The supernatural was always very present in everything concerning the Great War, both at the front and at home. The episode of the Angels of Mons says a lot about why people were willing to believe in a close connection between the world on this side of the veil and the one beyond.
The Great War is a watershed in so many ways. As I heard a historian say once, “People entered the war on horseback and came out in airplanes.”
It was the first modern war. The first total war, the first mechanised war, the first industrial war. And yet, it was a war that was still tied to the past, again, in so many ways. And one of these ways was how people felt towards the world and what was beyond. Especially in the first phases of the war, people still clung to the old ways, where the real world and the supernatural world mixed every day. It was also a world where Spiritualism was regaining strength as a way to cope with that terrible manifestation of death and destruction.
So, it is maybe no surprise that a supernatural event marked the first real battle involving the British Army. Not a victory either. The terrible loss, the inability to gain ground, the new weapon and the extreme conditions in which soldiers would live and fight were going to become commonplace, but in the early phases of the war, near the city of Mons, all these appeared to be new and terrifying.The Angels of Mons: how ghosts saved the British when the Great War started #ghosts #WWI #supernatural Click To Tweet
It appeared to be otherworldly.
The episode – or should I say, the myth – of the Angles of Mons is fascinating because it says so much about WWI. Its very genesis is almost fantastical.
I will look into it in two articles, of which this is the first, in the attempt to discover what happened and how it might be explained.
Let’s dive in!
The Battle of Mons
The Battle of Mons, fought between 22 and 23 August 1914, was the first major battle in which the British Army was involved, and it was one episode in the broader campaign of the Battle of the Frontiers.
Since the war’s opening, Germany implemented the Schlieffen Plan, designed to knock France out before Russia could bring in her considerable army. Germany hoped to settle things on the Western Front, secure it, and then turn to the Eastern Front and Russia, facing her main opponents separately with all her might.
It was not going to be, and the Battle of Mons – which occurred right before the fateful Battle of the Marne – was a fist alarm.
Already at the opening of hostilities, Germany had tried to avoid contact with the bulk of the French forces along the German border. They bypassed them, marching through neutral Belgium and occupied Brussels on 20 August. But the Belgian resisted and slowed down the German timetable at a crucial phase of the plan. Meanwhile, French and British forces were sent north the aid the Belgian army.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) consisted of two corps initially deployed near the French border with Belgium. In order to execute a counterthrust, the BEF advanced on the Belgian city of Mons on 22 August. The plan was to use the area’s bottleneck waterways to cut off the German army. But the French accidentally engaged the Germans alone and ahead of schedule, suffering many casualties. This forced them to retreat so hastily the British didn’t know what had happened until they reached their position. Founding themselves facing the German force alone, the British had no choice but to hold ground until the French regrouped.
The fighting begun on the morning of 23 August. The Germans pressed on Mons’s central canal as they tried to pass, but the British held ground. The professional soldiers of the BEF were skilled marksmen who could fire 15 aimed shots a minute (but some could do even better than that). They were so effective and caused so many casualties among the opponents that the Germans thought they were facing mass machine guns, when in fact, it was the British infantry’s skill with the Lee-Enfield rifle that kept them at bay. But the British were outnumbered two to one, and by nightfall, they were overrun. Abandoning the city was the only hope, so they retreated – for two straight days and nights without food or sleep, pursued by the Germans.
Eventually, they managed to reunite with the French, and without rest, on 26 August, the armies clashed again in the Battle of Le Cateau. The Allied forces were finally able to stop the Germans.
Not with a victory, but with a stalemate.
The cost had been high. The BEF had lost 12.000 soldiers – at least a tenth of its total forces – in just nine days of battle, with casualties that were already half the total casualties of the Crimean War, a conflict that had lasted two years.
When the news reached the home front, the population was incredulous. The losses were shockingly high. The battle had not been won. For the British, the war had started with a retreat.
Arthur Machen’s story “The Bowmen”
The news of the retreat profoundly touched the British, and among them, 51-year old Arthur Machen, a Welsh journalist and supernatural author. Twenty years before, he had become very popular with his paranormal novella The Great God Pan, but it was a long time ago. Now he mostly wrote articles for the London Evening News.
