A Legend or a Myth?
The most notable supernatural event to have risen out of the First World War must surely be the story of The Angels of Mons. The tale varies from source to source but if you pull up a chair and get comfy, I will attempt as faithful a retelling as I am able for you here.
It’s August 22nd, 1914. WW1 is just two weeks old and the British forces are on their way to assist the French in the defence against the advancing German Army.
Britain, had signed the Treaty of London in 1839 which recognised the neutrality of Belgium and meant that the British were sworn to protect the Belgians should they ever be invaded.
Therefore, Britain had to declare war on Germany and it did so just eleven hours after German army boots set foot on Belgian soil.
Angels of Mons
The first six divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (the seasoned cream of the British Army) numbering some 80,000 men had dug in at the Mons-Conde Canal forming a salient under the command of Field Marshall Sir John French.
There, 35,000 of them would support France’s 5th army, which was suffering heavy casualties and was on the verge of defeat. Sir John believed his army of well-trained, experienced soldiers to be far superior to von Kluck’s army of green-as-grass German conscripts.
However, von Kluck had the advantage of significantly greater numbers and on the 23rd August, undeterred, he gave the order to assault the British position launching what would become known as The Battle of Mons.
The BEF took up their defensive positions. If they couldn’t stop the German army, Northern France, would be lost.
Six Hours of Shelling
The Germans attacked in large numbers, across open ground and in tight formation enabling the British to inflict heavy casualties. The British Expeditionary Force were excellent marksmen and opened fire with such accuracy and speed that the German soldiers thought they had come up against a force armed with machine guns as opposed to the trusty Lee Enfield rifle.
However, as the bullets began to fly, France’s 5th army made a last-minute decision to withdraw from the battlefield leaving the British right flank exposed and vulnerable.
The British managed to withstand more than six hours of enemy shelling and infantry assaults to hold off the German attack past nightfall when the strength of enemy numbers (almost double the British) became too great to withstand.
The enemy had changed their approach, attacking again in a looser formation and forcing the British to spread their firepower more thinly. The Germans quickly exploited any weak spots.
It was at that moment, amidst the August heat and the clouds of smoke which hung in the air, that the British knew the German noose was about to tighten. They prepared themselves for the German onslaught, some dropped to their knees in prayer and as the final moment drew near and their lives began to play out in front of their eyes, one soldier recalled a strange memory from home.
It was an image of an armoured knight astride his noble steed, etched into a china dinner plate used in a restaurant back in London . The image was of Saint George, Patron Saint of England.
It was said that the image of Saint George appeared to the English knights and archers when they faced similar odds and a looming defeat at the Battle of Agincourt almost 500 years before.
Next to the image on the plate, the soldier remembered seeing the words, “May Saint George be a present help to the English”. His mind was suddenly ripped away from the clean white table clothes and fine silverware of the restaurant back to the bloody and smoky battlefield of Mons.
However, he began to mutter the phrase over and over again as though he were saying a prayer. “May Saint George be a present help to the English” His mutterings were repeated by those around him.
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Meanwhile, it had become clear to Sir John French as the German army closed in, that he had no choice but to sound the retreat ordering his exhausted men to fall back to a second defensive line.
Suddenly, a strange noise sounded causing both armies to gaze upwards and in the smoky haze soldiers reported seeing a shadowy line of what appeared to be longbowmen.
The bowmen drew back their bows, aimed their arrows and released turning the sky dark as the deadly rain of arrows bore down on the German foe. During this phenomenon this act of divine intervention bought the British the time they needed to retreat safely from the battlefield. The Germans were struck with fear and stopped in their tracks. A miracle?
September 29th 1914
Despite this setback, the German army eventually regrouped and continued their march towards Paris chasing the British who would eventually retreat some 200 miles back into France.
Although the battle was lost, the British considered themselves victorious in their escape. Of the 35,000 British soldiers to have engaged in the battle at Mons, only 1,600 were lost despite the extraordinary weight of the odds stacked against them.
Shortly thereafter, on September 29th 1914, the Welsh author and newspaper journalist, Arthur Machen, published his story ‘The Bowmen’ in the London Evening News.
Not widely known as a writer of fiction at the time, people took Machen’s story to be factual and news of the miraculous Angels of Mons spread throughout Great Britain boosting national morale despite Machen’s own insistence that the publication was a work of fiction.
Was it angels, phantasmal bowmen or Saint George himself? No one really knows what, if anything was seen on the battlefield that day. It is possible that even shared hallucinations could occur at times when people are both desperate to survive and suffering from tiredness and exhaustion.
Or perhaps perpetuating stories such as this were a way of people on both sides explaining the inexplicable.
Firstly, how did the British manage to hold off the German advance like they did and escape relatively unscathed? And on the German side, it could be similarly asked why they failed to rout the British despite their significantly superior numbers.
World War One gave rise to plenty of legends and stories of the supernatural where strange occurrences or life-saving miracles required explanation. What was apparent however, was that after WW1, stories from the Germans themselves began to surface that they too had seen angels and longbowmen above the sky of the British soldiers!
Some say it was lighting in the sky, some say it was a mass hallucination, and some go as far as to say the British actually projected these images of angels and knights off the clouds using giant search lights in order to scare the Germans. Some say God intervened!
Myths and legends have always had a powerful hold on humans regardless of their religious beliefs, whether it be stories of heroism such as those of the fabled King Arthur and Robin Hood or stories of infamous rogues such as the real-life Dick Turpin (whose exploits are more myth than reality), Loki of Norse mythology or Clytemnestra feared by the Ancient Greeks.
Lead image by the talented Seimon Pugh-Jones
Many ancient battles had already been and gone where opposing armies had been persuaded to fight against the odds by the belief that God or the Gods were on their side. In the case of the Angels of Mons, the belief in the otherworldly provided hope for countless people who had to endure the lasting impact of a brutal war; fact or fiction, it matters not. What matters is that the British were able to retreat in order and fight another day thanks to a heavenly manifestation.
In memory of Private John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed in World War One, at Mons.