Ghost Hunters: Battlefield of the Somme

There isn't really much meat in this episode. Peter Bowers wanders around the battlefield and makes suitable remarks and looks suitably upset. Anyone would. He is put up in a house that was used as a hospital in the war. He comes up with a tale about a doctor. Firstly, I'd like to say that it would take  him five seconds to ask the owners 'What's the history of this place then?' and for them to dish the dirt unwittingly. Secondly, I would point out that his doctor actually went home alive. So how Peter's talking to him really makes no sense, even by his standards of Communicating With The Dead. As for the alleged "astonishing" coincidence of names - they weren't even the same names. It's not hugely impressive. And for my final remark - so yes the war was disgusting and terrible, it would have been a shattering experience to be there. But why would these Spirits be willing to stay there for 80 years reliving being shot by a machine gun? It doesn't add up to me. None of it adds up. I think it's all bunk.

Tom Morgan: And as the Newfoundlanders reached the British trenches and had to pass through the gaps cut in the wire, that’s where the killing grounds were and they literally fell in heaps, those behind had to climb over the bodies of their comrades who’d already fallen. And nobody got more than a few dozen yards from the trench.

Ralph Bennett: You have the horror of explosions everywhere, confusion, your officers are dead, your pals are being killed off to the left and right. You’re under orders not to stop for the wounded. You’re perspiring, you’re hot, it’s July, the goggles in your gas mask are fogging out. You lose your sense of direction. There’s fire and light from explosions everywhere. You’re leaderless and you’re about 20 years old.

Narrator: This innocent looking stretch of green rolling countryside is steeped in blood. It is the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in all human history. In just over 4 months over a million young men were killed here. Many tens of thousands of them remain unfound, scattered together with the remnants of the battle, the spent bullets and the belt buckles, the helmets and the shell cases, along the gently winding banks of the River Somme in Northern France. The battle started in the high summer of 1916. The two armies, the allies on one side and the Germans on the other, had become locked in stalemate, facing each other in deep trenches that ran for miles across the countryside just a few hundred miles apart. The British decided on a frontal assault, to slice through the enemy lines and roll them back in a matter of weeks all the way to the Rhine. That was the objective. It began with the most massive artillery bombardment in military history –  for six days, night and day, the guns roared, and one and a half million shells rained down on the enemy lines. Then at 7.30am on the 1st of July 1916, the whistles blew and the bagpipes shrilled, and tens of thousands of young men rose out of the trenches and moved towards the German lines. Most never made it but were cut down in a wasteland of mud and shell holes. Sixty thousand British and Commonwealth men were killed or wounded on the very first day. The attack ground to a halt. Four months later when the battle had ended, all that had been won for all the hundreds of thousands of men that had been lost was a few square miles of this shattered landscape.  Eighty years later the countryside has scarcely changed – apart from, that is, the cemeteries, nearly 200 of them with their neat rows of white headstones where the British have located their mass graves. We travelled across this battlefield with two people – one, an internationally known psychic medium, Peter Bowers, to see if anything remained of the fear and the grief and terror of this place all these years ago. The other a historian, Tom Morgan, an authority on every detail of the battle – to see if any of the psychic perceptions matched any of the historical record. Peter of course couldn’t be isolated from the history of the battle, but he claims he’s never studied it in detail, never visited the Somme. He certainly had no foreknowledge of which parts of this difficult and confusing battlefield we were to visit. We ourselves only made the decision at the very last minute. But almost immediately, he began to make contact, not only with a generalised sense of fear, but with individuals, even names and places.
Peter Bowers: Rogers. Rogers. What’s the first name. Daniel. No no sorry, Thomas, Thomas Daniel Rogers... His name is T E Wilkinson and he feels like a Lieutenant in the army and he’s coming down here with a small platoon, and the name Wilkinson, Sharpie Wilkinson it keeps coming again and again. And there’s a conflict taking place now, as though part of him’s saying ‘you’ve got to go that way’ but there’s the realisation as if if you go that way, that way’s going to be no good, and let’s go this way. So he’s setting off down here. And his orders are to go straight ahead, but he’s adapting them. That’s the best way he can put it. And he’s got to go down here. But… this is getting no better than going down there. A horrible feeling now, as though the bubble has completely closed around me, and I’m trapped in this – it’s as though the rest of the lads are right behind me and I’ve got separated in some way, perhaps I pushed too hard, and it’s like a bubble. It’s as though I’m going in and I’m being surrounded on all sides by feelings and the enemy and I’m trapped. And there’s a small contingent of us, perhaps 50,60,70 of us, something like that. And we’ve broken through but nobody else has, and as I’m going there’s a terrible feeling in my stomach and my legs are quaking. And the whole lot is.. it’s just terror now.

