In 1915, the United Kingdom wholeheartedly embraced the story of the Angels of Mons, the alleged spiritual intervention in favour of the British Expeditionary Force, outnumbered in the Battle of Mons and subsequently engaged in a retreat that lasted several days.
How was it that an entire population believed these events, even when the author who apparently started it all with a story published on the London Evening News, always denied he based the story on facts?
There is probably no one answer to this complex situation. Many elements of different nature went into this remarkable event of popular culture. Let’s have a look at the most relevant.
The mystery surrounding events on the battlefields
For a British citizen, it wasn’t easy to get information on what was going on on the battlefields.
The war raged far away on the continent. Censorship was very strict and had started right when the war broke out.
Most people relied on the letters coming from family members and friends – which were censored twice: by the army, that didn’t want sensitive information to filter out of the battlefields, and by the soldiers themselves, who willingly avoided explicitly speaking of what was going on at the front, so terrible it was.
The other form of information was the press, but here things were even trickier.
Reporters were not allowed near the front. The United Kingdom only had five official reporters, and they were subject to both forms of censorship (official and personal).
Therefore, the press was hungry for news and soon started printing whatever scrap of information they could put their hands on, whether it was real news or just propaganda. And when neither was available, they simply made things up.
The situation was at best messy, and soon it became very difficult to distinguish facts from fiction.
But news from the Battle of Mons eventually started to filter in, and one thing soon appeared quite clear: the first British engagement in the war had been half a disaster. For the United Kingdom, the war started with a retreat.
It was hard to swallow, especially on the home front, where people needed to be reassured. They wanted to believe that the war they entered (which, strictly speaking, wasn’t their war, since they entered in support of France) was a just conflict, the right thing to do.
The intervention of angels seems to give them the answer they wanted to hear.
Propaganda was a weapon itself in the economics of war. It aimed to boost the troops’ morale and assure them and the population at home that their enemies were inhuman and ungodly. Therefore, the war was justly fought.
While it was used throughout the conflict, propaganda, disinformation, and rumours were particularly effective in the early stages of the war. The population hadn’t been exposed to propaganda much at that point and were still willing to believe. Further on, they became more sceptical.
The military intentionally spread false information to the soldiers as well as to the press to keep a positive predisposition toward the conflict both on the home front and among the troops. Practically all information regarding the war was controlled by the military, which had no qualms to manipulate it as they saw fit.
In addition to this, the press (at the time, the only available source of information) was starving for news from the front, the one thing their readers wanted to read. Slim and often vague as actual news was, newspapers started to invent stories. People read them, believed them, and repeated them, no matter how unlikely they might be. The newspapers, where the actual news should have been, became the ground where fact and fiction most frequently mixed.
Phillip Gibbs, one of the very few accredited British reporters from the Western Front, said, “The British press, as hungry for news and the British public whose little professional army had disappeared behind a deathlike silence, printed any scrap of description, any glimmer of truth, and wild statement, rumour, fairy tale or deliberate lie, which reached them from France and Belgium; and it must be admitted that the liars had a great time.”
On 5 September 1914, that is three weeks before the story by Machen appeared in the papers, British Brigadier General John Charteries allegedly sent a postcard where he mentioned rumours that something strange had happened on the battlefields of Mons.
This might have been the proof that something actually happened that day – only that postcard was never produced. It was Charteries himself who described it in his biography written in the 1930s. Although never a member of the Propaganda Bureau founded on 2 September 1914, Charteries was involved with propaganda throughout the war. In the 1920s, he often bragged about the many false stories he helped invent during the conflict. Besides, even from the description he gave of the postcard, the text was quite vague and could have meant anything.
This is only one of the many acts of propaganda happening daily during the Great War.
Any actual description of anything ‘strange’ that might have happened on the field that night is glaringly lacking from any official account of the battle.
In the field diaries of the regiments most seriously involved in the fighting, there is no mention of any dramatic – not to mention weird – event that occurred during the battle. They describe the brutal fight and the harrowing retreat, but nothing else.
Yet, contemporary diary entries and letters from soldiers active at the front show that by 1915 everyone was convinced that something supernatural had happened on the fields of Mons. Some sort of national collective consciousness had formed and crystallised in images of angels protecting the soldiers. Stories even start to circulate that German dead that day had carried arrow wounds.
Soldiers coming back from the front recounted having heard of other soldiers who had seen the angels at Mons. And when nurse Phyllis Campbell’s account came out, where she asserted to having met and nursed many soldiers who had seen the angels, the story cemented in the national conscience. “Everyone had seen them who fought from Mons to Ypres”, she stated. Everyone but her, that is.
The story was repeated so many times as true that in December 1915, the Society of Psychical Research, which was founded in 1882 and is still today dedicated to the study of the paranormal, compiled a report on the matter of the Angels of Mons. They tracked down any story or letter appearing in newspapers in search of the origin of the story. What they found was that every track ended with someone who had heard the story second when not even third-hand. They could not find any soldiers that had indeed seen the Angels themselves.
