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Private Dowding: The Wilderness by Wellesley Tudor Pole


On Monday, 12th March 1917, I was walking by the sea when I felt the presence of someone. I looked round, no one was in sight. All that day I felt as if someone were following me, trying to reach my thoughts. Suddenly I said to myself, ‘It’s a soldier. He has been killed in battle and wants to communicate.’ That evening I happened to call upon a lady who possesses some degree of clairvoyant power. I had forgotten about the soldier, until she described a man dressed in khaki, sitting in a chair near me. He was gazing intently in my direction. She said he was mature, wore a small moustache, and seemed somewhat sad. Not a very intelligent character apparently, but an honest one. I came home and sat down at my writing-table. Immediately my pen moved. Did I move it? Yes, in an involuntary sort of way. The thoughts were not my own, the language was a little unusual. Ideas were mainly conveyed in short simple phrases. It would really seem as if some intelligence outside myself were speaking through my mind and my pen.

Some of the ideas are not in conformity with preconceived notions of my own.

The messages I received in this manner from ‘Thomas Dowding,” recluse, schoolmaster, soldier, are set down exactly as they reached me.

Wellesley Tudor Pole
20th March 1917


The Wilderness

One great truth has become my constant companion.
I sum it up thus: ‘Empty yourself if you would be filled..’
Private Dowding

12th March 1917, 9 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity. You may not realize how much some of us long to speak to those we have left behind. It is not easy to get messages through with certainty. They are so often lost in transit or misinterpreted. Sometimes the imagination of the receiver weaves a curious fabric round the thoughts we try to pass down, then the ideas we want to communicate are either lost or disfigured.

I was a schoolmaster in a small East Coast town before the war. I was an orphan, somewhat of a recluse. and I made friends but slowly. My name is of no importance; apparently names over here are not needed. I became a soldier in the autumn of 1915, and left my narrow village life behind. These details, however, are really of no importance. They may act as a background to what I have to say. I joined as a private and died as a private. My soldiering lasted just nine months, eight of which were spent training in Northumberland. I went out with my battalion to France in July 1916 and we went into the trenches almost at once. I was killed by a shell splinter one evening in August, and I believe that my body was buried the following day. As you see, I hasten over these unimportant events, important to me once, but now of no real consequence. How we overestimate the significance of earthly happenings. One only realizes this when freed from earthly ties.

Well, my body soon became cannon fodder, and there were few to mourn me. It was not for me to play anything but an insignificant part in this world-tragedy, which is still unfolding.

I am still myself, a person of no importance, but I feel I should like to say a few things before passing along. I feared death, but then that was natural. I was timid, and even feared life and its pitfalls. So I was afraid of being killed and was sure it would mean extinction. There are still many who believe that. It is because extinction has not come to me that I want to speak to you. May I describe my experiences? Perhaps they may prove useful to some. How necessary that some of us should speak back across the border! The barriers must be broken down. This is one of the ways of doing it. Listen therefore to what I have to say:

Physical death is nothing. There really is no cause for fear. Some of my pals grieved for me. When I ‘went West” they thought I was dead for good. This is what happened. I have a perfectly clear memory of the whole incident. I was waiting at the corner of a traverse to go on guard. It was a fine evening. I had no special intimation of danger, until I heard the whizz of a shell. Then following an explosion, somewhere behind me. I crouched down involuntarily, but was too late. Something struck, hard, hard hard, against my neck. Shall I ever lose the memory of that hardness? It is the only unpleasant incident that I can remember. I fell and as I did so, without passing through an apparent interval of unconsciousness, I found myself outside myself! You see I am telling my story simply; you will find it easier to understand. You will learn to know what a small incident this dying is.

Think of it! One moment I was alive, in the earthly sense, looking over a trench parapet, unalarmed, normal. Five seconds later I was standing outside my body, helping two of my pals to carry my body down the trench labyrinth towards a dressing station. They thought I was senseless but alive. I did not know whether I had jumped out of my body through shell shock, temporarily or forever. You see what a small thing is death, even the violent death of war!

I seemed in a dream. I had dreamt that someone or something has knocked me down. Now I was dreaming that I was outside my body. Soon I should wake up and find myself in the traverse waiting to go on guard…It all happened so simply. Death for me was a simple experience—no horror, no long-drawn suffering, no conflict. It comes to many in the same way. My pals need not fear death. Few of them do; nevertheless there is an underlying dread of possible extinction. I dreaded that; many soldiers do, but they rarely have time to think about such things. As in my case, thousands of soldiers pass over without knowing it.

If there be shock, it is not the shock of physical death. Shock comes later when comprehension dawns: “Where is my body? Surely I am not dead!’ In m own case, I knew nothing more than I have already related, at the time.

When I found that my two pals could carry my body without my help, I dropped behind. I just followed, in a curiously humble way. Humble? Yes, because I seemed so useless. We met a stretcher party. My body was hoisted on to the stretcher. I wondered when I should get back into it again. You see, I was so little ‘dead’ that I imagined I was still physically) alive. Think of it a moment before we pass on. I had been struck by a shell splinter. There was no pain. The life was knocked out of my body; again, I say, there was no pain. Then I found that the whole of myself—all, that is, that thinks and sees and feels and knows—was still alive and conscious! I had begun a new chapter of life. I will tell you what I felt like. It was as if I had been running hard until, hot and breathless, I had thrown my overcoat away. The coat was my body, and if I had not thrown it away I should have suffocated. I cannot describe the experience in a better way; there is nothing else to describe.