Narrator: Tom the historian of course reserved judgement. But he was astonished at the accuracy of many of the descriptions that Peter came up with, about the location of particular groups of soldiers and lines of battle. Details he believed that would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to pick up from the official histories. This sense of entrapment, for example, in a particular place. There was just such an event in this very place, when a group of men were cut off from their comrades and completely surrounded.

Tom Morgan, World War 1 Historian: The attack failed in an extreme blizzard, and they all withdrew, but what they didn’t know was that a force of a hundred men were left there and they were cut off. And various rescue attempts were made, and they all failed, and the men stayed there for about a week, and slowly their numbers became less and less until they were obliged to surrender. And they certainly were cut off here, and they certainly did break into something that closed around them and they were, it was not possibly to rescue them and extract them from it. And that’s where the battle actually ended in November.

Narrator: But what about the names – did these people exist? Peter made it clear that he had no sense of when during the four months of the battle or even the war people had been killed. And official records don’t describe how or when soldiers died, only when and where they’re buried. But the extraordinary fact is some of these names do seem to check out. There was a Thomas Rogers in the Leicestershire Regiment as Peter described. Not a Thomas Daniel, but a Thomas Humphrey Rogers. There was a TE Wilkinson killed, not a lieutenant but a sergeant, in the regiment that was surrounded. And there were four or five others that Peter came up with that were the same, or very close to names that appear in the official records. It is conceivable of course that Peter learned of these names in some other way. But he can only say he denies any such suggestion.  Very close to where we stopped the cars and Peter marched off across the fields, there was a deep gully. In the few hours before dawn on the 1st July 1916 this ditch or lane was packed with young men – bayonets fixed, nervously waiting for the signal to attack. It was a very dangerous spot in the middle of no-man’s land between the lines, which they had prepared as a jumping off point. When the attack started, the first wave were cut down by machine guns as soon as they broke into the open. Many died in the field where they lay. But some made it back into the ditch. And as succeeding waves met the same fate, the chaos along the sunken road (as it’s called) steadily grew. We didn’t take Peter to this isolated spot. He didn’t have a compass or a map and it would have been very difficult if not impossible for him to navigate himself to it. He came across the lane as he marched across a field following impressions he’d picked up earlier. And immediately he felt a sense of panic and chaos.

Peter: There’s a sense of confusion as though I’m breaking through into something now, but as I’m getting in this here it’s as if I’ve been caught again. It’s not the same feeling as before as being trapped, but I’m setting off for something and there’s the sense of realisation as I’m getting through here that – hold on this is no better than the other things were. Um. The whole sensation of people packed in together here. Before when I was up there I was running across a wide open space but now I’m trapped in this small space, and I’m enclosed. But there’s not just a few of us, there’s a lot of us, there’s a whole phalanx of people, of men moving up this way, coming down from somewhere, and up this way and across up the top. Um. It’s raining bullets. I seem to be standing in a sea of bodies. As I’m going further down I’m getting more and more, I can see bodies.

Narrator: Peter’s sense of the events in this place were again very close to what actually happened.

Tom: The sunken road is only really sunken for about the last five hundred yards of its length. Where we’re standing now would have been a suicidal spot to stand. And on the morning of the 1st of July at 3:20, the first battalion Lancashire Fusiliers advanced into this sunken road, through tunnels, to give themselves a little headstart at the beginning of the battle. They climbed out of their trenches and immediately came under fire from three or four machine guns. And the ones that weren’t wounded immediately and left out in no-man’s land, managed to get back into the sunken lane. From the point of view of fatalities, and bad things happening, there were hundreds of people that died lonely sordid deaths in the lane behind us.

