Search for Truth  by Harry Price  (1942)


Chapter 7  .  The First World War...

I ARRIVED  in Paris on the very day that the storm burst - that fatal Saturday, August 2, 1914, just before the Bank Holiday.  It is true that Austria had declared war on Serbia on July 28, but we in our Sussex village of Pulborough could not visualise the implications of this development; and what London papers I saw gave no hint of the imminence of the impending holocaust.

To this day, I do not know why my wife and I chose the Newhaven-Dieppe route to the French capital.  I have been to -or through - Paris more than one hundred times, but only twice have I failed to travel via Dover or Folkestone, thus always touching London en route.  If we had travelled to London on this particular Saturday morning, we might have become cognisant of the true state of affairs and would have postponed our holiday, and saved ourselves a good deal of trouble.  But we should have missed some exciting incidents.

When we arrived at Newhaven, I purchased the latest London papers, but could find no news alarming enough to warn us against continuing our journey.  The boat started punctually, and we got to Dieppe at the scheduled time.  And then what a transformation!

Those who have had experience of French quays and French porters know what a pandemonium occurs when a boat arrives at one of the Channel ports.  The porters, reeking of garlic, push and shove their way down the gangways in order to get on to the boat, at the same time as the passengers push and shove their way up the gangways, in order to get off - everyone shouting and gesticulating the while.  But as our steamer drew alongside the quay, there was hardly a man to be seen.  By the time we had made fast and the gangways were trundled on, a few officials appeared from somewhere, and we were told to get off the boat.

It is one of my golden rules to travel light - very light - when I am abroad.  But as luck would have it, we had with us a large and heavy leather cabin trunk that I could not possibly manage myself.  I asked one of the officials where the porters were.  And then I heard the news: early that morning complete mobilisation had been ordered by the authorities, and every Frenchman up to sixty years of age had had to report to his local mairie or other centre.  About an hour later a few decrepit porters had been dug out of the cafés in


the town, and I finally got the cabin trunk to the Paris train in which - fortunately - we had reserved seats.

The train was packed with people, mostly holiday-makers.  It was a restaurant train, but the restaurant had disappeared, together with its staff.  I noticed, too, that all the signal cabins were empty.  Very few officials were to be seen anywhere.

We left Dieppe Maritime at 5.30 - about the time we should have arrived in Paris.  As we steamed slowly out of the station, I noticed that the train was being hand-signalled by men on the line waving flags.  This happened all the way to Paris.  It was a slow and tedious journey marked by one dramatic incident.

As we approached Pontoise, our train was halted on the bridge that crosses the Oise.  Many of the passengers, including myself, poked their heads out of the windows in order to have a look at the town and river.  We had been there about ten minutes when a man suddenly leapt out of one of the carriages and rushed to the side of the bridge.  He was carrying a parcel.  He had barely crossed the rails when a shot rang out and he fell screaming by the side of the line.  He was dead.  It appears - as I learned later - that he was a German spy with instructions to blow up the bridge.  I often wonder what would have happened to us - and him - had he succeeded.  The French had got wind of the plot and the guards were waiting for something of the sort to happen.  His 'parcel' did not explode - fortunately.  This spy was probably the first war casualty in France.

This incident delayed us still more, and it took us another two hours to cover the eighteen miles between Pontoise and Paris, where we arrived, tired and excited, just as the clocks were striking ten.

We have heard a good deal about the 'Latin temperament,' but never have I seen a city so excited, and such indescribable chaos, as on this eventful evening.  Although the Gare St. Lazare was packed with a surging and excited mass of people meeting the trains, there were no officials that I could see, and no tickets were collected.  I finally found a tout in the street who offered to carry my cabin trunk to one of the voitures découvertes or open victorias (the taxis had completely disappeared), the driver of which he had discovered eating an arlequin - a dish composed of bits and pieces - in a cheap assommoir.  The cocher finally agreed to take us to our hotel off the Champs-Elysées for the equivalent of ten shillings - six times his legal fare.  We crawled along through the city, the driver repeatedly thrashing what, in a moment of enthusiasm, he referred to as his 'horse.'

