The Angels of Mons and Elsewhere – Part One: The Bowmen and Other Legends,Scott Wood,The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 18, Issue 1, from 2005

Extracts from The Sunday Times, 30th August 1914:

Regiments were grievously injured, and the broken army fought its way desperately with many stands, forced backwards and ever backwards by the sheer unconquerable mass of numbers of an enemy prepared to throw away three or four men for the life of every British soldier. 

We have to face the fact that the British Expeditionary Force, which bore the great weight of the blow, has suffered terrible losses and requires immediate and immense reinforcement. The British Expeditionary Force has won indeed imperishable glory, but needs men, men and yet more men.

(My emphasis)

After reading the above, describing the retreat from Mons, Arthur Machen wrote the story The Bowmen. It appeared in the London Evening News, issue of 29th September, 1914, and told of a British soldier, a ‘Latin scholar’, caught in the carnage of Mons. He remembers an inscription Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius or “May Saint George be a present help to the English”. Delirious, he starts crying the motto out at the top of his voice while firing wildly into the German lines. All of a sudden ghostly archers appear before him shouting “St. George for Merry England” and “Knights of Heaven aid us”. Only the scholar can see the bowmen, yet when they shoot their arrows, the Germans fall to the ground dead but unmarked.

A few days after publication, both The Occult Review and Light (A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research) contacted Machen asking him what the truth was behind the story. None, Machen replied, and the subject, he felt at the time, was left at that (Machen, 1915).

Light received a visitor the next year. A military officer asked to see the issue that mentioned Machen’s story. He said that some troops at Mons had seen a cloud that had saved the British from the Germans. “[T]his legend of Mons is fascinating,” said Light, 24th of April 1915, “we should like to hear more of it.”

A letter claiming to describe actual supernatural intervention at Mons appeared in the Catholic newspaper The Universe, 30th April 1915. British soldiers, trapped by German fire, decide to try and rush the Germans. They yell, “St. George for England!” and as they leave their trench they are joined by a large company of men with bows. After defeating the enemy, they notice that many of the fallen Germans are unmarked. Unlike in The Bowmen, there is an addition to the story. A captured German officer asks the author of the letter who the officer on the great horse was; they could not hit him in spite of him being such a conspicuous target.

The popularity of The Bowmen spread across the country. Machen’s editor was allowing the story to be printed in parish magazines and when one priest had sold out of copies of his magazine he asked if he could reproduce the story as a pamphlet. He asked if Machen would write a preface explaining the origins of the story. Machen replied that there were none, but the priest told Machen that, no, the story was true, and he had merely added his own fictional flourishes to an actual event (Machen, 1915).

The Angel of Mons, Eastleigh War Memorial

The Church Family Newspaper of July 1915 reprinted a letter that first appeared in the All Saints, Clifton Parish Magazine from a Miss Marrable. She had talked to two officers about the angels at Mons. One officer, expecting to be wiped out, saw the angels and was amazed to also see the Germans standing in a daze long enough for the British to escape. A solider present, previously not religious, became so, after witnessing the angels.

Light carried numerous reports, both sent to them in letters and taken from other publications. A correspondent called ‘Scota’ supplied three accounts to the 8th May issue of Light, describing how the German cavalry charge was checked by a luminous cloud containing bright, moving objects.

The same issue of Light reprinted an account of the Angels of Mons by A. P. Sinnett from The Occult Review entitled Meteorites and the World Crisis. In it the British are about to be overwhelmed but the German army halts. Those with ‘superpsychical’ sight see a row of shining beings between the armies. When asked why they halted, captured Germans claim to have seen massive reinforcements coming to the aid of the British.

The following is from Bladud, The Bath Society Paper, for 9th June 1915, by Rev. M.P. Gilson of All Saints Church in Clifton:

The first is an extract from an officer’s letter: ‘I myself saw the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans during the retreat at Mons. We heard the German cavalry after us and ran for a place we thought a stand could be made; we turned and faced the enemy expecting instant death. When to our wonder we saw between us and the enemy a whole troop of Angels’.