Narrator: This small French guest house stands about two hundred yards behind the former British battle lines. During the battle all those years ago it was used as a small field hospital. And this detail is by no means widely known, even by the historians of the battle. But in our researches we learned there had been a number of paranormal events here, and this is where without any information or prior warning we arranged for Peter to stay. He slept in the Blue Room, and he had, he said, two very disturbed nights. He claimed he made contact with a young doctor.

Peter: I’m in the cellar of the house where I’ve been staying for the past two nights. Two quite disturbed nights in fact, waking up at two o’clock in the morning on both occasions. Last evening I was woken up again at 2 o’clock and got the impression there was someone coming towards me, that there was someone in the house with me. And during the course of the next two hours a picture built up of a young doctor by the name of Steven, who was actually based in this house, which I understand was just back from the trenches while the fighting was carried on. And he operated and worked in this basement area as a temporary operating theatre or patch-you-up place. And the impression I get is that this end of the cellar was used as the preparatory section, and through the tunnel over there is another room which was used for operations, cleaning up. And this young man spent quite a lot of time in there dealing with people who obviously must have been coming off in great numbers from the battlefield, and during the course of that I saw amputations, which he wasn’t used to, he said he hadn’t previously done. And he worked from this house and one a little bit down the road. He had these two places, they were his hospital if you like, or his first stage hospital. And he suffered a great deal of shock and hurt psychologically down in this cellar and in the other, even though I feel that he did his operations here more than down the road. And as a result of this he got shell shock, and while he stuck it out for a couple of years here, at the end of that it actually affected the rest of his life.

Narrator: Peter’s story was remarkably accurate. The hotel owners, for example, told us of veterans that came back over the years – some had even had amputations here. They made their way down into the cellar to make their peace with this place. And that is typical of the whole story of this battle – it is far from being distant dusty history. What happened in this countryside still casts its shadow across the present. A whole generation of young men was lost here. And because of the way the men were recruited and kept together in fighting units as so called lads or pals, all the young men from a school or a village or even a street, could be wiped out in a single attack.

Ralph Bennett, World War 1 Historian: What’s tragic in British military history is that in the case of the Leeds pals, or the Bradford pals, or sections of Manchester: these batallions would enlist as friends, as colleagues. In the case of the church lads, 32 of them that assaulted Highwood worked at the same factory. And in an hour an area of a town could lose a generation of their young people.  And what would happen, the notice would arrive, and in those days there was a tradition of drawing down the blinds in grief, so the whole town would have lost their youth. After the Somme, the British changed their recruitment policy, so it never could quite happen again.

Narrator: But change came too late for the young men of Newfoundland. This particular line of trenches was the scene of one of the worst tragedies of the battle. The attack had fizzled out within an hour or so. But the generals wanted a breakthrough. They offered up the Newfoundland volunteers, a regiment that consisted of almost the entire male population of the then dominion of Newfoundland. And they went into attack.

Tom: The attack had actually fizzled out in this area at 7:30 or shortly afterwards. And an order was given to renew the attack with the Newfoundlanders with the Essex regiment accompanying them. The communication trenches which brought the Newfoundlanders this way were so choked with the dead and dying from the 7:30 attack just here that the officers decided to proceed over the top, so they climbed out of the trenches and walked over the top – which made them instantly visible to every German in the area. Nothing much had happened here, it was about 8:20am, nothing much had happened here for half an hour. And so the German defenders in their front line trenches, immediately behind me, about 500 yards away, were able to direct the fire of every spare available weapon onto the Newfoundlanders as they advanced. And as the Newfoundlanders reached the British trenches and had to pass through gaps cut in the wire, that’s where the killing grounds were. They literally fell in heaps; those behind had to climb over the bodies of their comrades who had already fallen, and nobody got more than a few dozen yards from the trench. And at the roll call later it was found that between 700 and 750, depending on which source you go to, were unaccounted for at the end of the battle.

