The Angel of Mons

Did a mysterious heavenly host save a small group of British from a large German force in World War I?

Filed under Paranormal, Religion, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #137
January 20, 2009
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It was August of 1914, near Mons in Belgium. The German army was making its sweep into France in the opening stages of World War I. Heavily outnumbered units of the British Expeditionary Force came under vastly superior German fire, and their destruction seemed assured. But in perhaps the strangest tale in modern warfare, the British were saved at the last moment by an inexplicable heavenly presence: A brigade of warrior angels appeared and wrought destruction upon the Germans, handing the day and the victory to the British.

At least, that's what you usually hear.

The Angel of Mons was not only a military first, it was also fairly influential in popular culture at the time. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Mary Norton, author of the Bedknobs and Broomsticks trilogy, are said to have been inspired by the story of supernatural soldiers saving the outnumbered good guys from an overwhelming evil enemy force. For decades the story of the Angel of Mons had faded into history, but with the New Age resurgence of angel worship beginning in the 1980's, the story has found its way back into the popular mythology, usually retold without critique. Anyone who's into angel worship can probably rattle off the tale of the Angel of Mons as a great example of guardian angels protecting the good. And it's in the official military records, so you know it has to be true, right?

And that's the perfect place to start our investigation into the Angel of Mons. Contrary to the popular telling, this was not a British victory. In fact those who escaped barely got out with their lives. The Battle of Mons was the first time British and German forces encountered each other in WWI. A large German force was indeed making its sweep into France, and a few small units of the British Expeditionary Force, the first British soldiers sent to the mainland, happened to be in their way. Outnumbered approximately 4 to 1 at the start of the battle, the British did indeed stop the German advance and inflicted heavy casualties. British infantry were experts on their Lee-Enfield rifles, and many could take a man down at 200 yards at the rate of 15 a minute. The relatively inexperienced and virtually untrained Germans, on the other hand, had no answer for this and believed themselves to be under heavy machine gun fire. The British also used air-bursting shrapnel, which the Germans lacked. After two days of fighting during which the larger German force continuously pushed the British back, the Germans sounded a cease-fire and the British withdrew. British losses in the Battle of Mons were 1,600, and the Germans suffered 5,000 losses. The British had given the Germans a black eye, but the net effect was negligible as it slowed only a small part of the German advance for just two days.

There was no miraculous British victory explainable only by supernatural intervention, and no supernatural intervention appears in any military accounts that I've gone through.

This first clash with the Germans was big news in Britain, as you can well imagine, and new volunteers flooded the recruiting stations when the story broke. In such circumstances it's easy to conceive of infectious patriotism sweeping the land, and the telling of heroic tales, and the trumpeting of news of early victory. Hungry for such stories, a London paper called the Evening News engaged Welsh author Arthur Machen, a writer of Gothic horror stories, to publish a tale he called The Bowmen. In his story, the besieged British soldiers at the Battle of Mons appealed to St. George for heavenly aid, and who should appear but phantom Medieval longbowmen from the Battle of Agincourt, 500 years past. The heavenly longbowmen decimated the Germans, mysteriously leaving no visible wounds; and carried the day for the British.

And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.

Pressed by eager editors for more information about this miraculous delivery, Machen was the first to stand up and remind everyone that his was a work of fiction. However, by some accounts, the article had an effect not unlike that of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds. It was mistaken for an actual news report by many readers.

The Bowmen was published on September 29, 1914, five weeks after the Battle of Mons. Perhaps the best evidence that the Angel of Mons stories have no factual basis is the absence of any known published accounts referencing supernatural intervention earlier than that date. Except one...

A book published in 1931 by Brigadier-General John Charteris is a collection of letters that he wrote during the war. In one addressed to his wife, dated September 5 (more than three weeks before The Bowmen), he wrote:

Then there is the story of the "Angel of Mons" going strong through the II 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 their further progress.

