Author: Adithya Vikram Sakthivel
World War I, or the Great War as it was commonly known during its time, was an era during which various legends were created and came into fruition, some grounded in reality as the tales of great soldiers and brilliant military tacticians, while others were more preposterous, borrowing various elements from both supernatural beliefs and local folklore. One of the most unbelievable of these tales was the legend of the Angel of Mons.
The legend goes as follows. During the midst of battle in Belgium, the onslaught continued as the heavily outnumbered British troops tried to retreat as the invading German forces pursued them every step of the way, through both the fields and heavily wooded areas around the Mons Conde channel. Then just as all hope was lost for the British, something that could only be defined as divine intervention occurred, heavenly angels appeared over the bloody battlefield, encouraging what remained of the British forces to stand and fight for what they believed and defeat the Germans. Suddenly behind the defending British troops appeared the mythical bowmen of Agincourt, legendary soldiers who fought for England against the French during the hundred year war, or angelic warriors as depicted in other versions, this divine force was being led by none other than Saint George himself, inflicting massive casualties to the advancing German forces completely annihilating them, winning the battle for the British in the process.
In reality this battle was less glorious and romantic than the legend would suggest. The battle of Mons was the first taste of war and major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), a small but elite fighting force of the British Army, in the First World War. It was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the Allies clashed with Germany on the French borders. At dawn on 23rd of August, a German artillery bombardment began on the British lines; throughout the day the Germans concentrated on the British at the salient formed by the loop in the canal. The German attack was a costly failure and the Germans switched to an open formation and attacked again.
This attack was more successful, as the looser formation made it more difficult for the Irish men to inflict casualties rapidly. Unlike what the legend suggested, by the afternoon, the British position in the salient had become untenable the British forces methodologically executed a strategic retreated to avoid a stalemate with massive casualties. The battle commenced on the morning of the 23rd of August 1914, with the total evacuation occurring by the night of the 24th of the same month. However, there were huge casualties with the British losing about 1,600 men, while the advancing German military had lost between 2,000 and 5,000 men.
One cannot help but wonder how such a legend could have been accepted over the true events of the battle of Mons. It should be noted that similar tales of such battlefield visions occurred in medieval and ancient warfare. Atrocity reports like the Rape of Belgium, acts of violence and mistreatment against Belgian civilians by the invading German Army, and that of the Crucified Soldier, an alleged torture and crucification on a barn door or tree using bayonets of an Allied soldier serving in the Canadian Corps paved the way for a belief that the Christian God would intervene directly against such an evil enemy.
Due to its grandiose premise, it was unlikely that such a tale was developed by the British Military of Intelligence organizations. It is believed that this war-time myth was inspired by a story of fiction by a Welsh author known as Arthur Machen who published a short story entitled “The Bowmen” in the London newspaper the Evening News on the 29th of September 1914, inspired by accounts that he had read of the fighting at Mons and an idea he had soon after the battle.
The transaction from work of fiction to a commonly believed fact was just a simple lapse of judgement by the staff of the Evening News, who forgot to label the story submitted by Arthur Machen as fiction. This tale soon spread to several local tabloids scattered across England, and due to mass hysteria became a fact. Several other treads were attached to this story, such as POW (prisoner of war) testimonials from German soldiers. Despite Arthur Machen’s best efforts to prove that the events of this legend never occurred, it had ingrained itself into popular culture to such an extent that it was blindly believed to be a fact.
Kevin Maclure, “Visions of Bowmen and Angels” Archived August 18, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
David Clarke, “Angels on the Battlefield” Archived 2008-03-16 at the Wayback Machine., Fortean Times, May 2003
Baldwin, Hanson (1963). World War I: An Outline History. London: Hutchinson
Mallinson, Alan (2013). 1914: Fight the Good Fight, Britain, the Army and the Coming of the First World War