When at last we arrived at the hotel, I found that all the male


staff had disappeared - together with all the victuals!  As we were nearly starving, I set off - on foot, this time - to find some food.  Although it was then well past midnight, the streets were packed with shouting and singing multitudes, drunken soldiers, rowdies, women, and louts screaming 'à Berlin! à Berlin!'  There were few police, and fewer vehicles.  The Metro had ceased functioning.  As I made my way along the Grands Boulevards, I noticed more one German shop that had been wrecked, and a Delikatessen establishment had been set on fire and was still burning.  They do these things better in France!

In the Rue de Lafayette I was fortunate enough to find a food shop open with something to sell.  It was a crèmerie, and I managed to purchase a cream cheese, some pickles in an ice-cream carton, and half a yard of bread.  It had to last us for more than twenty-four hours.

Finally, we got to bed, but not to sleep.  Aeroplanes were circling round the city all night, and the searchlight at the top of the Eiffel Tower lit up our room every minute or so as it searched the skies for, I assumed, hostile aircraft.  Needless to say, we did not unpack as we realised that the bottom had been knocked out of our holiday.  We were up early next morning, and went in search of newspapers.  They were plentiful, and the first thing that caught my eye was a 'Notice to Foreigners.'  We were told, in a few words, that all visitors would have to leave the city, and that those living in England could depart by only two trains, each leaving at 9 a.m. from the Gare du Nord and the Gare St. Lazare respectively.  Failing to catch either of these two trains, it was stated, the unlucky 'foreigner' would have to remain in Paris 'for the duration.'  Of course, the French completely lost their heads.

Well, after a hurried cup of coffee, I set off to discover some means of getting that infernal cabin trunk to the Gare St. Lazare.  I counted myself lucky in finding another rickety old vehicle - a cross between a drosky and a victoria - the ancient driver of which consented to take me to the station.  His price, too, was twelve francs.  He helped me to place the trunk on the strapontin or tip-up front seat; we took our places on the seat opposite, and off we went.

Those of my readers who know the Gare St. Lazare will remember that the station lies high above the street level, from which it is approached by steps.  Consequently, our driver had to drop us in the Rue de Rome, close by, partly on account of the vast crowds that were massed round the station approaches.  We climbed down from our seats, paid the driver his blood-money, and I was about to ask him to assist me in getting the cabin trunk up the steps, when he


whipped up his horse and 'dashed' - at ten miles an hour - down the Rue d'Amsterdam and was soon lost among the crowd.  I shouted to him, but as everyone was shouting too I might have saved my breath.  In the confusion, I omitted to take his number.

At first I thought that our driver might be going to take our luggage to the train by a back way.  So we climbed the steps into the station and waited for ten minutes - but neither driver nor luggage put in an appearance.  Then I saw a notice to the effect that only hand luggage would be permitted on the train.  I concluded that our cocher was also aware of this fact, and that he was determined to save us any further concern about the cabin trunk, in which were our entire belongings - except an umbrella, and an expensive camera that I had slung round me.  My tickets and money were, of course, in my pocket.

Well, we were now travelling 'light' with a vengeance, but I consoled myself with the fact that I had insured our baggage for £200, and doubtless I should receive the money in due course.

The train started punctually at 9 o'clock, and was simply choked with people.  We were hand-signalled all the way to Dieppe, where we arrived at one o'clock, instead of at eleven as per schedule.  Fortunately for us, it was a glorious day.  I say' fortunately,' because we were wedged in an enormous crowd (which no single Channel steamer could possibly accommodate) on Dieppe quay for six solid hours.  People had streamed in from all over France in order to catch this - alleged - 'last boat' to Albion.

There was one gleam of hope.  We had been pushed along the quay by the surging crowd until we were unable to be squashed any further, and we found ourselves exactly opposite the berth where I thought our steamer ought to arrive.  I was correct in my judgment.  The boat pulled in about seven o'clock in the evening, and we found ourselves exactly opposite the gangways.  We were the first on board.  We were lucky.

