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 publishedOn 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.
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.