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In my story, a French soldier from WW1 died in a horrible way, and became a ghost. As such, he's still wearing the same military uniform as he died, the same equipment, etc. He can react to his environment, and talk to people, but he doesn't realise that he's dead, and that he's not between 1914 and 1918 any more.
Now, in late November 1944, he has joined the American army heading to Germany to end the war.

Beside the fact that he cannot die or get wounded, how could one guess that he isn't a soldier from this period? Or at least, what could make someone suspicious about his true identity?

Edit : Thank you for your numerous and interesting answers. First, I'm a beginner writer, and this is my first question on this site. Also, I'm French, and as we've established, French people are very bad at English, and I'm sadly no exception.

My story follows the American army, and not the strange French soldier. The point is to fool the reader about the ghost's true identity. Then, is there a way to make the misunderstanding the longest ? What are the hints that just make the character appear weird, and what constitute a blatant proof of his weird state ? Also, I said that the soldier joined the American army, but let's say he just met them, and is trying very hard to join them. Is it too much of a stretch for the G.I. to accept him, whatever he says ?

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    $\begingroup$ In what having your character being unable to understand it's the 40s not enough to see he's out of place... Or time in this case? Same for the uniforms and equipment, it feels like you haven't done a lot of preliminary research before coming here :/. Know that both wars are famous enough to find very interesting stuff about them on the web, for instance here an overview of WW1 uniforms descriptions and here one of the American WW2 ones. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena it's not about the character realising that he is a ghost, it's about duping the people around him. I'm trying to make it believable, only with suddle hints revealing the truth before the "plot twist" moment of my story. Maybe I should've asked my question in another way to convey this idea. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ As expressed in my answer, "duping" would last about as long as it takes for someone to see him. (Also, "subtle", if you're writing a story for people to read.) $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jul 26, 2023 at 20:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautLopez Yes, that's the whole point! If he tells you he'll see his wife at Christmas 1916 and get a good shave, that he misses Bernard who died on the no man's land last month during the battle of Verdun. Or just that he's surprised to see the "boches" (German people, pejorative) wear now weird crosses, or that they persist to think the Russian Empire still exists... All words in bold are clues something is -at the very least- amiss 😊. $\endgroup$ Jul 26, 2023 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ The question says "he doesn't realise that he's dead" but then the comments say that the question is about "duping the people around him". Can you clarify if HE knows and is duping the Americans, or if YOU as the writer want to dupe the Americans? $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 15:13

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They Think He’s in La Résistance

I’m going to do a bit of a frame challenge, after seeing your comments. The problem here isn’t why they’d get suspicious, it’s how to make it believable that he could possibly fit in at all. So,

The American squad is expecting to meet a local guide who wouldn‘t have any kind of standard-issue uniform or rifle. They've never seen him before and don't know what he looks like. Maybe the person who was supposed to recognize their contact and translate got killed, so they just have to make do. He, for his part, has heard that America is joining the war, but has never seen G.I.s.

The fact that he’s in what looks like his father’s old kit, and they have strange foreign gear, is a surprise, but none of them knew what to expect. Maybe he wasn't in uniform when he died. The one American who speaks French isn’t perfectly fluent, and has a lot more important things to worry about right then, so any odd nuances that might give the ghost away fly over his head. And the ghost just makes allowances for bizarre questions like whether he’s “resisting” the Germans and tries to answer what the American meant. Until the end?

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    $\begingroup$ That is the way to save the story. A French WWI soldier would be so massively different from an American WWII soldier that he would stand out immediately. But you can create a backstory that makes it obvious that he should stick out, as you proposed. Well done. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Jul 27, 2023 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I think a ghost story can work very well if we do quickly start to realize he’s not who he originally appeared to be, but we don’t yet know who he really is, and the protagonists have no alternative but to rely on him, because the German Army is shooting at them. $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Jul 27, 2023 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Davislor That'd defeat the question's goal of not being suspicious 🦋. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 8:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Anyway, I think a good writer could sell this with a big dollop of, “It’s war, shit happened.” Why are there no other French people around to talk to? There’s a huge firefight going on outside. Why is the L-T trying to translate with the French he learned in school and no idea what his contact looks like? The Free French officer who knew all that got shot. Why isn’t the ghost acting like a normal soldier? Who says he’s not? If they do ask if he “résistez aux Allemands,” how would he understand the question? $\endgroup$
    – Davislor
    Jul 27, 2023 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely endorsing this! 45 years ago, at junior high age, me and pals read a lot Commando comics. Sure enough, in one issue the allied troops (don't remember whether they were British or American) met an older dude from La Resistance, insistent on wearing his well kept WWI uniform. His underlings called him Monsieur Vite-Vite as he insisted on tasks getting carried out speedily. $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2023 at 8:21
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Everything

Language

First and foremost, if he was a French soldier in WWI, I can't imagine he'd speak English, which would make blending in as an American soldier difficult.

Clothing

The French army in WWI wore a blue greatcoat and (depending on the stage of the war) red trousers, along with a domed helmet. This flamboyance would not blend in even a little bit.

