Angels of Mons
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On 22–23 August 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 suffered heavy casualties and, being outflanked, were forced into rapid retreat the next day. The retreat and the battle were rapidly perceived by the British public as being a key moment in the war. Despite the censorship going on in Britain at the time, this battle was the first indication the British public had that defeating Germany would not be as easy as some had thought.
Arthur Machen and "The Bowmen"
On 29 September 1914 Welsh author Arthur Machen published a short story entitled "The Bowmen" in the London newspaper the Evening News, inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had had soon after the battle.
Machen, who had already written a number of factual articles on the conflict for the paper, set his story at the time of the retreat from the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The story described phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt summoned by a soldier calling on St. George, destroying a German host. Machen's story was not, however, labelled as fiction and the same edition of the Evening News ran a story by a different author under the heading "Our Short Story". Additionally, Machen's story was written from a first-hand perspective and was a kind of false document, a technique Machen knew well. The unintended result was that Machen had a number of requests to provide evidence for his sources for the story soon after its publication, from readers who thought it was true, to which he responded that it was completely imaginary, as he had no desire to create a hoax.
A month or two later Machen received requests from the editors of parish magazines to reprint the story, which were granted. In the introduction to The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War (1915) Machen relates that an unnamed priest, the editor of one of these magazines, subsequently wrote to him asking if he would allow the story to be reprinted in pamphlet form, and if he would write a short preface giving sources for the story. Machen replied that they were welcome to reprint but he could not give any sources for the story since he had none. The priest replied that Machen must be mistaken, that the "facts" of the story must be true, and that Machen had just elaborated on a true account. As Machen later said:
It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.— Arthur Machen, Introduction to The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War
Around that time variations of the story began to appear, told as authentic histories, including an account that told how the corpses of German soldiers had been found on the battlefield with arrow wounds.
In "The Bowmen" Machen's soldier saw "a long line of shapes, with a shining about them." A Mr. A. P. Sinnett, writing in the Occult Review, stated that "those who could see said they saw 'a row of shining beings' between the two armies." This led Machen to suggest that the bowmen of his story had become the Angels of Mons. This last point was challenged by Harold Begbie in his book: On the Side of the Angels: A Reply to Arthur Machen, London 1915.
On 24 April 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 archers alongside St. 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. Atrocity reports like the Rape of Belgium and that of the Crucified Soldier paved the way for a belief that the Christian God would intervene directly against such an evil enemy. However, there are strong similarities between many of these accounts of visions and Machen's story published six months earlier.
In May 1915 a full-blown controversy was erupting, with the angels being used as proof of the action of divine providence on the side of the Allies in sermons across Britain, and then spreading into newspaper reports published widely across the world. 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 resulted in a vast series of other publications claiming to provide evidence of the Angels' existence. Machen tried to set the record straight, but any attempt to lessen the impact of such an inspiring story was seen as bordering on treason by some. These new publications included popular songs and artists' renderings of the angels. There were more reports of angels and apparitions from the front including Joan of Arc.
Kevin McClure's study describes two types of accounts circulating, some more clearly based on Machen, others with different details. In a time of intense media interest all these reports allegedly confirming sightings of supernatural activity were second-hand and some of them were hoaxes created by soldiers who were not even 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.” Given that the Society for Psychical Research believed in the existence of supernatural forces, the conclusions of this report are highly significant.
The sudden spread of the rumours in the spring of 1915, six months after the events and Machen's story was published, is also puzzling. The stories published then often attribute their sources to 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 by military intelligence to spread morale-boosting propaganda and disinformation. As it was a time of Allied problems with the Lusitania sinking, Zeppelin attacks and failure to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front, the timing would make military sense. Some of the stories conveniently claimed that sources could not be revealed for security reasons.
The only real evidence of visions from actual named serving soldiers provided 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. Furthermore, these visions did not intervene to attack or deter German forces, a crucial element in Machen's story and in the later tales of angels. Since during the retreat many troops were exhausted and had not slept properly for days, such visions could be hallucinations.
According to the conclusion of the most detailed study of the event it seems that Machen's story provided the genesis for the vast majority of the tales. The stories themselves certainly boosted morale on the home front, as popular enthusiasm was dying down in 1915 and they demonstrate the usefulness of religion in wartime.
After the war the story continued to be frequently repeated but no evidence to support the claim that the angels existed was ever given by those who were there. The best evidence provided was in Brigadier-General John Charteris' memoirs At G.H.Q., published in 1931, which said the story of the Angels of Mons was a popular rumour amongst the troops in September 1914; this was the earliest any account said the rumour was in circulation. However it appears from examination of his original letters he wrote those entries after the war and falsified the dates. Given his association with pieces of allied propaganda like the story of the “German Corpse-Rendering Works” (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) this might indicate Charteris had been behind an attempt to use the angels for propaganda purposes.
