I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
On the blood-soaked battlefield near Mons, Belgium in August 1914 the heavily outnumbered British soldiers were facing a crushing defeat. At the moment when all hope seemed lost, a group of angels appeared to the British. Some accounts also talk of phantom bowmen and the appearance of St. George, the patron saint of England.
The spectral presences are said to have stiffened the resolve of the British who inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. The resistance halted the German advance long enough for the British Expeditionary Force to organize an orderly retreat towards Paris and save itself from annihilation.
Witnesses to the Angels of Mons
Accounts of the vision of an angelic host abound. Here’s David Ludlow talking about a conversation with his grandfather, William, who was at the Battle of Mons: “My grandfather said he saw this angel: 20ft tall, outspread wings, hands behind her, holding back the lines. He could see her face plainly―beautiful, he said.”
An English nurse, Phyllis Campbell, wrote of tending to a wounded soldier who told her “It’s true, Sister. We all saw it. First there was a sort of a yellow mist like, sort of risin’ before the Germans as they came to the top of the hill . . . The next minute comes this funny cloud of light, and when it clears off there’s a tall man with yellow hair in golden armour, on a white horse, holding his sword up, and his mouth open as if he was saying, ‘Come on boys! I’ll put the kybosh on the devils.’ . . . The minute I saw it, I knew we were going to win.”
Another wounded soldier told a nurse that he saw “quite plainly in mid-air a strange light which seemed to be quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon nor were there any clouds. The light became brighter and I could see quite distinctly three shapes, one in the centre having what looked like outspread wings. The other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from the centre one. They were above the German line facing us. We stood watching them for about three-quarters of an hour.”
The anecdotal accounts cannot be verified and there is no record of them in the regimental histories of the battle, nor of any outbreak of mass hysteria.
In England, at the time, writer Arthur Machen was reading newspaper stories about the near collapse of the British Army. Later, he said he wrote his story, The Bowmen, as a way of comforting himself.
In his fictional account, he wrote that as British soldiers were in their greatest danger one of them called to St. George:
“Heaven’s Knight, aid us!
“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.”
The ghostly forms of bowmen resurrected from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and their deadly flights of thousands of arrows turned the tide of the battle.
The London Evening Standard printed the story on September 29, 1914 without clearly noting that it was a work of fiction. Many readers took it to be a true account of the Battle of Mons.
The Legend Grows
The Bowmen is seen by many as the genesis of the Angels of Mons story. As the tale passed from person to person it became embellished so that the supernatural seraphim were added to the narrative.
The British, who were reading the terrible casualty lists, wanted desperately to believe in the story. The account of the Angels of Mons jumped from fiction to non-fiction.
Arthur Machen got a request from a vicar for permission to reprint The Bowmen in his parish magazine and “would he be kind enough to add his sources?” Machen pointed out the yarn was fiction but the rector would have none of it. He was sure the divine intervention was factually true.
Machen wrote that “It was then that it began to dawn on me that . . . I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.” That’s when the British Army took it to the next level.
The Angels of Mons Turned into Propaganda
Captain John Charteris (later Brigadier-General) was an aide-de-camp to the senior member of the British Expeditionary Force, General Douglas Haig. Charteris was given the title of Chief Intelligence Officer, from which post he developed a campaign known as “Black propaganda.” The plan was to spread misinformation and raise morale.
A letter under Charteris’s signature appeared in 1915: “Then there is the story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong through the 2nd 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. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks in these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.”
In his 2005 book, The Angels of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, David Clarke suggests the story was an invention of Charteris and that he pinched the theme from Machen's The Bowmen.
Clarke says that a careful examination of the letter quoted above shows the date to have been fudged. This would appear to have been done to sever the connection to The Bowmen so as to give the angel angle credibility it did not deserve.
Charteris’s fiction was then fed discreetly to newspapers none of which had the ability to confirm it because of the cloak of censorship that covered information gathering.
But, there Were Eye-Witnesses
Only one of the witnesses actually had a name; most were identified only as a soldier, or a nurse. Then, a soldier turned up who swore an affidavit before a justice of the peace: “I, Robert Cleaver, (No.10515), a private in the 1st Cheshire Regiment, of his Majesty’s Army, make oath and say as follows: That I personally was at Mons and saw the vision of angels with my own eyes―Robert Cleaver.”
Upon further investigation, Private Cleaver was not at Mons; he wasn’t even at the Western Front when the described events happened. He lied. Did the others lie? Possibly, but some may have believed they saw something supernatural.
Private Frank Richards (later the author of the Billy Bunter books) did not see what others claimed to have seen and offered an explanation: “If any angels were seen on the retirement they were seen that night. March, march, for hour after hour, without a halt; we were now breaking into the fifth day of continuous marching with practically no sleep in between . . . But there was nothing there. Very nearly everyone was seeing things, we were all so dead beat.”
The men were also hungry and in a state of heightened anxiety having experienced the combination of terror and exhilaration that is common among people in combat. In such conditions, the mind plays all manner of tricks on people.
Historian John Grehan has written “Maybe some of the stories were invented. Maybe all those who said they saw a miracle were simply hallucinating, as the scoffers said. Maybe it was, after all, merely mass hysteria.
“But maybe it wasn’t.”
- The British took the Angels of Mons story as proof that God was on their side. But the German soldiers wore a belt buckle inscribed with “Gott Mitt Uns” (“God Is With Us”).
- Brigadier-General John Charteris engaged in dirty tricks every bit the match for Russian election tampering. He created the story of German Kadaververwertungsanstalt that was supposedly a factory in which dead soldiers were rendered into fat that could be used to make lubricants, candles, and even nitroglycerine.
- In the 1980s, there was a revival of interest in angels in the United States. To feed the demand, several magazines trading in the paranormal dragged the Angels of Mons yarn out of retirement and presented it as a non-fictional account.
- “My Grandfather Said He Saw the Angel of Mons.” Beccles and Bungay Journal, June 27, 2017.
- “Were the Angels of Mons in World War I real, or Mass Hysteria?” Robert Barr Smith, Warfare History Network, undated.
- “The Angels of Mons.” St. Margaret’s London, September 18, 2014.
- “Angels of Mons.” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, January 2020.
- “In the Arms of the Angels.” John Grehan, Britain at War Magazine, August 2014.
- “Visions of Bowmen and Angels.” Kevin McClure, Magonia Online, August 18, 2007.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Ann Carr from SW England on September 27, 2020:
I do like a good wine too, but we didn't touch a drop on that trip!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2020:
Thanks Ann. I have never hallucinated even with the assistance of Cabernet-Sauvignon.
Ann Carr from SW England on September 27, 2020:
I have heard about the Angle of Mons and seen the statue. This is an interesting account of quotes and 'evidence'. Suffice to say that it was enough to spur on the soldiers to defy a defeat. The power of belief alone can be strong.
I've hallucinated when driving in a 3-day car rally, through lack of sleep, and it's amazing what one can see on the road at night!
I enjoyed reading this and your research is, as always, thorough.