Weapon

French infantry in WWI were armed with the 1886-designed Lebel bolt-action rifle. This would be entirely unlike the weapons issued to the American soldiers, and though the Lebel stuck around even 'til WWII, it was shortened into a carbine, so it wouldn't even match French weapons of the period.

Tactics

The trench warfare of WWI taught all the nations involved a lot about why you didn't establish trenches. Any "over the top" attitudes from the weirdly dressed, French-speaking, archaically armed new soldier would be confusing to his American colleagues, assuming anyone could understand him.

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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautLopez - emphatically uncommon. The period from just before the turn of the century to right after WWI is referred to as "the monolingual period" in French educational histories because of an educational pushback against the encroachment of other languages. A young man (they were pretty much all young) on the battlefield would be unlikely to be college-educated, so the amount of English they'd've picked up would've been extremely limited, and heavily French-accented, both of which would make them instantly unusual even if they were dressed like an American. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jul 26, 2023 at 21:09
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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautLopez - bear in mind also that even today, only about 40% of French citizens are functionally conversant in English, and education rates were much lower at the beginning of the 20th century. If your French soldier grew up in Britain, and then moved with his family to France right before the war, he'd be fluent in English, but his accent and idiom would still be bizarre to a WWII American soldier. The language barrier is an instant giveaway. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Jul 26, 2023 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ The red pants were few and far between except at the very beginning of the war, the blue gray cloth was more common because the red dye was made in Germany. If he is wearing red pants he likely does not have a helmet as they came after the abandonment of the red. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jul 27, 2023 at 2:28
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to the language conversation, colloquialisms change very rapidly. Some phrases we still use today originated in WW2 but many don't remember where they came from, they being supplanted by the next generations jargon - and most would be unrecognizable by the ghost. One, "retread" (refers to a WWI vet fighting in WWII) would quickly lead the ghost to realize what he is. Check out this link. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Jul 27, 2023 at 14:54
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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautLopez In the 19th and until mid twentieth century it was French the lingua Franca. In the 1940s you were more likely to meet British officers, belonging to the upperclass, who knew Greek, Latin and spoke some French than a common Frenchman who was bilingual. To overcome this handicap, give the "dead" soldier an American father and a French mother. $\endgroup$
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 27, 2023 at 17:33
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He would be in a military prison as soon as he tried to mingle with the US army, if not killed. Wrong uniform, wrong language, wrong weapons.

Your whole story would be about his conversations with psychiatrists if they decided to allocate any to his case. And it would probably be no stranger than other stories they would have heard.

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but he can't realise that he's dead, and that he's not between 1914 and 1918 anymore. Now, in late november 1944, he has joined the american army

There are a number of inconsistencies:

  • How does he register without anyone noticing that he's 20 years old but on his papers he's closer to 50 (born in 1895 or so)
  • How does he register without noticing the year on the papers or by chatting with others
  • Difference between 1914 and 1945 is significant: technology, transporation, clothing, etc. How does he not realize that everything has changed around him?
  • If he was in WWI he was necessarily European. And now he's in America (how?) to register for the WWI war? Doesn't make sense, he must know it's another war. And he's already registered for WWI anyway, in the German or French camp.
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    $\begingroup$ Hi Eric; Since you're new you probably didn't know this, but know we shouldn't refuse (ie. "frame-challenge") one of the question's premise with an answer unless it contradicts directly another one or the querent's intents. You should also provide workarounds if you do. Here the frame-challenge is that for you the ghost definitely has to understand he's not in the 1910s anymore... But it could be very well the magic of being a ghost, making them act like a broken record. You can learn more about frame-challenges here 😊. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Not necessarily. If the question is so immediately and obviously impossible that no amount of workarounds (apart from "magic happens") could render it plausible, then it's completely valid for a frame challenge to say that. In this case "magic happens" is valid for the ghost, but it doesn't apply to anyone talking to the ghost. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Jul 27, 2023 at 12:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham Yes, I was only talking about the part where the ghost "has to" understand there's an issue with himself. What the US soldiers think is what the question is about, so they're not one of the premise and can be tackled on freely. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 12:36
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    $\begingroup$ If we're talking about actual ghosts we're already in the realm of magic as far as I'm concerned. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ I take "joined the American army" in the question to mean "accompany" or "fight along side of" rather than "enlist as an official member of". Hence issues involving registering in the USA wouldn't necessarily be pertinent. $\endgroup$
    – R.M.
    Jul 27, 2023 at 20:16
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He won't be able to become a member of the US Army. He's clearly French, and they won't accept him. As he doesn't seem to be a Resistance member, they would send him to the Free French forces engaged in the campaign. In Normandy, the 2e Division Blindée and the 1er Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos landed on D-Day, so there would be French units accessible. A French unit is far more likely to realise there's something very odd about the fellow.

Becoming an informal guide to a small unit is far more plausible. However, if he has gaps in his knowledge concerning things that have changed since his death, the soldiers may jump to the conclusion that he's a German agent, or working against them in some way.

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  • $\begingroup$ Maybe not a member of the army, but a guide through the French region would be believable ? $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ThibautLopez: See my edit. $\endgroup$ Jul 27, 2023 at 18:38

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