From another source I heard that many prisoners were taken that day who surrendered when there was no call for it. […] Some of these German prisoners were asked afterwards why they had surrendered, ‘for there were many more of you than us; we were a mere handful,’ they looked amazed and replied ‘but there were hosts and hosts of you.’ It was thought that the angels appeared to them as reinforcements of our ranks’.

In 1915, Arthur Machen released, or at least gave permission to be released, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, an anthology which included The Bowmen. In the introduction, Machen took the opportunity to put the record straight about the mystery of Mons, as he saw it. His theory was that the public, priests and soldiers writing from the front had taken his story and through a number of retellings, lost the elements of St. George, the British being, he felt, uncomfortable with such Catholic ideas as saints. The word “shining” to describe his ghostly Bowmen was transformed into the “shining warriors” and “angels” that were now being reported as real. He went on to name some of the bishops, deans and others he felt had spread the ‘angels’ story and attacked the “second, third, fourth, fifth hand stories told by ‘a soldier’, by ‘an officer’, by ‘a catholic correspondent’, by ‘a nurse’, by any number of anonymous people” (Machen, 1915, p. 86).

Phyllis Campbell was a writer who claimed to have been a nurse at the front and had written under the name Phil Campbell in The Occult Review, August 1915, about the visions at Mons. As a parting shot Machen mentions her, and her conviction that “[E]verybody who had fought from Mons to Ypres saw the apparitions”. If that be so, it is again that nobody has come forward to testify first hand to the most amazing event of his life” (Machen, 1915, p. 86).

On the Side of the Angels

Shortly afterwards, Harold Begbie, a popular writer at the time, published On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen. Begbie reprinted articles from Light and The Occult Review and elsewhere. He had little new to say, but his book stoked the debate.

In answer to Machen’s challenge a letter appeared in the London Evening News for 29th September 1915, from a ‘distinguished Lieutenant-Colonel’ describing ghostly horsemen marching alongside the British as they retreated from Mons.

In the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) enquiry into the Angels of Mons (see section 3, below), the Lieutenant-Colonel’s account was juxtaposed with a letter that appeared in the Evening News from a named source, Lance-Corporal A. Johnstone, late of the Royal Engineers, which described how he and his comrades had mistaken mist-shrouded shrubs and bushes for the French Cavalry (McClure, 1994).

Advertisements for ‘Mounted Colour Pictures of the Angels of Mons’ appeared in the London Evening News in October, sadly not photographic evidence but paintings inspired by Machen’s and Begbie’s books. The Angels of Mons featured as a subject in a book of songs about the war, and as the years and the war rolled on further letters, pamphlets and books were produced. Ralph Shirley published Angel Warriors at Mons (Newspaper Publishing) and Phyllis Campbell wrote the pro-Angels book Back of the Front (Newnes) in 1915. Dreams and Visions of the War by R Stuart (Pearson) was published in 1917 and contained pro-Angels accounts of Mons, as well as stories from Ypres, Neuve-Chappelle, Loos and other battles. Meanwhile, in the London Evening News, Machen continued to claim that the Angels of Mons were a fiction of his own invention. He must have been tearing his hair out.

Angels and Sceptics

The SPR conducted their own investigation into the Angels of Mons:

In the main, the result of our enquiry is negative, at least regards the question of whether any apparitions were seen on the battlefield, either at Mons or elsewhere. Of first hand testimony we have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand we have none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon.

McClure, 1994

Private Cleaver of the 1st Cheshire Regiment was willing to sign an affidavit before Flint County Justice of the Peace George Hazlehurst to the effect that he had seen “the Vision of Angels with my own eyes”. It consisted of “a flash, nothing more” (Daily Mail, 24 August 1915). However, after some enquires to Cleaver’s regiment it was found that he had not arrived with the British Expeditionary Force until September and so could not have been at the retreat from Mons (London Evening News, 2 September 1915).

A hoaxed story appeared in The Daily News, 17th February 1930, claiming that the angels were merely footage of soldiers, projected on “‘screens’ of foggy white cloud banks” by the Germans. The intention had been to scare the British troops but the projections had produced the opposite effect (the hoax was exposed in the paper the next day; McClure, 1994).