The scant details that reach Britain about the retreat at Mons touched him so much that he started to think up a story. “To comfort myself,’ as he later recalled. As an author, he was moved by the remarkable achievement of the BEF that single-handedly withstood the outnumbering German army alone and the subsequent exhausting retreat without food or sleep. No report he read ever talked about any supernatural events, but it was in Machen’s nature as a fantasy writer to turn fictional events into the supernatural.
The story he wrote was entitled The Bowmen. It contained a thinly disguised version of the Battle of Mons, the same acts of bravery and the subsequent retreat. In the story, a soldier from the British battalion, in the heat of the battle, calls upon St George for help and soon St George appears on a white charger surrounded by a company of Welch longbowmen from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.
Machen himself didn’t think much of the story. It was a far cry from the successful fantasy stories of his youth. But it was good enough, and, tired of his reluctant reporting job for the London Evening News, he submitted this fictional piece. The story appeared on the front page of the London Evening News on 29 September, attracting no major attention. Machen thought that was it and moved on to other writing pieces.
But he was majorly mistaken.Was it really Arthur Machen's #ghoststory the initiator of the myth of The Angels of Mons? #WWI Click To Tweet
The myth takes up a life of its own
The same week the story was published, Ralph Shirley, editor of the magazine Occult Review, reached out to Machen to ask if he had based The Bowmen on facts. Quite surprised, Machen responded that no, of course, it was just fiction. Later, David Gow, editor of the spiritualist magazine Light, asked the same question, receiving the same answer. These two men appeared to have believed Machen, but these movements should have alerted the author that something was afoot.
The following November, Father Edward Russell, Deacon of St. Alban the Martyr Church in Holborn, asked Machen to republish his story in his parish magazine. Seeing no harm in it, Machen agreed. Things started to become weird when, the following February, Russell wrote again. The story had sold so well that he wanted to publish it again in a future issue of the magazine, and this time, he asked who Machen’s sources were. Once again, Machen said there were no sources but his imagination since the story was a work of fiction. At which Russell replied (as Machen later wrote) “that I must be mistaken, that the main ‘facts’ of The Bowmen must be true, that my share in the matter must surely have been confined to the elaboration and decoration of a veridical history.”
Whatever Machen said, Russell didn’t change his mind. Nor did the numerous following of his journal.
It is unclear whether this is the true beginning of it all, but surely from that spring, the story of the Angels of Mons became commonly accepted as truth in the United Kingdom. Yes, St George and his ghosts had morphed into angels, or Joan of Arc, or fallen comrades (for the spiritualist community). There were many different versions, though eventually, the one everyone accepted featured angels.
Machen kept protesting that the story was just fiction – and was at best called unsympathetic with the soldiers, at worst unpatriotic. Nobody believed him. And things went even crazier when nurse Phyllis Cambell, just returned from the battlefields of Mons, wrote an article in the summer 1916 issue of the Occult Review. She said that, while she didn’t see the angels herself, many of the French and British soldiers she nursed swore they had seen something portentous that day on the battlefield of Mons.
After this, many soldiers on leave in Britain confirmed the sightings. Though most of them didn’t actually see the angels, they claimed to have spoken to many fellow soldiers who had.
It had become uncontrollable. By the end of 1915, most Britishers believed something supernatural had happened on the fields of the Battle of Mons. They took this as a confirmation that their fight was just and God was on their side.What truly happened on the battlefileds of Mons, where everybody believed angles had appear to protect the British Army at the opening of #WWI? #supernatural #ghosts Click To Tweet
How did this happen?
How it was that an entire population believed this? How it was that the myth took up a life of its own when the very author of the story that started everything always protested it was just that: a story, fiction, fantasy invention.
Well, many entwining reasons may explain it.
I’ll deep into it next week.
Tune in on Thursday!
Aftermath WWI – The Bowmen by Arthur Machen
Michael Fassbender Blog – The Legend of the Angels of Mons
Warwick Today Stanthorpe Today – Myths, legends and mysteries of the Great War 1914-18
Spartacus Educational – Angels of Mons
Worcester News – The Angels of Mons… the truth is out there somewhere By John Phillpott
The Irish Times – Irishman who was ‘Angel of Mons’
Sky History – The Angels of Mons and other supernatural stories from WWI
ATI History Science News – The True Story Of The Angels Of Mons, The World War I Myth That Captivated Britain By Andrew Lenoir | Checked By John Kuroski
Legends and Traditions of the Great War – The Case of the Elusive Angels of Mons