One of the most enduring myths of the First World War is that of the heavenly figures who appeared during the retreat from Mons. Taking the form of archers – presumed to be ghosts of the renowned bowmen of England who had so decisively won the Battle of Agincourt – their arrows killed the Germans in their thousands. The Angels at Mons became part of the folklore of the conflict; but what really happened?
The British Expeditionary Force which marched into Belgium in August 1914 was regarded as the finest and best trained army ever to have left the UK’s shores. Yet, when it found itself overwhelmed by German troops, and its French allies had withdrawn, this fine army was faced with the possibility of destruction.
However, the BEF survived relatively intact and was able to retreat to safety and even hold back the advancing German army. Was this remarkable escape entirely down to the training of the men, or their stubborn courage? Or were there other forces at play? That is certainly what some men described, as Brigadier-General John Charteris explained in a letter on 5 September 1914 (Charteris was part of the intelligence branch of the BEF and travelled to France on the outbreak of war): “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.”
A Critical Moment
A few days later, on 29 September, the following story appeared in London’s The Evening News. Entitled ‘The Bowman’, it was written by Arthur Machen:
“It was during the Retreat of the Eighty Thousand, and the authority of the Censorship is sufficient excuse for not being more explicit. But it was on the most awful day of that awful time, on the day when ruin and disaster came so near … On this dreadful day, then, when three hundred thousand men in arms with all their artillery swelled like a flood against the little English company, there was one point above all other points in our battle line that was for a time in awful danger, not merely of defeat, but of utter annihilation. With the permission of the Censorship and of the military expert, this corner may, perhaps, be described as a salient, and if this angle were crushed and broken, then the English force as a whole would be shattered, the Allied left would be turned, and Sedan would inevitably follow …
“There was no hope at all. They shook hands, some of them. One man improvised a new version of the battlesong, ‘Good-bye, good-bye to Tipperary,’ ending with ‘And we shan’t get there’. And they all went on firing steadily. The officers pointed out that such an opportunity for high-class, fancy shooting might never occur again; the Germans dropped line after line … And the few machine guns did their best. But everybody knew it was of no use. The dead grey bodies lay in companies and battalions, as others came on and on and on, and they swarmed and stirred and advanced from beyond and beyond.”
A Cloud of Arrows
Just when all appeared lost, something seemingly miraculous then occurred. “The roar of the battle died down …,” continued Machen, “and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, ‘Array, array, array!’ … 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.
“’Look,’ a man cried to one of his mates … ‘D’ye see them? They’re not going down in dozens, nor in ’undreds; it’s thousands, it is. Look! look! There’s a regiment gone while I’m talking to ye’ … The singing arrows fled so swift and thick that they darkened the air; the heathen horde melted from before them.” The salient had been saved.
It was from this story in the newspaper that the legend grew. Soon many men claimed that they knew of people that had seen the angelic archers, supposedly the reincarnation of the English bowmen of Agincourt, though who the people were that actually saw the angels often went un-named.
Once established in the minds of the men, however, the angels refused to go away. The following account was published in London, in the Roman Catholic newspaper The Universe, on 30 April 1915: “A party of about thirty men and an officer was cut off in a trench, when the officer said to his men, ‘Look here, we must either stay here and be caught like rats in a trap, or make a sortie against the enemy. We haven’t much of a chance, but personally I don’t want to be caught here.’ The men all agreed with him, and with a yell of ‘St. George for England!’ they dashed out into the open.
“The officer tells how, as they ran on, he became aware of a large company of men with bows and arrows going along with them, and even leading them on against the enemy’s trenches, and afterwards when he was talking to a German prisoner, the man asked him who was the officer on a great white horse who led them, for although he was such a conspicuous figure, they had none of them been able to hit him. I must also add that the German dead appeared to have no wounds on them. The officer who told the story (adds the writer of the letter) was a friend of ours. He did not see St. George on the white horse, but he saw the Archers with his own eyes.”
The following was published in the Litchfield Mercury on 25 June 1915: “A Hereford clergyman has just received from a relative at Cheltenham a letter giving an account of an extraordinary incident in the British retreat from Mons, when our brave troops were in imminent peril of defeat and annihilation, owing to the great superior numbers of the enemy, a great vision of angels appeared and stood in the way of the advancing host, which turned and fled. The letter is as follows:
“‘Last Sunday I met Miss Marrable, daughter of the well-known Canon Marrable, and she told me she knew the officers, both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved the left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during our retreat from Mons. They expected annihilation, as they were almost helpless, when, to their amazement, the Germans stood like dazed men, never so much as touched their guns nor stirred, till we had turned and escaped by some crossroads.
“‘One of Miss Marrable’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy, and he has been a changed man ever since. The other man she met in London last week, and she asked him if he had heard of the wonderful story of the angels. He said he had seen them himself, as while he and his company were retreating they heard the German cavalry tearing after them. They ran for a place where they thought that a stand might be made with some hopes of safety, but before they could reach it the German cavalry were upon them, and so they turned round 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 round, terrified out of their senses, and regularly stampeded, the men tugging at their bridles, while the poor horses tore away in any direction from our men. He swore he saw the angels, whom the horses saw plainly enough, if not the German soldiers, and this gave our men time to reach the little fort or whatever the shelter was, and save themselves.’”
The Liverpool Echo of Thursday, 12 August 1915, went even further, by stating that the “Angel of Mons” story now had “confirmation”.
“Lance Corporal –, who is forbidden to give his name, and is at present in hospital waiting to undergo an operation, told a Daily Mail representative the following: ‘I was with my battalion in the retreat from Mons on or about August 28. The German cavalry were expected to make a charge, and we were waiting to fire and scatter them to enable the French cavalry, which were on our right, to make a dash forward. However, the German aeroplanes discovered our position, and we remain where we were.
