The Angels of Mons

The Angels of Mons

The Angels of Mons
The Angels of Mons

There are numerous myths that have developed about the Battle of Mons, the first major clash between British and German forces on the Western Front during the First World War, since it was fought on 23 August 1914. However, perhaps one of the most well-known is the so-called ‘Angels of Mons’, a myth that quickly appeared in the British press shortly after the battle. The legend has it that on that fateful day the men of the British Expeditionary Force, who were heavily outnumbered by their German adversaries, were protected by angels, or other denizens of Heaven, whose appearance on the battlefield forced the Germans to retire, saving the BEF and later allowing them to begin their retreat. As ludicrous as it may seem today, the myth did gain some ground 100 years ago, although few present at the action would have believed it. So where did the myth originate from?

It is generally agreed that the legend was born on 29 September 1914 when Arthur Machen, an author of supernatural stories and member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical society, published an article in the London Evening News called The Bowmen. The story related how Saint George led an army of ghostly medieval archers to the aid of the BEF at Mons, throwing back the hordes of attacking German infantry. Although written as a piece of fiction the story gained popularity, and became so widely believed by some that the author later felt compelled to offer his apology for misleading the British public. However, the legend did not stop there, for the editors of The Occult Review and Light, both British illustrated monthly magazines that focussed on all matters of the occult, took up the story and approached Machen for more information. To Machen’s credit he assured both editors that the story was nothing more than a fictional account, yet an increasing number of local magazines began reprinting it, and one clergyman even went as far as to publically disagree with Machen’s claim to having made it up, insisting the story was in fact true.

The legend was quickly becoming firmly established, and as it spread the myth developed from the appearance of an army of dead bowmen to fully-fledged Archangels coming to the rescue of the Tommies. Anonymous accounts also began to appear, claiming to have heard the story from someone who was present at Mons, or from someone who knew someone who was present, adding credence to the story. The Occult Review even published an article on first anniversary of the action entitled The Angelic Leaders, in which Miss Phyllis Campbell made claims that the legend was not only true, but that she had personally spoken to many soldiers who witnessed a number of divine interventions that had occurred from the action at Mons to the First Battle of Ypres. Later, on 14 September, a letter appeared in the Evening News, which contained further claims allegedly written by an anonymous British Lieutenant-Colonel who saw many cavalrymen in the distance on the night of 27 August 1914 assisting his battalion, yet no trace of them were found the next day. The officer admitted his men were extremely tired and worn out during the retreat from Mons, but found it extraordinary that so many of his battalion had witnessed the same phenomenon. Another story later circulated that many German troops had been killed or wounded by what appeared to be arrows, although no evidence was ever presented for such a claim, save for anonymous eyewitness accounts.

With the war over in 1918 the legend may have finally begun to disappear, yet it persisted and received renewed claims as to its authenticity as recently as the 1980s, when members of the New Age movement revived interest in the myth, in the form of new articles and books published on the subject. Even in 2001 a diary, alleged to have been kept by a British soldier by the name of William Doidge, along with film and photographic evidence belonging to the same serviceman, had been found in a chest in an antique shop in Monmouth. The find was taken seriously enough to be published by The Sunday Times, and Marlon Brando was said to have wanted to buy the film with the view of making a movie based on the myth. However, it was later admitted to be nothing more than an elaborate hoax by the ‘finder’.

As with many myths of this type, it is likely to have been widely believed because people wanted to believe it was true. The story was perpetuated by the media, who as always are relentless in their quest to find a good story that will sell newspapers and magazines. Yet it has also been claimed that official sources sought to keep the legend alive during the war for propaganda purposes, and indeed it has also been claimed the story boosted recruitment rates during the pre-conscription period in Britain. Whatever the reason, the legend of the Angels of Mons takes its place in history amongst many connected to the Battle of Mons, an action that, albeit significant at the time, was rendered a minor engagement by later standards of the conflict.

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