We witnessed one pathetic incident.  An artiflo (as a French artilleryman is called), almost demented by the thought of having to join the colours, made a wild dash to the gangways in an attempt to board the English boat.  But a sous-lieutenant and guards were stationed there in order to prevent such an occurrence, and a smashing blow with the butt-end of a rifle sent him reeling to the ground.  Poor devil!

The boat left Dieppe at eight o'clock (leaving many thousands of people on shore) and arrived at Newhaven at midnight.  We found that a special train was waiting to take people to Brighton, where we eventually found ourselves at one o'clock in the morning on the


August Bank Holiday.  We had with us exactly what we stood up in - plus an umbrella and a camera, not very helpful adjuncts to a comfortable night's rest!

Brighton was packed with holiday-makers, and we despaired of finding accommodation.  We knocked up hotel after hotel, only to be told that there were no beds.  Finally, a friendly police-officer came to our assistance and found us a room in one of the better hotels.  This room had been previously booked by a honeymoon couple who were 'returning from the Continent.'  I have often wondered where they slept that night!

Lack of night clothes did not prevent our sleeping until the sun was high in the heavens, and we did full justice to our ten o'clock breakfast - the first real meal for more than forty-eight hours.  We arrived home in time for lunch, much richer in experience - though poorer in worldly goods - than when we left Pulborough two days previously.  Two days?  It seemed like a month!  Our book of tickets and coupons was intact.  It might interest readers to know that a monthly first-class return ticket to Paris was then 52s. 4d.

Our adventures, though wildly exciting to us, need not have occurred at all.  I repeat, the French authorities simply lost their heads at the outbreak of the War.  The twaddle about 'last boats' and being 'interned for the duration' was so much nonsense.  As a matter of fact, boats from Dieppe and Calais left these ports daily for England for weeks afterwards, and we might have made the trip home in comfort.

The first thing I did when I arrived home was to try to collect the insurance money on the cabin trunk.  I was told point-blank that the loss was due to 'commotion during a state of war' and that I should have to whistle for my money.  So that was that!

Then it occurred to me that the trunk might, perhaps, be discovered lurking somewhere in Paris.  So I approached Thomas Cook and Son, and told them the story.  They did recover it for me - exactly fourteen months later.  And a most curious story goes with its finding.

It appears that the old cocher knew that I should not be allowed to take the trunk on the train with me, and thought that I, too, was aware of this fact.  So, without saying a word to me, he dashed off with my trunk, and took it to his lodgings, where he kept it twelve months.  He did not inform the police; he did not inform his local mairie; he did not inform the Chemins de Fer de l'Ouest people (he ought, of course, to have deposited it in the Salle de Bagages at the station).  No, he just took it home, put it in a garret, and forgot it!  It never occurred to him that someone might be


inquiring for it!  Through Messrs. Cooks' agency, the French police interviewed every horse driver in Paris, and by a process of elimination discovered who had handled my trunk.  Fourteen months later I was asked to send the keys of the trunk to the Customs at Dover, and my property was then returned to me.  I found that not a single thing in the trunk had been touched.  The contents were intact, even to half a flask of old brown brandy.  The old cocher had been proved quite honest - honest, but silly.  Like so many other honest people.  The entire charge to me for the 'hunt' for my trunk was exactly one pound sterling - which does credit to all concerned.

When the excitement had died down, the question arose as to what I could do in the general War effort.  As I suffered from a badly-strained heart, this disability precluded my 'seeking the bubble reputation' in the orthodox way, or doing anything very strenuous.  But I had to do something.

It then occurred to me that my knowledge of photography and photographic optics, and especially of filters and colour photography, might be useful to the Royal Flying Corps (the Royal Air Force, as from April 1, 1918).  Aerial photography was then in the embryonic stage, and we knew very little as to what were the best cameras, lenses, emulsions and, especially, filters, for use in high altitudes.

For my non-photographic readers I should point out that, for clear-cut aerial pictures, the bluey haze of the atmosphere has to be eliminated as far as possible.  This is done by means of 'filters' - often yellow-stained sheets of gelatine sandwiched between optical 'flats,' or piece of glasss with optically true flat surfaces.  For years I had experimented with various kinds of stains and dyes, for both kite photography and telephoto work.

