Angels of Mons

From Academic Kids

The Angels of Mons are supposedly a group of angels who protected members of the British army in the Battle of Mons at the outset of World War I. They are generally believed to have been fictitious, and invented primarily for the purpose of boosting public morale.

On August 22-23 1914, the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War occurred at the Battle of Mons. Advancing German forces were thrown back by heavily outnumbered British troops, who also suffering casualties and being outflanked were forced into rapid retreat the next day.

On April 24th, 1915, an account was published in the British Spiritualist magazine telling of visions of a supernatural force that miraculously intervened to help the British at the decisive moment of the battle. This rapidly resulted in a flurry of similar accounts and the spread of wild rumours. Descriptions of this force varied from it being medieval longbow men alongside Saint George, to a strange luminous cloud, though eventually the most popular version came to be angelic warriors. Similar tales of such battlefield visions occurred in medieval and ancient warfare. However there are strong similarities between many of these accounts and Arthur Machen's short story The Bowmen first published six months earlier on September 29, 1914 in the London newspaper, the Evening News. Machen was a journalist on the paper and although he was a well known author of supernatural stories there was no indication that Machen's story was fiction when it was original published, and as it was written from a first hand perspective it was a kind of false document, a technique Machen knew well. The story described bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt summoned by a soldier calling on Saint George, destroying a German host. The unintended result was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for his sources quite soon after publication, to which he responded it was completely imaginary, as he had no desire to create a hoax.

It was not until May 1915 that a full blown controversy was erupting with the angels being used of proof of the action of divine providence on the side of the Allies in sermons across Britain. Machen, bemused by all this attempted to end the rumours by republishing the story in August in book form with a long preface stating the rumours were false and originated in his story. It became a bestseller and merely resulted in a vast series of other publications claiming to provide evidence proving the Angels existence. These publications included popular songs and artists renderings of the angels. Kevin McClure's study describes two types of stories circulating, some more clearly based on Machen, others with different details. However all these reports confirming sightings of supernatural activity were at best second-hand and some of them even quoted soldiers who were not at Mons. A careful investigation by the Society for Psychical Research in 1915 said of the 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." The SPR went on to say the stories relating to battlefield "visions" which circulated during the spring and summer of 1915, "prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source."

The sudden spread of the rumours in the spring of 1915 six months after the events happened is also puzzling. The stories published then often attribute their information to mysterious anonymous British officers. The latest and most detailed examination of the Mons story by David Clarke suggests these men may have been part of a covert attempt to spread morale-boosting propaganda.

The only real evidence of visions from actual serving soldiers occurring during the debate stated that they saw visions of phantom cavalrymen, not angels or bowmen, and this occurred during the retreat rather than at the Battle itself. Since during the retreat many troops were exhausted and had not slept properly for days such visions may have been hallucinations.

It seems then that Machen's story provided the genesis for the vast majority of tales of Angels at the time. The stories of angels themselves certainly boosted morale on the home front as popular enthusiasm was dying down in 1915. They also serve as testimony to the rapid spread of rumour and myth during wartime and bear comparison to the modern craze for UFO sightings.

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