Soldiers claiming this did come forth. Years later. In a time when veterans from the Battle of Mons were very few. Those first battalions engaged in the war were decimated, and almost no one who actually was in the Battle of Mons was still alive at the end of the Great War.
But during the war, what soldiers involved in the Battle of Mons did admit was that the battling conditions and the retreat were extreme. They were outnumbered by an enemy that had planned the battle far better than they had, and on the retreat, they marched without food or rest for several days.
One young officer said to Mable Collins, author of The Crucible, “I had the most amazing hallucinations marching at night, so I was fast asleep, I think. Everyone was reeling about the road and seeing things… I saw all sort of things, enormous men walking towards me and lights and chairs and things in the road.”
Private Frank Richards, who was in the retreat that night, later recalled, “If any angles were seen on the retirement they were seen that night. March, march, for hour after hour, without 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 strength of the Spiritualist movement
Something that certainly factored into the ability of the British public to believe the story of the Angels of Mons is the rise in the popularity of Spiritualism.
Spiritualism had been very popular in all English–speaking countries in the second half of the 1800s. At the end of that century and the beginning of the next, it was declining. But the terrible loss of lives of the Great War allowed it to rise again. Bereaved families and friends were willing to cling to anything that gave them the ability to say a last goodbye to their loved ones. Soldiers simply disappeared on the fields of Flanders. The new arsenal of war could disintegrate a human body, and even when this didn’t happen, dead were in such great numbers and suffered such terrible mutilations that recognised them was often impossible. These soldiers were buried in unmarked graves. Some of them were buried directly in the soil of the trenches, without a real grave. All of these people simply vanished, and their families and friends had no place where to mourn them.
Spiritualism offered them that comfort. The belief that they could communicate with them one last time.
The Great War happened at such a liminal time that even scientists were briefly open to the possibility that communication between the living and the dead might be possible. Often stricken by the loss of a son, like so many others, aware that science was explaining so many phenomena that had looked like magic only a few decades before, many scientists allowed the possibility that Spiritualism might, after all, be onto something.
And after all, in many places in the English countryside, from where a great many soldiers came and where villages were being stripped naked of their young male population, people still believed in legends and folk tales that had been believed and repeated for centuries. These people still thought it possible to stumble into a magic circle of the fairies. They still thought encounters with the devil might occur. These were places where the border between the real world and the world beyond was very thin.
Great Britain was indeed a place that was highly receptive of the supernatural. So it’s maybe not so surprising that the Angels of Mons captured the British people’s attention and spoke to them.The Spiritualism movement was greatly revived by the great loss and sense of disposession caused by the Great War #WWI #supernatral Click To Tweet
The publication of The Bowmen in the London Evening News is generally considered the starting point of the legend. Remarkable, since its author, Arthur Machen, protested all his life that the story was just a story. He invented it, sure, touched by the terrible experience of the British Expeditionary Force, but that true episode had only been the inspiration. Everything that was in the story was his own invention.
This is what impresses me the most about this historical episode: that in spite of the author’s transparency on the matter, the myth seemed to take up a life of its own and lived independently from its origin.
But even the story carried characteristics of liminality.
The retreat of the BEF indeed inspired it – Machen himself conceded this. He wrote it with great attention to realism, describing the battlefield as they were, at least in how the general public knew it back then. He used a style that resembled the language of chronicle, which he knew well, being a reporter with the same newspaper the story appeared on. It was surely a stylistic decision, but it served to confuse readers even more, especially considering it appeared on the front page.
What could have been a very innocent thing indeed was grasped by a population that, in a time of great emotional involvement and great need of emotional support, was willing to believe any uplifting news.
It appears that the episode of the Angels of Mons arose from an incredible series of circumstances that mixed common everyday life with the exceptional circumstances of war.
It is, in my opinion, one of those cases where history truly is stranger than fiction.
It all revolves around information and the way people receives it. The way also people manipulate it with a precise goal in mind. And the way people is willing to believe even unlikely things when they soothe their worries.
Sounds quite familiar. What do you think?
Aftermath WWI – The Bowmen by Arthur Machen
Michael Fassbender Blog – The Legend of the Angels of Mons
Warwick Today Stanthorpe Today – Myths, legends and mysteries of the Great War 1914-18
Spartacus Educational – Angels of Mons
Worcester News – The Angels of Mons… the truth is out there somewhere By John Phillpott
The Irish Times – Irishman who was ‘Angel fo Mons’
Sky History – The Angels of Mons and other supernatural stories from WWI
ATI History Science News – The True Story Of The Angels Of Mons, The World War I Myth That Captivated Britain By Andrew Lenoir | Checked By John Kuroski
Legends and Traditions of the Great War – The Case of the Elusive Angels of Mons