So I decided to offer the results of my work to the Royal Flying Corps and, to this end, paid several visits to Farnborough, then the headquarters of the photographic section of the R.F.C.  There I saw Major Campbell, then head of the section.  He was very interested.  I left the various telephotographs and colour pictures with the R.F.C., and they were never returned to me.   They are probably adorning the walls of some official's home, and, should he ever see this, I hope he will return them!

It will be remembered that when the ammunition shortage became acute, Mr. Lloyd George's drive for more machine tools materially relieved the situation.  Under the Sussex county scheme, I was asked whether I could undertake the manufacture of shell fuses.  I said I would.  My workshop then possessed only one power


lathe.  However, I obtained a permit to purchase a large lathe from Messrs. Vickers', of Crayford, together with a power hack-saw.  I enlarged my workshop, employed a man and a boy, and got down to the job.  By the time we had made or bought the various gauges and templates, the sacks of phosphor-bronze castings began to arrive.

In my workshop we made No. 101E graze-fuses, complete from the rough castings.  There were many operations connected with the manufacture of these fuses, and we were working to very fine 'limits ' - some as fine as .001 of an inch.  It was excellent experience for me and stood me in good stead when I later founded my psychic laboratory and workshops.

In addition to the No. 101 fuses, I was also asked to make the cast-iron plugs which protected the shell-noses in transit before the fuses were screwed in.

The three of us finally attained an output of nearly 1000 fuses a month.  This may not sound very high, but considering the very fine and accurate work required, it was quite good - with our modest equipment.  I was asked to send one of the first batch of completed fuses to Brighton for inspection and gauging.  It was returned to me with a certificate to the effect that it was the 'second best' amongst the Sussex workshops.  This was gratifying, as we amateurs were competing with professional engineers with automatic machine tools.  This 'prize' fuse is before me as I write, nicely silver-plated and doing duty as a paper-weight.

I ran my workshop for about twelve months and, as a result of my success with the No. 101 fuses, I was asked whether I would take charge of the night-shift at the Tottenham factory of Messrs. Grimshaw, Baxter & J. J. Elliott, Ltd., the well-known clockmakers of Gray's Inn Road.  This factory building had only just been converted to war work, and I helped to plan the alterations and lay-out of the machinery - work very much to my liking.  Finally we got going in real earnest, and the automatic machines were running for twenty-four hours a day.  I had entire charge from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., and there were some hundreds of employees.  Our principal work was the making of the clockwork mechanism for fuses and parts of the Mills hand grenade.  We had occasional 'air-raid warnings,' and when an 'alert' was telephoned to me, I had to march the staff - especially the girls - to the crypt of a near-by chapel.  I saw more than one Zeppelin brought down in flames.  I remained at the Tottenham factory until the end of the War.

Psychical research during the First World War almost disappeared.  On the other hand, spiritualism gained many thousands


of adherents owing to the emotional stress caused by the carnage and to the fact that so many people were losing their dear ones.  They hoped that that was not 'the end.'  Two men were largely responsible for this emotional wave that swept the country.  They were Sir Oliver Lodge and the Rev. George Vale Owen.

It is generally thought that Sir Oliver's interest in spiritualism dated from when he lost his son in the First World War.  This is quite erroneous.  As far back as the 'seventies he was experimenting in thought-transference, and in 1901-3 he was President of the Society for Psychical Research.  But the War made him a spiritualist - and the alleged 'return' of his son Raymond finally convinced him of the truth of 'survival.'

Sir Oliver lost no time in proclaiming to the world that his dead son still 'lived.'  He wrote up all the evidence in his book Raymond (1916) and convinced many thousands of persons that life after death was indeed a fact.  Raymond became a best-seller and ran into many editions.

The 'proof' of the 'return' of Raymond was not comparable with the standard of evidence that Sir Oliver would have demanded from one of his own students who claimed an important discovery in the field of physics.  And yet he not only accepted the mediumistic evidence but, as spiritualism's greatest - because most distinguished - propagandist, he urged his conviction on the public too.