Other than that, the accounts of Mons have stayed in two camps. The books Angels by Hope Price (Pan, 1994), Angels A to Z by James R Lewis & Evelyn Dorothy Oliver (Visible Ink, 1996) and The Book of Miracles by Stuart Gordon (Headline, 1996) hold with the pro-angels side of the story. Sorry, You’ve Been Duped! by Melvin Harris (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986) and An Encyclopaedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural by James Randi (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997) not surprisingly go with Machen’s version of events. The Guinness Encyclopaedia of Ghosts and Spirits (Guinness Publishing, 1994) and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Cassell, 1989) dispute the existence of the Angels, while Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels including the Fallen Angels (First Free Press, 1971) simply records the phenomena.

A Story Going Strong

There have been a number of recent developments and additions to the story of the Angels of Mons. Kevin McClure published Visions of Bowmen and Angels in 1994, which gathers together most of the different Mons accounts. It includes the following letter:

Then there is the story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong around the 2nd Corps, of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade them further progress. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks in these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find how the legend arose.

Charteris, 1931, in McClure, 1994

Brigadier General Charteris’ book At G.H.Q. (1931) dates the letter as 5 September, over three weeks before The Bowmen was published in the London Evening News. Assuming that the date is accurate this letter provides compelling evidence for the Angels of Mons.

However, Dr David Clarke, in his article Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War in 2002 points out that a further letter in the same volume is dated 11 February 1915, yet discusses an account of the Angels of Mons that was not published until May 1915 (Clarke, 2002, p. 164). In conversation, Dr Clarke told me that there is no account of the Angels of Mons among Charteris’ original letters, making At G.H.Q. an uncertain source. Dr Clarke goes on in a Fortean Times article, and a subsequent lecture at the 2003 Fortean Times UnConvention, to suggest that Charteris actually instigated the rumours of angels with the press to boost British morale after the battle of Ypres and the first use of gas in the war (Clarke, 2003, p. 38).

As with all of the history of the Angels of Mons, an answer to Dr Clarke’s article in Folklore appeared in the next issue, dated April 2003. Jacqueline Simpson disputes his dismissal of Charteris’ book and wonders if military historians hold Charteris to be an unreliable source. My own theory on Dr Clarke’s Charteris conspiracy angle is discussed below.

A stranger development occurred in 2002 when Danny Sullivan claimed to have film footage of the Angels of Mons. The Sunday Times ran with the story and Sullivan’s claim that he had sold the film to Marlon Brando. Sullivan, looking as if he wished to learn more, posted an appeal on his website for any information about the angel. When Chris Morris investigated the claim for the Radio 4 program The Making of an Urban Legend, Sullivan confessed to making the story up in an attempt to sell a book of local mysteries. Since the Sullivan story, the Angels of Mons have been referred to more often in the singular, Angel of Mons.

Chris Morris’s program also contained a recording of a BEF soldier who was at Mons, John Ewings, describing a man that appeared in the sky with “a flaming sword” who caused the Germans, surrounding John and his comrades, to flee. This footage could be the actual, first-hand evidence so many have longed for. The Angels of Mons debate is not over.

‘All Day Long We Marched’

The Sunday Times article quoted at the beginning of this article is false. A journalist appalled at seeing the British in such disarray wrote it, and the official censor, F.E. Smith, saw it as a recruiting opportunity. Instead of toning the article down, as expected, he rewrote it to emphasise the need for fresh recruits (Farrar, 1998) and urged the newspaper to print the story as a patriotic duty (Tuchman, 1962). The quotes that are in bold in the report at the beginning of this article are the censor’s additions (Times Newspapers, 1914, pp. 222-223).

During the retreat the BEF took 1,600 casualties, the Germans around 5,000 (Keegan, 1998). Over 14 days, the BEF had 15,000 casualties compared to the French army’s 210,000 over the same period. The Sunday Times article certainly didn’t hinder recruitment, which peaked around the same time as the retreat from Mons (Fergusson, 1998). The myth of the defeat at Mons was created.