The authenticity of Charteris' letter has come under intense scrutiny. For one thing, Charteris served as Chief of British Army Intelligence from 1915 to 1918, and he was involved in numerous schemes to disseminate propaganda. For another, all of Charteris' letters written to his wife during the war were preserved and catalogued by her, and microfilm copies are now kept at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College, University of London. There is no letter dated September 5, and no letter mentioning any Angel of Mons. Since these archived letters formed the source material for Charteris' 1931 book, researchers like David Clarke have concluded that Charteris falsified this letter after the fact as part of his propaganda duties. He is known to have done this in other cases, notably one where he promoted a false rumor that the Germans were collecting the bodies of their dead and rendering them down in a "cadaver factory" to produce oil and lubricants for their war effort. Charteris' letter has too many strikes against it to be considered reliable evidence that the story of the Angel of Mons existed prior to The Bowmen.

For some six months, The Bowmen was reprinted not only in newspapers and magazines, but also in spiritual journals; and for that period of time, there was yet no reference in print to angels. Author David Clarke performed an extensive survey of British magazines, newspapers, and journals from the period, searching for the terms "angel of mons" and "angels at Mons". It was not until April 3, 1915, that any mention of angels at Mons first appeared. It was a story from the Hereford Times entitled "A Troop of Angels" and gave the report of a young lady named Miss Marrable. She reported stories she'd heard from soldiers who were at the battle:

Last Sunday I met Miss Marrable [who] knew the officers, both of whom had themselves seen the Angels, who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during our retreat from Mons... One of Miss Marrable’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her he saw a troop of Angels between us and the enemy, and has been a changed man ever since. The other man she met in London last week [said that] while he and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them... They turned around and faced the enemy, expecting instant death; when, to their wonder, they saw between them and the enemy a whole troop of Angels. And the horses of the Germans turned around, terrified out of their senses, and stampeded.

"A Troop of Angels" was then broadly reprinted, most influentially in May 1915 in The All Saints (Clifton) Parish Magazine. But when Miss Marrable was sought out for more information, she said she'd been misquoted. None of the soldiers in her story were named, but some soldiers began coming forward saying things like they knew someone who met someone who heard the story from their very reliable friend. Author Harold Begbie published On the Side of the Angels, in which he charged Arthur Machen with exploiting the true story of angels for his own financial gain. Machen challenged Begbie to then produce these witnesses, and Begbie countered that a government coverup had silenced them. Anyway, suffice it to say that beyond these hearsay accounts in newspapers, no reliable evidence or witnesses were ever produced that could corroborate stories of anything unusual happening at Mons.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

And that's just on the British side. I asked two friends in Germany to research whatever records they could find, and they came up completely empty handed, beyond the information already discussed. If the story was exploited by the British army for propaganda purposes, the same certainly wasn't true on the German side of the lines. We couldn't find any record of Germans reporting being chased away by angels or shot by Medieval archers, and you can't plausibly credit a British government coverup for that.

We can't say for certain that no angels turned the tide of battle at Mons, but we do have two items that make it highly improbable: First, that no reliable records exist of it ever having happened; and second, that its genesis as a story is well documented as fiction and as derivative reporting based on that fiction. So enjoy your Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but don't spend too much time looking for a historical basis.

Brian Dunning

© 2009 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Begbie, H. On the side of the Angels. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915. 7.

Clarke, D. The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons Ltd., 2004.

Dupuy, R., Dupuy, T. The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, Fourth Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. 1025-1026.

Editors. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Pleasantville: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1976. 376.

Machen, A. "Short Stories reflecting the times." Aftermath. Aftermath, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 19 Jan. 2009. <http://www.aftermathww1.com/bowmen.asp>

Perris, G. "Constructs battle along the Meuse." Winnipeg Free Press. 27 Aug. 1914, Volume 41, No. 46: 1,2.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Angel of Mons." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 20 Jan 2009. Web. 31 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4137>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 28 comments

the legend was inspired by a short story written by Arthur Machen, look it up, as much as we would like to believe in the supernatural or other worldly it just isnt there, its a short story thats all..

Satamprazeiros, charlotte nc
June 24, 2010 11:12am

sad and clever use of this story in
The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale.
a VERY powerful novel which interweaves WW1 to the present day.

judyb, Australia
June 27, 2010 5:07pm

The Fortean Times did a fairly sound debunking of the story a while back. Had some interesting annectdotes in the article.