My body went to the first dressing station, and after examination was taken to a mortuary. I stayed near it all that night, watching, but without thoughts. It was as if my being, feeling, and thinking had become ‘suspended’ by some Power outside myself. This sensation came over me gradually as the night advance. I still expected to wake up in my body again—that is, so far as I expected anything. Then I lost consciousness and slept soundly.

No detail seems to have escaped me. When I awoke, my body had disappeared! How I hunted and hunted! It began to dawn upon me that something strange had happened, although I still felt I was in a dream and should soon awake. My body had been buried or burned, I never knew which. Soon I ceased hunting for it. Then the shock came! It came without warning suddenly. I had been killed by a German shell! I was dead! I was no longer alive. I had been killed, killed, killed! Curious that I felt no shock when I was first driven outside my body. Now the shock came, and it was very real. I tried to think backwards, but my memory was numb. (It returned later.)

How does it feel to be ‘dead’? One can’t explain, because there’s nothing in it! I simply felt free and light. My being seemed to have expanded. These are mere words. I can only tell you just this: that death is nothing unseemly or shocking. So simple is the ‘passing along’ experience that it beggars description. Others may have other experiences to relate of a more complex nature. I don’t know. . . .

When I lived in a physical body I never thought much about it. My health was fair. I knew very little about physiology. Now that I am living under other conditions I remain incurious as to that through which I express myself. By this I mean that I am still evidently in a body of some sort, but ‘l’ can tell you very little about it. It has no interest for me. It is convenient, does not ache or tire, seems similar in formation to my old body. There is a subtle difference, but I cannot attempt analysis.

Let me relate my first experience after I had somewhat recovered from the shock of realising I was ‘dead.’ I was on, or rather above, the battlefield. It seemed as if I were floating in a mist that muffled sound and blurred the vision. Through this mist slowly penetrated a dim picture and some very low sounds. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Everything was distant, minute, misty, unreal. Guns were being fired. It might all have been millions of miles away. The detonation hardly reached me; I was conscious of the shells bursting without actually seeing them. The ground seemed very empty. No soldiers were visible. It was like looking down from above the clouds, yet that doesn’t exactly express it either. When a shell that took life exploded, then the sensation of it came much nearer to me. The noise and tumult came over the borderline with the lives of the slain. A curious way of putting it. All this time I was very lonely. I was conscious of none near me. I was neither in the world of matter nor could I be sure I was in any place at all! Just simply conscious of my own existence in a state of dream. I think I fell asleep for the second time, and long remained unconscious and in a dreamless condition.

At last I awoke. Then a new sensation came to me. It was as if I stood on a pinnacle, all that was essential of me. The rest receded, receded, receded. All appertaining to bodily life seemed to be dropping away down into a bottomless abyss. There was no feeling of irretrievable loss. My being seemed both minute and expansive at the same time. All that was not really me slipped down and away. The sense of loneliness deepened.

I do not find it easy, to express myself, If the ideas are not clear, that is not your fault. You are setting down just what I impress upon you. How do I know this? I cannot see your pen, but I see my ideas as they are caught up and whirled into form within your mind. By ‘form’ perhaps I mean words. Others may not feel this loneliness. I cannot tell whether my experiences are common to many in a like position. When I first ‘awoke’ this second time, I felt cramped. This is passing and a sense of real freedom comes over me. A load has dropped away from me. I think my new faculties are now in working order. I can reason and think and feel and move. Once I read a book about this afterlife. It spoke of ’ planes’ and ’ bodies’ and ‘cycles’ and ‘auras.’ I think a man named Sinnett or Symons wrote it. It purported to deal with the history and geography of this afterlife. I cannot confirm its descriptions from my own experience. I am simply myself, alive, in a region where food and drink seem unnecessary. Otherwise ‘life’ is strangely similar to earth life. A ‘continuation,’ but with more freedom. I have no more to say just now. Will you let me return another time and use your mind again? I shall be so grateful.

13th March 1917, 8 pm.

You are kind to me. You loan me a power I do not possess any longer—the power to convey information to my human fellows on earth.

I can use your mind freely because I see you have deliberately chained your imagination, and so I can impress you freely and clearly.

From this you may notice that I am a little farther along my new road. I have been helped. Also I have recovered from the ‘shock,’ not of my transition but of my recognition of it. This is no subtlety; it is simply what I mean. I am no longer alone—I have met my dear brother. He came out here three years ago and has come down to welcome me. The tie between us is strong. William could not get near me for a long time, he says. The atmosphere was so thick. He hoped to reach me in time to avert the ‘shock’ to which I have referred but found it impossible.

He is working among the newly arrived and has wide experience.

A good deal of what follows came to me from him; I have made it my own, and so can pass it on. You see, I am still possessed with the desire to make my experience, my adventure, of, help to others who have not yet arrived here.