The BEF were one cavalry and four infantry divisions up against 14 German divisions. However, the smaller British forces were made up of many Boer War veterans who had learnt from the Boers valuable lessons on rapid trench digging and using cover. The British were so well dug in that the Germans felt they faced “an invisible enemy” (Keegan, 1998, p. 110). The BEF did not retreat to escape a bloodbath or because of depleted numbers, but to meet up with the French army who were withdrawing due to heavy losses (Keegan, 1998).

The BEF had been marching for days during the retreat. One veteran wrote:

August 25th. We’d started off about 5am still retiring, and so far we had had no food since Sunday the 23rd. All day long we marched.

Denmore, 1997, p. 3

The angels are variously described as appearing glowing within a cloud (Light, 8 May 1915), in a yellow mist (Begbie, 1915, p. 56), in a clear, cloudless sky (Daily Mail, 12 August 1915), as well as being responsible for the dark cloud that hid the British from the Germans (Light, 15 May 1915). The diversity of the accounts would point away from the view that they are genuine reports of the supernatural, and instead, toward mythmaking at the front by tired soldiers and at home by anxious civilians. The varied stories would also suggest the story of the angels did not derive from a single source such as John Charteris spreading moral-boosting myths. “The First World War was the first media war” (Fergusson, 1998, p. 212) and a nation that was uneasy about a war just across the Channel was looking for any sign of hope. This was certainly provided by the Angels of Mons and any story coming from the front soon became confused and meshed with sermons, myth, The Bowmen and commercial and emotional exploitation.

In part two, I intend to show that the Angels of Mons did not evolve from any First World War origin, but from stories far older.

References

Begbie, H. (1915). On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen. London: Hodder & Stoughton.Brewer, E. C. (1983). Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. (rev. I.H. Evans). London: Caswell.Campbell, P. (1915). Back of the Front. London: Newnes.Charteris, Brigadier-General J. (1931). At G.H.Q. London: Caswell.Clarke, D. (2002). Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War. Folklore, 113 (2), 151–173.Clarke, D. (2003). Angels of the Battlefield. Fortean Times, 171, 30–38.Davidson, G. (1971). A Dictionary of Angels including the Fallen Angels. New York: First Free Press.Denmore, B. J. (1997). The Retreat from Mons, August 23rd–September 5th, 1914. In J.E. Lewis (ed.), True World War 1 Stories (pp. 3–8). London: Robinson.Farrar, M.J. (1998). News from the Front: War Correspondents on the Western Front 1914-1918. New York: Sutton.Fergusson, N. (1998). The Pity of War. London: Allen Lane Penguin.Gordon, S. (1996). The Book of Miracles. London: Headline.Guiley, R. E. (1994). Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. Enfield: Guinness.Harris, M. (1986). Sorry, You’ve Been Duped! London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Keegan, J. (1998). The First World War. London: Hutchinson.McClure, K. (1994). Visions of Bowmen and Angels. Retrieved 12 April 2002Machen, A. (1915). The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. London: Simpkins, Marshall & Kent.Merta M.F. (1996). The Angels of Mons. In K.S. Sisung (ed.), Angels A to Z (p. 33). Detroit: Visible Ink.Morris, C. The Making of an Urban Legend. Radio 4, 2002 (Tape in author’s possession).Randi, J. (1995). An Encyclopaedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.Shirley, R. (1915). Angel Warriors at Mons: an Authentic Record. London: Newspaper Publishing.Stuart, R. (1917). Dreams and Visions of the War. London: Pearson.Sullivan, D. (n.d.). The Doidge’s Angel Homepage. Retrieved 3 October 2002Tuchman, B. W. (1962). August 1914. London: Constable.Film was Just a Hoax. (n.d.). Retrieved 3 October 2002

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From the archives, Scott Wood begins his two-part assessment on the fabled Angels of Mons by unearthing their origins
The post The Angels of Mons and Elsewhere – Part One: The Bowmen and Other Legends appeared first on The Skeptic.

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