Narrator: As if to heighten the drama of the scene, the sun began to go into partial eclipse just as we began to reach this line of trenches. Peter hadn’t been told this story and as far as we knew had no knowledge of it. He spent some time walking along the line of the old earthworks. Then, either from natural compassion, or perhaps from the sheer weight of the pain and the fear that he felt he was literally overcome [we see him fall to his knees]. He was only able to talk about it calmly later on.

Peter: Around this vicinity there seem to be a lot of people, a lot of spirits who are stuck, who haven’t moved over since the first world war. Their main problem seems to be a loss of direction, a loss of control. And there’s a lot of anxiety and fear about them as well. So if you mix all this lot together, they’re finding it very hard to move from the positions they were last in when they died. And there are pockets of energy which suggest there are spirits trapped all over the place, but they’re concentrated in certain areas. A lot of them don’t appear to have moved very far from where they fell on the battle fields. It’s almost as if they’re reliving the events which brought them to the end of their lives. And  they’re trapped in a cycle of reliving these events and the terror involved in them. Because terror is the underriding sensation through the whole of this episode.

Narrator: The Newfoundland battle took place in July. In August and September of this long hot summer and through October the battle raged on. And groups of men gave their lives to capture a mere patch of trees or a small wood. The names of these places have gone down in history – Devil’s wood and Highwood, for instance. Today they have become the haunt of amateur historians who spend days, even weeks, prowling across a battlefield where every ditch and hollow has its grim story to tell.

Ralph Bennett: The church lads marched 16 miles to get to a little wood outside of Bazentin le petit and they spent the night under shell fire and gas. And in the morning they got up and attacked Highwood, and they crossed the land between Bazentin le Petit and Highwood, under heavy shellfire and gas and under heavy machine gun fire, company A of that particular battalion was just about wiped out. They lost all their officers, all their non-commissioned officers. And they were penned down just inside the wood, where you can see a slight trench system now. The terror of that day is recorded in a lot of their writings. One in particular, Jack [?] talked about being in a shell hole, having watched his CEO Colonel go into shell shock, and then not only watching his pals being killed by shell fire, but then as the shells continued to hit, watching their bodies catapault into the air and turn over and over and come down again until they were literally broken apart, these bodies.

Narrator: When Peter came to Highwood it was clearly a very painful experience. For him it was almost as if the battle was still raging around him.

Peter: The pain of this place is intense as anywhere on this field. If ever Christ was crucified, it was here. I’m picking up pictures of the war of attrition that wouldn’t  go away, of men wandering around clutching onto each other, they couldn’t see a thing – there’s mist of pain. It’s utter carnage, it’s utter desolation. The feeling of abandonment is so great in this place that if ever a bird sang in these trees it’d need a lot of courage. The feeling is that just in front of us, only a few yards away, are trenches where hundreds of men, hundreds upon hundreds seemed to fall. And I’m seeing swirling gas, I’m seeing bayonets, I’m seeing all the paraphernalia of war, at its most cruel, at its most destructive. Poor souls that fell here. There’s so many that are hidden away, that we’ll never find. The lesson is never to forget.

Narrator: There is no doubt that the Somme was a tragedy on an epic scale. A massive European bloodbath, a whole generation of French and German and British and Commonwealth men lies buried beneath these fields. And there is no doubt that the battle lives on in the memories of the families who lost people here. And in the minds of soldiers who still walk the battlefield. They often talk of the shadow of a comrade at their shoulder. Or glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. But does it live on in any other sense, in Peter’s sense? With groups of men still wandering these fields in which they experienced such fear and met their death. It is of course impossible to say. There is no doubt that many of the details that Peter described were very close indeed to the actual events of the battle. As for the names, they are in a sense absolutely astonishing. But it has to be said that there can be no cast iron proof that Peter did not acquire his knowledge in some other way, however difficult that might seem. We can only leave it to you to make your own judgment.