Did the Spirit of a Dead Soldier Save His Friends in the Ypres Salient?
December 1915, in a frontline trench somewhere in the Ypres salient, Belgium, Second Lieutenant William M. Speight of the 3rd Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), sat in his dug-out. The First and Second Battles of Ypres had already been fought and around 200,000 men had already died in them – there were three more Battles of Ypres yet to come. But men did not only die in the great battles of the war, they died all the time. Speight’s friend, another officer whose name has not been recorded, had died that day.
December in Ypres is generally remembered for the German’s first use of poison gas against the British, although the French had had an earlier whiff of it in April that year. On 19 December ahead of raiding parties at Wieltje to the north-east of Ypres, gas was discharged along the front. Further gas attacks were made on 20 December, turning into high explosive shelling that continued into the evening of 21 December. It may have been during these attacks, or to a sniper’s bullet, or a shell blast, or fragment of shrapnel that Speight’s friend lost his life.
Speight sat in his dug-out in the dim glow of a candle-stub, a melancholy watch in a godforsaken hole, when who should walk in, but his friend. Speight did not record his reaction, nor what the ghost did, but he invited another officer to come to his dug-out the following evening in case the ghost should return:
“The dead officer came once more and, after pointing to a spot on the floor of the dug-out, vanished.”
Speight had a hole dug at the spot indicated. About three feet down spades broke through to a narrow tunnel running beneath them. It was packed with fused explosives. The Germans had undermined them. The timers still had thirteen hours on the clock, time enough for the British to defuse the danger.
According to the Census Records for 1901 and 1911, William M. Speight was born in 1895 and came from Bingley, Keighley, in Yorkshire. This was probably also the same William M. Speight who commissioned into the West Yorkshire Regiment as identified in ‘Medal Card of Speight, William M.’, National Archives, Kew, WO 372/18/211994, and WO 339/35587 where his middle initial is given as Moorhouse.
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