Briefly, on September 27, 1915, a medium 'saw,' clairvoyantly, a photograph taken at the front on August 24, 1915, in which Raymond was pictured.  No one knew anything about this photograph.  On December 3, 1915, another medium 'saw' this same photograph, and gave details of it: e.g. Raymond was carrying a cane (many officers do, of course), and that a brother officer's hand was on his shoulder, etc.  Nothing unusual about this.

On December 7, 1915, Sir Oliver received a copy of the photograph, and the séance-room details of it were confirmed.  This was hailed as a triumph for the 'spirits.'  Actually, it was nothing of the sort, but it was a triumph for the lucidity or paranormal cognition, by certain mediums, of something they had not acquired through their normal sensory organs.

The Rev. Vale Owen was a propagandist of a different type.  He was a seer, a dreamer, and his descriptions of the Summerland, as published in the Weekly Dispatch during the most emotional period of the War, did more to swell the ranks of the spiritualists than any similar newspaper articles.  But undoubtedly they brought consolation to many thousands of bereaved ones.

Very curiously, Sir A. Conan Doyle, another sincere - if credulous


- propagandist, did not come into prominence as a spiritualist until towards the end of the First World War.  As with Lodge, it is generally assumed that the loss of his son in the War drove him into the ranks of the spiritualists.  As a matter of fact, Doyle was writing to Light as far back as 1887 on the subject of telepathy - of which he was, even then, firmly convinced.

One of the most pathetic sights I have ever witnessed was the crowd of down-at-heel 'mediums' who used to haunt the boat-trains at Victoria Station, on the arrival of troops on leave from the front.  They were selling lucky charms, medals, and amulets, guaranteed to ensure complete safety in all disasters at the front.  Not only did they sell these charms (that could be sewn into the clothing or hung round the neck), but they also peddled 'letters of immunity' which, if carried on the person, would protect the owners from the shots and shells of the enemy.

These letters (and I have seen many of them) were usually handwritten verses from the Scriptures.  Sometimes they were adorned with pentagrams and magic symbols.  Some of these charms were of French origin, and one I saw was issued by members of the Order of Our Lady of Tears at Bordeaux.  It was in French, and consisted of some Biblical extracts.  The Order also issued sacred medallions (I have two of them) to be worn by soldiers who were thus supposed to be immune from enemy bullets.  Apparently these 'letters of immunity' are common in every war.  My friend, Professor A. vor Mohr, of Göttingen, presented me with one which his father carried during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.  It, too, consists of Scriptural verses in German.  The fact that the 'wearer' of this particular letter came unscathed through the war might be proof of its efficacy - or it might be coincidence!  I wonder if German soldiers in the present struggle put their trust in such things.(1)

Not only were the soldiers themselves importuned to purchase these metallic and paper aids to security, on their arrival at Victoria Station, but their relatives who met them were besieged by another class of charlatans who offered to hold séances and put them in touch with the spirit world.  This damnable trading on the most sacred emotions of the bereaved was finally stamped out by the military authorities.  Needless to say, no decent medium or spiritualist countenanced this horrible business.

As I have remarked, spiritualism received a fillip due to the emotional stress of the War, though scientific research in psychic matters was almost impossible.  The spiritualist and psychic

1. The Russians on the Moscow front reported that they found on captured German paratroops, cards on which were printed a 'special prayer for tight corners.'


societies flourished as they have never flourished before or since.  For example, the membership of the Society for Psychical Research stood in 1920 at 1305.  With the end of the war interest waned, and in 1941 the membership of the S.P.R. had dwindled to 576, including subscribing libraries.  But there are other reasons why the membership of this particular society has fallen.  What is going to happen to psychical research during the present struggle is difficult to forecast.  People are now devoting more time to the War effort, and less to their academic interests.  Also, the incomes of the leisured classes - the chief supporters of psychical research societies - are dwindling through taxation and high prices, and psychical research is now decidedly a luxury.

