely be up for it, bring on the ghosties!

JoHarrington on 06/17/2013

It would be quite difficult to do in the Somme, because it would be too easy to guess where you were. It's not like you can pull up somewhere in Northern France and just drive a couple of miles without anyone knowing they were in the vicinity.

It could easily be done at somewhere like Drumossie Moor (Culloden) or Naseby. It could definitely be done at Marston Moor. Main roads go straight through the middle of it, and people don't usually know they're even in the middle of an English Civil War battlefield (until they have to slam on their brakes for a ghostly cavaliar). Perhaps that's the way forward.

Any volunteers?

Paul on 06/17/2013

It would be interesting to see the blindfolded test; I'd imagine it to have drastic effects.

JoHarrington on 06/16/2013

That's the big debate, isn't it? Are those people visiting the Somme bringing with them knowledge of the history, thus imagining those emotions? Or are they actually picking up the emotions that were left by those who fought?

The trick would be to take someone blind-folded and lead them into the middle of the Somme battlefield, then see if they pick something up.

Personally, I know that things are left behind in some places. I've been to Drumossie Moor.

jptanabe on 06/16/2013

With so many deaths it's not surprising that people feel something when they visit the site of the Somme battlefield.

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