Life After Death – A True Ghost Story from WW1

Life After Death – A Paranormal Tale

Are you fascinated by life after death, tales of the afterlife, the paranormal and supernatural? Do you have a family ghost story? Every family has one, even if you don’t know it. You just haven’t found yours yet. You need to ask your family story-keeper.  Everyone has one of those too – someone who gathers, stores and retells your family’s history. It’s usually, but not always, a woman – an aunt, a mother or grandmother, a great aunt or a cousin. If you don’t know who your story keeper is, it could be you.

The Story-Keeper

In our family it was my mum. She was born in 1922, when children, especially girls were expected to sit by their mother’s sides in silence and only speak when spoken to. So, in the kitchens and front rooms of Glasgow’s tenement buildings, a small thin dark- haired girl sat listening to conversations the adults somehow thought she couldn’t hear. She was like a recording machine and you could tell when she was switched on, because her eyes were wide like saucers.

The Woman in Black

Luckily, the tape survived in tack for almost eighty years, until one day my sister and I came across an old tin biscuit box crammed full of yellowing sepia photographs. They were of people in Victorian and Edwardian dress, mostly taken in photographers’ studios. Everyone was in their Sunday best and each picture thoughtfully composed. There was a young woman wearing clothes reminiscent of the suffragette period –  a light blouse,  long straight dark skirt and narrow brimmed hat with a ribbon and flowers. She was standing with her left hand on the hall table by her side. That’s your grandma, said mum.  In another, a woman in black was seated beside a dining table, with a tall man standing behind with both hands on her chair, as if supporting her. Looking into the lens of the camera, she seemed anxious or frightened, definitely uneasy and unused to the surroundings.

The First World War – ‘Over my dead body!’

We took out the rest of the pictures and placed them in front of mum. Picking up a photo of a young soldier, from the First World War, it was as if we switched on the playback button (of her memory).  ‘That’s my uncle Hugh’, she said, ‘your great uncle’.  We sat looking at the picture.  He looked unbelievably young, dressed in his private’s uniform. He was wearing a glengarry, the traditional cap of many Scottish regiments perched on the side of his head, and he held a swagger stick under his arm.  Staring straight into the camera, he looked very sure, and yet unsure about what he had done.

Mum said Hugh was the youngest of four brothers. They joined up at the very start of the war and had been sent to France and the Middle East. My grandad John Cairns was the eldest and was assigned to the machine gun crop. This unit would later be known as the ‘suicide squad’, because of the extraordinary high rate of casualties, even by First World War standards. Hugh felt he was missing out on the glory and the adventure and feared the war would be over by the time he enlisted. So, one day he ran down to the recruiting office, lied about his age, and joined the Highland Light Infantry (HLI). Feeling proud that he would now be doing his ‘bit’, he walked into a photographer’s studio and had this photo taken.

When he returned home, there was uproar. His family had tried to protect him, for they knew what the war was like by this time. His brothers warned him under no circumstances was he to enlist, ‘over my dead body’, his father shouted at him. Shaking her head, my   mum said it had caused a terrible fight in the house. Everyone was shouting and bawling and calling him a stupid bugger (and the rest!) and his mother was crying. His parents even took him back down to the recruiting office and told the officials he was too young, but what was done couldn’t be undone. Hugh became another young soldier destined for the fields of Flanders.

The woman in black seated at the table was, of course, his mother.  Was this photo taken after the news of Hugh had reached the first floor “room ‘n’ kitchen” in one of the many backstreets in Glasgow’s city centre, or did it commemorate an earlier loss? Was the anxious, uneasy look really grief, in all of its manifestations?

The Great War – The Mystery of the Unmarked Grave

What happened to him, I asked my mum as we stared at the photo. ‘Killed’, mum said, ‘blown up’, not long after the picture was taken. ‘In France’, I queried, ‘I think so’, mum replied. He looked so young, hardly sixteen.

Some years after that night we spent sitting around the kitchen table talking about Hugh, I went on one of those First World War battlefields tours. It was a very specialised tour, focussed on finding out information on specific soldiers. There were four of us, five if you included our wonderful guide, John, a veteran of the ‘Falklands War’.  John found out that Hugh had been killed on the 2nd December 1917 at Passchendaele. He had no known grave but was commemorated on one of the many walls at Tyne Cot cemetery, near the town of Ypres.

Walking through the massive graveyard, with its rows and rows of gravestones permanently standing to attention, my eyes lingered on one with the same date as Hugh’s death. It read ‘Here lies the grave of an unknown British soldier’. I called to John and my companions, ‘look at this, it’s the same date as Hugh’. Then when we looked along the rest of the row, and several rows behind, they all had the same date. But the only one that was ‘unknown’ was the first one I’d come across. Was Hugh guiding me to his resting place? Did he want me to let the family know, after all these years, where he was? John our guide, who had seen many unexplained paranormal activities in his time in the armed forces, was absolutely convinced I had found Hugh’s grave. At any rate, on the wall behind, there indeed was Hugh’s name among the many.

‘An Unknown British Soldier’

Yet John, an expert in the history of the First World War, couldn’t understand why there were so many casualties on the 2nd of December 1917. All the major battles of Ypres and Passchendaele had already taken place, and little, as far as history was concerned, was happening in Passchendaele in the late winter of 1917. Yet, in a quiet corner of this cemetery in Belgium, the remains of a Scottish battalion tell a different story.

We found out Hugh joined the 16th battalion of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in Glasgow. It was nick named the Boys Brigade, because so many of its recruits were ex members of BB companies in the city. When Hugh first arrived in France his platoon was first assigned to digging trenches. It was probably not the heroic action he’d dreamed about, but it was a very common and necessary task troops had to carry out.

On a Bright Moonlight Night

On the night Hugh died, the platoon was charged with ‘taking out’ a machine gun position set up in an old derelict farm. It was a cold crisp winter’s night, with a soft layer of snow glistening on the ground. There was also a full moon reflecting on the ponds and the whiteness all around. This meant visibility was excellent if you happened to be the company defending the machine gun position. Hugh and his compatriots are likely to have been lit up against the night sky and fairly easy targets. The war diary details when and where the officers were killed, but there is little mention of the privates and no mention of Hugh, beyond recording the number of men killed.  Half the platoon was lost that night.

Laying the Past to Rest – Goodnight Sweet Lad

Ninety years later we stand at a crossroads in the Belgium countryside, close to the derelict farm where Hugh was killed. It has been restored and is now a working farm, and the farmer has given us permission to plant a tree. Lining the single-track road is the mayor of Ypres, a high-ranking official from the Belgium armed forces and the director of the Memorial Museum Passchendaele. There is also our little group, a minister and the farmer, and others who have just stopped by. The minister gives a short service, I sing ‘Take the High Road’ and then we observe a minute’s silence. Finally, we plant the tree and the bugler plays the last post.  Hugh might not have a ‘known’ grave, but he does have a beautiful Hazel tree flourishing in a pretty corner of Belgium, in his memory.

Your True Ghost Stories

Let me know your family ghost stories, or any real-life ghost stories you know of. I’d love to hear from you.


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