Although psychical research proper was almost non-existent from 1914 to 1918 (due partly to the fact that so many collaborators were either of enemy origin or resided in subjected countries), there were still haunted houses to be investigated.  These occupied some of my leisure time when I was not engaged in War work.  Most of these hauntings were recorded in the public or psychic Press, and I used to amuse myself by visiting the scenes of the alleged manifestations.  I investigated about twenty cases during the War period, with disappointing results.  The phenomena always occurred the day before you went, or the day after you came back, but never while you were there.  If the ghosts were reported to be active during the day, and you visited the house at high noon, on your arrival you would be told that the entities were now working in night shifts and that you were wasting your time watching for them in daylight.  If the Poltergeister were regular night birds, and you decided to pay a nocturnal visit, the first thing you learnt on arrival was that that very morning the 'entities' had smashed half the crockery in the kitchen while the maid was preparing lunch, and that 'they were afraid the night phenomena had ceased.'  If one spent a week in the house, nothing happened at all!  Some of the manifestations could be traced to normal causes, such as wandering rodents, rattling windows, birds in the chimney (very effective!), farm animals nosing the doors; tree branches brushing the casements on windy nights; the noises made by crepitation due to shrinking wood or furniture when the house was cooling; birds or rats gambolling between double walls; the Death Watch beetle; and last - but by no means least - small boys and the village idiot.  Occasionally there was a puzzling incident, but not very often.

But I must record one curious case which was indeed a puzzle and which I have not solved yet.  It concerns not a haunted house, but a haunted place.  It was reported to me that on the Great North


Road at Potters' Bar, there were haunted cross-roads.  Or rather, if one stood at these cross-roads, the noise of galloping hoofs could be plainly heard between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m.  The roads in question were the Great North Road itself and the transverse roads, one leading to Potters' Bar Station and the other, I think, to Enfield.

I spent four hours on each of three evenings at these cross-roads, and I must admit that on each night I heard sounds comparable to horses galloping.  I could not locate the precise spot whence the sounds appeared to emanate, but I discovered that they always preceded the arrival of the York or Edinburgh express that dashed through the Great Northern station a minute or so before the 'galloping' was heard.  It is possible that some trick in acoustics was responsible for the illusion, which, I convinced myself, was an aural one.  Perhaps the direction of the wind had something to do with it.  But the sounds persisted, and may persist to this day for all I know.  Of course, a story goes with it, and is to the effect that Dick Turpin... But I will not weary the reader with the rest of the yarn, which is so very familiar!  The War appeared not only to affect psychical research, but the very ghosts themselves.  They were remarkably quiet during these years.  There was one bright spot during this period, so far as I was concerned.  There appeared to be a slump in occult literature, and I added many hundreds of volumes on 'magic' to my library.  I also managed to keep my files of periodicals - both British and foreign - up to date, for which fact I hope that posterity will be duly grateful.

I will mention one item of interest before I close this chapter on the First World War.  Without any particular effort on my part, I accumulated a great number of interesting War relics.  They came from men home from the front and from friends abroad who were able to visit England.  They ranged from huge portions of the duralium framework of Zeppelins to German Ersatz commodities.  When the idea of a National War Museum was mooted and the public was appealed to, I immediately sent in a complete list of my collection of relics.  A choice was made by the Curator, and the following articles formed, I believe, the nucleus of the National collection : A wooden idol, an Indian soldier's mascot; two German trench knives; a German trench harpoon for smashing barbed wire; an inscribed cigarette case, given by the Kaiser to a German soldier; a picture of the first Dardenelles landing, burnt in on wood with cordite; portion of a stained-glass window from Ypres Cathedral; a Belgian steel aeroplane dart; a collection of German souvenir medals (which included the sinking of the Lusitania, miniature Iron Cross, etc.); war town-notes of Bethune, Amiens, Calais and Berlin;


a collection of 17 German proclamations in Belgium and France; a jig-saw puzzle of Soissons Cathedral, made by a wounded French soldier, and other objects.

I had a very, nice latter (dated May 17, 1917) from Mr. Charles Ffoulkes, first Curator of the National War Museum, together with an official certificate of my gift, stating that they would be 'carefully preserved for all time as National Relics.'  I assume that my things are still in the Museum, which I have never visited.



Chapter Six              Chapter Eight 


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