Machen was associated with the story for the rest of his life and grew sick of the connection, as he regarded “The Bowmen” as a poor piece of work. He made little money from the story then or later.
The sudden revival of interest in appearances of angels from the 1980s onwards, especially in the United States, not only amongst Christians, but those interested in the New Age, has caused uncritical accounts of the story of the angels who saved the British Army to be regularly published in books and magazines. Similarly, the story is also often used by sceptics as a good example of how believers in the supernatural can become convinced of fantastic things by slender evidence. References to the story can be found in novels and films like FairyTale: A True Story set during World War I. The Friends of Arthur Machen frequently publish articles on developments in the case.
William Doidge hoax
In 2001, an article in The Sunday Times claimed that a diary, film and photographic evidence proving the existence of the Angels of Mons from a World War I soldier named William Doidge had been found. The article discussed a long involved story in which Doidge was involved with an American GI and an angel seen years later in Woodchester Mansion. It was claimed Marlon Brando and Tony Kaye were going to spend £350,000 to buy the evidence to make a film. Other papers like Variety and the Los Angeles Times and television programmes soon followed up the story and a website connected to the mystery became very popular. The footage was supposedly found in a trunk in an antique shop by Danny Sullivan in Monmouth, close to Machen's birthplace of Caerleon. In 2002, in a BBC Radio documentary; The Making of an Urban Myth, Sullivan admitted the story was a complete hoax to drum up interest in Woodchester Mansion; the footage and soldier never existed.
In popular culture
- In the film Oh, What A Lovely War! the priest of a service in a ruined church prays that the Lord will send the angel of Mons again.
- In the film Fairy Tale: A True Story based on the Cottingley Fairies, the Theosophic Society organises a seminar, where a participant speaks to the audience claiming to be an eyewitness of the apparition.
- The Angels of Mons were depicted as phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt sighted by the immortal Orlando during the Battle of Mons in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.
- In Promethea, Margaret, a previous incarnation of Promethea, refers to imaginary things like herself and the Angels of Mons as the only comfort the young soldiers in the trenches had. She is seen earlier guiding a lone, wounded soldier home.
- The Angels of Mons are referenced in the Black Library novel Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett, where a sniper is advised by the statue of an Imperial Saint.
- In the 2013 published historical novel, Raiffe and the Angels of Mons by Mark Hadley, there is reference to the sightings during the Battle of Mons.
- The Explosions in the Sky album artwork for Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever is said to be inspired by the Angels of Mons.
- At the start of the film Ed Wood, Wood is shown producing a play based upon the legend.
- "The Whole Enchilada", the second episode of the first series of Demons makes reference to hundreds of troops on the western front simultaneously sighting the Angels of Mons.
- The Angels of Mons are featured in and partly inspire the short story The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie.
- In 1979, former Genesis guitarist, Steve Hackett released the instrumental, "Clocks – The Angel of Mons", on his album: Spectral Mornings. The album also includes another World War I ghost narrative in a song entitled "Tigermoth".
- In the 2013 novel Angel of Mons by Robin Bennett, a teenage boy on a school trip to the World War I battlefields experiences mysterious flashbacks to the Battle of Mons.
- Is referenced in the 2010 Harper Teen novel Unearthly by debut author Cynthia Hand
- In the ITV series Eternal Law, the protagonist, an angel going by the name Zak Gist, claims to have been an Angel of Mons. He says that he couldn't bear the idea that all the soldiers were going to die, so he showed them an escape route.
- In David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas the character Robert Frobisher composed a piece called "Angel of Mons".
- In the 2015 novel The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, the Angels of Mons were identified as a secret unit of 'Steppers' (people with the natural ability to shift themselves and others to parallel universes) who were using their abilities to bring the wounded to safety.
- Peter Rugg (another literary ghost story sometimes taken as an actual report)
- Cottingley Fairies
- Angel of Hadley
- Machen, Arthur (1915). The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. Book digitized by Google in 2007 from the library of Harvard University. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
- Begbie, On the Side of the Angels
- David Clarke, “Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War – Detailed Study”, Folklore, October 2002.
- Kevin Maclure, “Visions of Bowmen and Angels” Archived August 18, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
- David Clarke, The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (2005).
- David Clarke, “Rumours of Angels: a response to Simpson”, Folklore, April 2004.
- James Randi, “Angels of Mons”, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural.
- David Clarke, “Angels on the Battlefield” Archived 2008-03-16 at the Wayback Machine, Fortean Times, May 2003.
- The Angels of Mons: the bowmen and other legends of the War at The University of Adelaide Library
- Arthur Machen, The Bowmen, (also includes his Introduction with his theories of explanation)
- David Clarke, Rumours of angels: a legend of the First World War – detailed study in Folklore
- Kevin Maclure, Visions of Bowmen and Angels
- The case of the Elusive Angels of Mons
- H. Begbie, On the Side of the Angels
- The Angels of Mons public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- The Bowmen public domain audiobook at LibriVox