The Angel of Mons and other legends of the Western Front in the Great War.
Once the proverbial die had been cast, and Great Britain had declared war on the Central Powers on the 4th August 1918, Britain had, by the standards of the day, almost leapt across the Channel with its 100,000 strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Only lightly armed with rifle and bayonet, a few machine guns and medium field artillery pieces, the khaki clad, gamekeeper-like, professional soldiers had taken up their predestined position on the left hand flank of the French Army.
The scene was set for the perhaps the most controversial 'happening' of the Great War: The appearance of the Angel of Mons.
So, how does the first generation of the 21st Century look at the 20th Century phenomenon of the Angel of Mons and other similar incidents? If the self-professed numbers of eyewitnesses are to be believed - and even recently centenarian ex-Great War soldiers were seen on television still telling their stories of personally seeing the Angel of Mons - these events certainly happened. The only debate for the believers is why did it happen and what did it mean? For the rest, we can only dig a little into the available record.
The 'Angel' and the retreat from Mons
It is best to begin with what are the generally acknowledged facts leading up to the Angel of Mons phenomenon.
The first engagement in battle for the BEF took place on the 23 August 1914 when, only 70,000 strong, they encountered General von Kluck's First Army with its 38 Divisions, in what came to be broadly known as the Battle of the Frontiers.
The newly arrived BEF had advanced overland from the Belgian coast, and whilst moving into position alongside the French 5th Army, had unexpectedly met the Germans at the town of Soignes on the 22nd August 1914. Rejecting an earlier plan to attack from the Mons Canal, the BEF Commander, General Sir John French, decided to go into a defensive position overlooking the bridges of the Mons-Condé Canal to await the advancing German Army.
Obligingly, on the morning of the 23rd August 1914, the Germans attacked. They suffered what was for the time enormous infantry casualties from the terrific rate of the rapid rifle fire of the British professional troops. The British volleys brought the Germans to a stall.
General French recognised that he faced a further attack by the rapidly concentrating German reserves.
Realising the increasingly unfavourable disparity between the two forces, and feeling compromised by the retirement of the Lanrezac's French Fifth Army, the BEF commander decided to make a fighting withdrawal.
The ferocity of the battle on the 23rd August 1914 and the apparent stunning British victory over a superior force (when compared with failure of the French at nearby Charleroi) immediately engendered a rumour that swept the British Homeland: some form of divine intervention must have occurred.
The rumour typically claimed that an avenging Angel, clothed all in white, mounted on the classical white horse, and brandishing a flaming sword, had appeared in a parting of the clouds at the worst moments of the night battle. The Angel had rallied the troops and enabled them to crush the enemy and halt their advance. This apparition was soon called 'The Angel of Mons' though by who remains obscure.
It was also seen as a divine indication that God was on the side of the Allies and, in the end, they would prevail over the Central Powers.
The mass illusion amongst the troops
Perhaps one factor in the mass illusion at Mons was the fact that many of the soldiers concerned were 'old' soldiers from the pre-1914 Regular British Army. Soldiers who were well versed in legends such as the 'shower of arrows' that saved the grossly outnumbered British at Agincourt. (And indeed, in some accounts the soldiers claimed that there was a protective shield of bowmen around the BEF at Mons).
Another possible factor was the Jinn spirits in human form that stalked the Pathan uplands of the Northwest Frontier Province of British India and were said to presage many a silent assassination in the night. Such barrack-room stories may have engendered thoughts of miraculous events in the minds of the deeply superstitious old sweats of Regular Army.
From this core of convinced believers, the Angel of Mons legend spread back to the anxious relatives in Great Britain, where any hope for a fortuitous and propitious course of events was a relief from the ceaseless and catastrophic casualty lists.
Under censorship by the British War Office that tried to put a positive 'spin' on the story with a view to further encouraging recruitment for the Army, eyewitness accounts of angel-like figures with outspread wings appeared in the media. And, from time to time have continued to surface to the present day.
It quickly became a battle of supporters and opponents. But due to the sentiment of the troubled times, the Angel of Mons became a fixed legend of the Western Front. And those who openly disbelieved it at the time were thought by many to be disloyal and unpatriotic.
Nevertheless, claims of delusion, or mass hysteria, quickly developed. A prominent commentator, and sceptic on the event, was a journalist, Mr Arthur Machen. His accounts in the London Evening News on, and around, the 29th September 1914, spoke of miraculous events and showers of ghostly arrows, but did not specify the Angel of Mons. So it is difficult to support his contention that it was his newspaper reportage of 'archers from Agincourt' which propagated the Angel of Mons legend.
Books on the subject subsequently appeared. Prominent amongst which was the pro-Angel of Mons, On the side of the Angels' by Harold Begbie, a dedicated spiritualist.
A bright white cross was reported in the sky over the Flanders battlefield in June 1916. Claims abounded that it was seen by both sides in the trenches and even caused a temporary cease-fire.
Probable cause: an adventitious cloud formation illuminated in a striking manner by a prismatic effect of the Sun.
The famous report by the author Robert Graves about seeing a recently killed friend looking in a mess window, who paused, saluted and walked on.
Probable cause: A fellow officer who innocently copied the dead officer's mien and gesture setting off a train of recognition in the observer.
French soldiers who also said they saw the Angel of Mons but claimed it was Joan of Arc.
Some British soldiers claimed the Angel was St. George.
The eminent British war historian, A.J.P. Taylor, wrote as late as 1963 of his conviction of the veracity of the Angel of Mons' 'supernatural intervention on the British side.'
All serious study of the Angel of Mons phenomenon suggests mass hysteria as the basic cause. Soldiers under extreme stress and danger, such as that which prevailed in the Mons battle in August 1914, are known to react with hallucinations and disturbed vision. Add these to the aforementioned superstitious nature of the 1914 Regular Army soldier, and all the elements are present for such hysterical episodes. The echoing effect on their stressed relatives and friends at home is a readily appreciated reaction.
This broadening of the nature of the phenomenon, to include much of the British civilian population, is probably due to the actions of a highly efficacious popular Press rather than any firm religious conviction of divine intervention.
Dr. David Payne.
Taken from the Western Front Association Website.