“‘The weather was very hot and clear, and between eight and nine o’clock in the evening I was standing with a party of nine other men on duty, and some distance on either side there were parties of ten on guard. Immediately behind us half of my battalion was on the edge of a wood resting.
“‘An officer suddenly came up to us in a state of great anxiety, and asked us if we had seen anything startling. He hurried away from my ten to the next party of ten.
“‘When he had got out of sight I, who was the non-commissioned officer in charge, ordered two men to go forward out of the way of the trees in order to find out what the officer meant. The two men returned reporting that they could see no sign of any Germans. At that time we thought that the officer must be expecting a surprise attack.
Strange Light in the Sky
“‘Immediately afterwards, the officer came back, and taking me and some others a few yards away, showed us the sky. I could see 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 in the neighbourhood. 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 appeared to have a long loose, hanging garment of a golden tint, and they were about the German line facing us;
We stood watching them for about three quarters of an hour. All the men with me saw them, and other men came up from other groups, who also told us that they had seen the same thing. I am not a believer in such things, but I have not the slightest doubt that we really did see what I now tell you.
Another of the “witnesses” was one Private Robert Cleaver of the 1st Cheshire Regiment, who was in hospital in Birkenhead. Geo. S. Hazelhurst., one of his Majesty’s justices of the peace acting in and for the county of Flint, travelled to meet him, and obtained the following affidavit:
“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.”
This, and other accounts seemed to serve as confirmation of the heavenly event and it prompted the Reverend R.J. Campbell, to make a number of observations, as reported in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of 4 October 1915: “When he was at the front he met many men who were convinced of its truth. It was difficult, he remarked, to get first-hand evidence, as most of the men who had been in the retreat had since been killed, and though some people had dismissed the story as absurd without caring to investigate it, he did not think it right to make light of the testimony. The question was of the first importance, since it dealt with a possible mode of divine intervention.”
The historian A.J.P. Taylor was so impressed by such “evidence” that he felt confident referring to Mons, in his 1963 history of the First World War, as the only battle where “supernatural intervention was observed, more or less reliably, on the British side”.
Others have also accepted that there was an unusual occurrence during the retreat: “The most prosaic explanation is that the Angel was no more than a misinterpretation of odd cloud formations seen by weary troops. The only thing that most theories agree on is that something strange happened during the retreat from Mons in August 1914 and that this was witnessed by British (and possibly German) troops.”
Of course, there were many who thought the whole thing quite ridiculous, as this correspondent to the Evening Telegraph of Tuesday, 23 November 1915, makes clear, at the same time, de-bunking Private Cleaver’s affidavit:
“It is simply amazing to find grown people, supposedly educated, talking such a lot of nonsense as that reported by you from a speech made at Blairgowrie by Lady Griselda Cheape. No sane person believes this ‘Angel’ yarn, and conclusive evidence as to the kind of person who usually disseminates such piffle is supplied by a London daily on September 2 last as follows: ‘A certain private swore on oath before Mr Hazelhurst, JP, Birkenhead – ‘I personally was at Mons and saw the vision of angels with my own eyes.’
“Having some doubt in the matter Mr Hazelhurst wrote the Records Office of this man’s regiment only to find that he had been deliberately lying, had never been at Mons, and, in fact, was not in France till long after the Battle of Mons. Further, no responsible person, officer or private, has publically [sic] come forward and made any assertion of such a thing, and never will.”
All Make Believe
What are we then to make of the Angels of Mons? As the first documented account was written by Arthur Machen, what did he say about the article he wrote?
“It was in The Weekly Dispatch that I saw the awful account of the retreat from Mons. I no longer recollect the details; but I have not forgotten the impression that was then on my mind, I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the British Army. In the midst of the flame, consumed by it and yet aureoled in it, scattered like ashes and yet triumphant, martyred and for ever glorious. So I saw our men with a shining about them, so I took these thoughts with me to church, and, I am sorry to say, was making up a story in my head while the deacon was singing the Gospel.”
As Machen also wrote in John Hammerton’s “I Was There” compilation, “Then there were all sorts of confirmatory allegations, quotations, asseverations and citations; many anecdotes … Many of these matters were attested and confirmed by ‘A Nurse,’ ‘Miss M.,’ ‘A Doctor,’ ‘A Clergyman,’ and a host of such nameless witnesses;
It was strong evidence, as I say. Or rather, it would have been strong evidence but for one circumstance – there was not one word of truth in it.
Fact or Fiction?
It was a wonderful story. Angels had come down to save the British Army. If any should doubt that the war was a just one, this was confirmation that God was on their side.
The whole thing, however, was merely a figment of Arthur Machen’s imagination and was only taken up by the men after his short story was published on 29 September. That said, the date of General Charteris’ letter was 5 September? How could Charteris have heard about a story at the beginning of the month when it was not published until more than three weeks later? Was the entire episode really just a figment of Arthur Machen’s imagination, or did something truly inexplicable occur at some stage in the retreat from Mons?
- A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War (An Illustrated History), p.29.
- Steve MacGregor provides a highly detailed examination of the Angels of Mons in “Smoke without fire: A re-examination of the Angel of Mons.” See: militaryhistoryonline.com
- John Hammerton, (Ed.) “I Was There!” The Human Story of the Great War of 1914-1918, (The Waverley Book Company Ltd., London), vol.1, pp.86-7.
This article by John Grehan first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Britain at War Magazine. To purchase your own digital copy of this, and more of our back issues, please visit our page at Pocketmags: https://pocketmags.com/britain-at-war-magazine/issues