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Steve MacGregor Articles
Angel of Mons

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The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians


The Angels of Mons the Bowmen and Other Legends of the War
 

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Smoke without fire: A re-examination of the Angel of Mons
Smoke without fire: A re-examination of the Angel of Mons
by Steve MacGregor

During World War One there was a widespread belief in Britain that some form of supernatural intervention saved allied troops during the retreat from Mons. Since the war this event, generally known as the “Angel of Mons” has been variously used as evidence of supernatural intervention in combat, an example of a collective hallucination or as an urban myth unwittingly originated by a piece of fiction. 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. However, a re-reading of the evidence puts even this most basic point of convergence in doubt and raises the possibility that the story of the Angel owes more to military expedience than divine providence.

I make no claim to have discovered “new” facts. The story of the Angel has been exhaustively investigated and documented by a number of researchers over many years. In this article I have drawn from several sources in an attempt to provide a brief and objective overview of the subject. If I have inadvertently quoted or adopted anyone else’s work without crediting it, please accept my apologies.

The underpinning facts are not in dispute. On August 22nd 1914, just eighteen days after the British declaration of war, the 2nd Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied defensive positions along the Mons – Conde canal in Belgium. The daunting task facing the 40,000 men of 2nd Corps was to stop or delay the numerically superior 1st German Army under General Alexander von Kluck. After successfully holding off the initial wave of German attacks, the British were forced to undertake an exhausting fighting withdrawal between 23rd and 26th August. The sudden retreat of the BEF came as a stunning blow to a British public conditioned to regard their troops as the best in the world. Many contemporary newspaper reports were extremely gloomy. On 30th August The Times reported that the attacking German infantry was so strong that "that they could no more be stopped than the waves of the sea." The German advance was finally fought to a standstill on the River Marne in early September. Combat in Flanders then descended into the bloody inertia of static trench warfare.

Working for a British newspaper at the time was Arthur Machen, a Welsh writer of popular gothic horror stories. His novel The Great God Pan, a racy mix of horror, sex and violence published in the early 1890s, had found a large and eager audience in Victorian Britain. However his subsequent efforts had not fared so well, and by 1914 Machen was reduced to working on the staff of the London Evening News, chiefly as unofficial correspondent for arts and religion. He also provided occasional fictional pieces for the newspaper. On 29th September 1914 a short story by Machen called The Bowmen appeared in the Evening News. Set during the battles at Mons the story told of a group of soldiers of the BEF fighting desperately against overwhelming German attacks. One of the British soldiers unwittingly summoned the spirit of St George and, just as it seems that they can no longer hold out;

… 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.

In the story, thousands of Germans are killed by the ghostly archers, and the attack is turned back.

The Bowmen was not specifically labelled as fiction, and potentially confusingly another piece in this edition of the newspaper was titled “Our Short Story”. However, given the style and format of the piece, it’s difficult to believe that it could have been read as anything but fiction. And this generally seems to have been the case. Contrary to subsequent claims, the notion of supernatural assistance coming to the rescue of the BEF did not instantly seize the British popular imagination after publication of The Bowmen. The only immediate response was that Machen was contacted by the editors of two specialist publications - The Occult Review and the spiritualist magazine Light. Both asked whether The Bowmen was based on a true story? Machen assured them that it was simply a piece of fiction. For more than six months newspapers made no mention of ghostly forces assisting British troops at Mons, though several parish magazines reprinted The Bowmen as a piece of patriotic fiction.

Up to this point we are dealing with verifiable facts. After this we begin to slide into a morass of uncertainty, disinformation and outright lies.

On 3rd April 1915 a small English provincial newspaper, the Hereford Times, carried an article called “A Troop of Angels”. This appears to have been where the term Angel of Mons was first used in print. The article was a second-hand account originating from a story told by a Miss Marrable (described as "the daughter of the well-known Canon Marrable".) Miss Marrable had met two officers from the BEF "both of whom had seen angels which had saved their left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during our retreat from Mons [1]."

The 24th April (23rd April is St George’s day) 1915 edition of Light magazine ran a similar story titled: "The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front." Although not identical to the Hereford Times piece, this also claimed that supernatural forces had come to the aid of British forces at Mons. In May 1915 an article in the Occult Review stated that at Mons "those who could see said they saw 'a row of shining beings' between the two armies.[2]" It will be recalled that Light and The Occult Review were the two magazines which had contacted Machen in September 1914 to ask for confirmation that the The Bowmen was based on fact. His denial does not appear to have dampened their enthusiasm for the story.