Tom H, Kent, UK
August 25, 2010 12:19pm

Fortunately even with such myths of military intervention and even compulsory religious services our military do not appear too greatly affected themselves. These myths are more for civilians.

I once worked on a NATO base. An RAF friend came into me beaming insanely and said to me - "We've figured out where we are going wrong. The chaplain gave us a sermon in which he told us that for a successful life we needed to be always leaping in the spirit of joy and hope"

He added - "We aren't doing enough "leaping" - that is where we are going wrong. We must all leap more" - and started jumping up and down

For the next few days on the base everywhere you went you would see airmen leaping - leap frog, leaping over fences, benches and drains, leaping even to attention at the passing back of the much disliked commanding officer.

Amongst the Italian Salesians are myths about the Virgin Mary diverting bullets and grenades from the "religious" in the army in the Great War. Their letters to their superiors in the faith are on the lines "Our Lady just saved my life sire by making the grenade miss me - I believe the Holy Mother would like you to emulate her example and get me the F--- out of here. Your loving son in Jesus"

Pragmatic lot the military of all nations. They still call on the sacred in times of explosions - I note this from many news segments -mostly with the words "Holy Shit!"

Phi, Sydney
April 1, 2011 5:08pm

Dear Skeptoid,

Maybe the Angel of Mons was a fine Australian cavalryman, riding a white horse, with bed sheets stolen from the medic. Which Maoris were upset to have to go and pick up, quite upset indeed.

Or conversely, what they saw, in the Belgian skies was a comet or a cloud. My understanding is that many good to modern industrial products are likened to a cloud by British folklore anyway.

Hence one cavalryman rides a horse, looking like an angel, after a genuine astronomical sighting.

It is said that some sandstone motifs, as in yellow to gold to burnt orange colour rock, can be sculpted to a shape like a cloud/angel/bird of foreboding or peace.

Dan

Dan, Sydney, AUS
May 18, 2011 4:57pm

Dan, go slightly west of sydney.

There they sculpt sand stone into blocks for really nice buildings.

Whilst you are there, you can visit the Norman Lindsay trust and have your mind blown by great art. The 10 buck meat pie is hardly an insult.

Henk v, sin city NSW, Oz
August 10, 2011 10:20pm

When the truth becomes legend print the legend.My Grandparents lost their eldest son killed at the Somme. They believed in the Angels of Mons to their dying days.It sustained them through their grief as it did countless others.In that respect what harm did it do?

ROGER BLAKE, GODSTONE ENGLAND
November 11, 2011 2:18pm

What's the harm in believing things?

I will state here and now that my family believe some pretty weird stuff from WW2. Whats worse, they have been patronised by some incredibly self centred rippoff merchants. This has cost them health and lifetime outcomes.

Would such a statement be enough Roger all caps?

Mud, Sin City, NSW, Oz
March 26, 2012 9:38pm

Julian: Germany invaded neutral Belgium and attacked French troops on 2 August 1914; Germany declared war on Russia on the same day; Britain declared war on Germany following German refusal to respect Belgian neutrality on 4 August. These facts are a matter of record. They do not make any nation 'good' or 'bad' (this was a war that had been trying to happen for ten years or more) but it does point out that the aggressors were the Central Powers, and more particularly the German Empire. To ignore this is social amnesia on a grand scale. For the rest of your comment, I neither know nor care; it bears little relevance to 'The Angel of Mons' or indeed anything else but the history of military materiel.

Rob Horne, Colombo, SL
June 23, 2013 1:04pm

iT IS SO EASY FOR PEOPLE MANY YEARS AFTER AN EVENT TO POUR SCORN AND OTHERWAISE NULLIFY SOMETHING THAT probably DID OCCUR. nOT SEEING IT YOURSELF DOESN'T MEAN IT DIDN'T HAPPEN. aFTER ALL MANY THINGS OCCUR IN THE WORD which we don't witness, are we then supposed to dismiss them all.

Alf Cavill, Walton on the naze
May 22, 2014 12:11pm

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