It appears that there are Rest Halls in this region, specially prepared for newly arrived pilgrims. I shall use your language. We can only convey our experiences approximately. To describe conditions here in WORDS is quite impossible. Please remember this. My brother helped me into one of these Rest Halls. Confusion at once dropped away from me. Never shall I forget my happiness. I sat in the alcove of a splendid domed hall. The splashing of a fountain reached my tired being and soothed me. The fountain ‘played’ music, colour, harmony, bliss. All discordancies vanished and I was at peace. My brother sat near me. He could not stay long, but promised to return. I wanted to find you at once to tell you I had found peace, but it is only now that I could do so. On earth, the study of crystal formations was a great hobby of mine. To my intense delight I discovered that this splendid hall was constructed according to the law of crystal formations. I spent hours in examining various parts of it. I shall spend hours and days and weeks there. I can continue my studies and make endless discoveries. What happiness! When I have regained a state of poise, my brother says I may help him in his work outside. I am in no hurry for this.

You evidently know nothing about crystals. I cannot impress your mind with the wonders of this place. What a pity! This place is so different from any earthly edifice that I fear it is useless to attempt description. As it is, people will say I am romancing. Or else they will say that you, my faithful scribe, have let your imagination run away with you. Please let me return again later. I still have much to say.

14th March 1917, 5 pm.

I am beginning to meet people and to exchange ideas. Strange that the only person I came across for a long time was my brother. He tells me that I have never been really alone. The mist around me, shutting me off has emanated from myself, he says. This fact rather humiliates me. I suppose my loneliness of life and character whilst on earth have followed me here. I always lived in books; they were my real world. And even then, my reading was technical rather than general.

I begin to see now that my type of mind would find itself isolated, or rather would emanate isolation, when loosed from earthly trammels. I shall remain near earth conditions whilst learning lessons I refused to learn before.

It is dangerous to live to and for oneself. Tell this to my fellows with emphasis. The life of a recluse is unwise, except for the very few who have special work that requires complete silence and isolation. I was not one of these. I cannot remember doing anything really worthwhile. I never looked outside myself.

My school? Well, teaching bored me. I simply did it to earn my bread and cheese. People will say I was unique, a crabby, selfish old bachelor. Selfish yes, but alas! far from being unique. I was thirty-seven when I came over here–that is, my body was. Now I feel so ignorant and humble that I don’t feel I’ve begun to have any age at all.

I must dwell on this. Live widely. Don’t get isolated. Exchange thoughts and services. Don’t read too much. That was my mistake. Books appealed to me more than life or people. I am now suffering for my mistakes. In passing on these details of my life I am helping to free myself.

What a good thing the war dragged me out into life I In those nine months I learned more about human nature than I had conceived possible. Now I am learning about my poor fossilised old self. It is a blessing I came here. Though I do not regret, I like to hear what is going on in the region you inhabit. It seems a long way off already. I told my brother I wanted news about events on earth. He took me to visit an old gentleman who had been editor of a newspaper. Why do I call him ‘old’? Because he died at eighty-one and has not thrown off earth conditions yet. He therefore surrounds himself with these conditions. His son on earth runs the paper, a French journal. The old man can read his son’s thoughts and so divines the world’s news through his son’s mind. He has built himself an office, full of telephones and tape machines. These machines are in a way illusory, but they please the old gentleman. He received me courteously, and insisted on hearing details of my crossing. He was disappointed that I did not know his paper by name or reputation, and surprised that I knew so little about earthly affairs. ‘I want to get back. I cannot get along without my paper. My son often uses my ideas in his editorials without knowing it.’ This fact was the cause of much amusement to him. I asked him for some current news. This is what he told me:

‘Something interesting is going on, for my son stays at the office all night. There is ‘war as usual.’ There is some commotion about food. I saw Guilbert writing an article for the paper on ‘World Shortage.’ England seems to be scared about it. They have suddenly remembered the existence of the land they are fighting for, and they are digging it about. Something must have stopped food supplies or destroyed them.

‘Food seems more important now than shells. The rest of the world seems coming into the war at least, Guilbert thinks so.’

I see an article headed ‘America and China.’ Are they short of food too, or are they to fight? I think they are going to side with France. Turkey must be having a bad time. I see the ‘headlines ‘Turkish Debacle.’ Guilbert seems full of excitement about Russia. I see into his mind. He is evolving an article on ‘Russia: the Coming World Power.’ Russia must have won a big victory somewhere. Yes, I think the war is going on all right. Our circulation has increased again, but alas! Guilbert cannot get enough paper. I wish I were down there. I would have laid in a big stock months ago.’

The old gentleman was still rambling on about his paper and its prospects when I came away. How awful to be chained to an earthly property like that! Tell people to control their worldly interests from outside, If you identify yourself heart and soul with some material project or undertaking, you will find it hanging on to you over here. It will obsess you, blot out the view, make progress impossible. This old French editor came over a good many years ago.

“The Wilderness” is an extract from Private Dowding: The personal story of a soldier killed in battle by Wellesley Tudor Pole, published by White Crow Books

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