Also in May 1915 a reprint of the Hereford Times article appeared in the All Saints Church Parish Magazine in Bristol (the April edition of the same magazine had included a reprint of The Bowmen). Although largely forgotten now, at the beginning of World War One parish magazines were widely read and influential. Reverend Gilson, editor of the All Saints magazine was quickly overwhelmed;

…to find that our modest little parish magazine has suddenly sprung into almost world-wide notoriety; every post ... has brought letters from all over the country, not asking merely for single copies, but for dozens of copies, enclosing quite embarrassing numbers of stamps and postal orders, the more so since there were no more magazines to be had.”[3]

In June 1915 the story was mentioned in the sermon of the Reverend R. F. Horton. He said;

“… when soldiers and officers, who were in the retreat from Mons say they saw a batch of angels between them and the enemy…, no thoroughly modern man is foolish enough to disbelieve the statement or to pooh-pooh the experience as hallucination.”[4]

Reverend Horton was a popular and influential Manchester preacher, and a number of newspapers became interested. Several reprinted the Miss Marrable story. In August 1915 The Occult Review published the first of a series of articles by a British Nurse, Phyllis Campbell, who had been stationed in field dressing stations near the front line in France and Belgium during the retreat from Mons. She claimed to have heard stories from wounded soldiers of supernatural entities helping British troops. Many of these stories were repeated in her book Back to the Front, published in 1915. These stories, or derivations from them, were repeated in newspapers and parish magazines and used in sermons across the UK. A small number of eyewitnesses came forward to give first-hand testimony. One of the best known, Private Robert Cleaver of the 1st Cheshire Regiment gave to newspapers a detailed account of Angels he had seen at Mons and swore to the truth of this under oath. The Angel of Mons was frequently cited as evidence that God was on the side of the Allies. By late summer 1915 it was "unpatriotic, almost treasonable, to doubt it" [5].


“Shining Angels throw a protective curtain around men from the Lincolnshire Regiment at Mons”. Illustration by Alfred Pearse published in The Chariots of God, by A. Churchwoman, 1915

Even after the war there remained in the UK a widespread belief that some form of otherwordly intervention had saved British forces at Mons. As late as 1966 respected British historian A J P Taylor wrote in his history of the First World War that; "supernatural intervention was observed, more or less reliably, on the British side. Indeed the 'angels of Mons' were the only recognition of the war vouchsafed by the Higher Powers. " [6]. In a work published in 1987 it was noted that at Mons; "Some beleaguered soldiers reported being rescued by angels and ghostly bowmen." [7] In recent years some of the few surviving British veterans of the First World War have appeared on television and radio giving first hand accounts of the Angel.

However, those who examined the evidence quickly found that contemporaneous first-hand accounts were very difficult to locate. The Imperial War Museum, repository for a vast array of documents from the period noted that "to pursue the supporting stories to source is to make a journey into a fog" [8] What appeared to be reliable testimony often proved worthless on closer examination. For example, following publication of his account of seeing the Angels, Private Robert Cleaver became mildly famous and his story was quoted in a number of newspapers and other publications. It was also used as the central piece of supporting evidence in a book which set out to prove the reality of the Angels.[9] However, on investigation it was found that Cleaver was not inducted into the Army until late August 1914 and did not arrive in France until 22nd September – four weeks after the end of the battle at which he claimed to have been present! [10]

Since the initial publication of her account, Miss Marraple had understandably been swamped with requests for more information. However, she responded by claiming that she had been misquoted and irritably wrote to the London Evening News “I shall be much obliged if you will inform the Editor of The Occult Review that I know nothing whatever of officers or men who saw the angels" [11]. Despite this her story continued to be included in leaflets and papers as a true account of a real event, though now with her name removed. Nurse Phyllis Campbell was also challenged to provide details of any of the soldiers from who she claimed to have heard of the angels. She was unable to do so, but claimed in justification that troops had been ordered not to tell of their experiences at Mons. However, no other nurses or sisters who had treated the wounded from Mons and the Marne could recall hearing similar stories. Nurse Campbell’s reliability was further undermined when her fanatical hatred of Germany was exposed and German atrocities described in her book were proved to be fictitious.

Even the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which might have been expected to support a supernatural explanation, concluded a report in December 1915 by saying that the stories "prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source." [12] But if there is no factual basis to the Angel, why did the story become so widely believed in 1915?


Cover of The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, published in 1915

Arthur Machen maintained that The Bowmen was at the root of belief in supernatural intervention at Mons. He believed that his original story about ghostly archers at Mons had gradually evolved and been embellished to become the Angel of legend. In August 1915 he re-published the story in an anthology, and included in the preface a clear statement that The Bowmen was fictional and had no basis in fact. He went on;

It began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April, the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”[13]

Although the anthology which included The Bowmen quickly sold out, Machen’s denial had little effect on belief in the reality of the Angel. However, over time his view has become more generally accepted. Most recent accounts of the Angel cite The Bowmen as the probable origin of the story. Two folklorists recently looked at the Angel and concluded that it represents "a contemporary legend which satisfied religious and patriotic needs, and became a powerful and enduring part of the mythology of the Great War" [14].

So we have what seems to be a perfect example of an urban myth. A story arising spontaneously (though possibly initiated by a fortuitous piece of fiction) and embellished as it is passed on by word of mouth. This is a neat and plausible account for the story of the Angel. And yet it doesn’t provide an entirely satisfying explanation. Why, for example, did it take more than six months after the publication of Machen’s story before the Angel was widely discussed or reported? Was it coincidence that the story seemed to provide divine confirmation of the “rightness” of the Allied cause at a time of growing British concern about the war?

To answer these questions we have to look at the roots and evolution of the story. In the years following World War One, uncritical belief in the Angel of Mons was gradually eroded and replaced by a recognition that it was probably a myth. One of the most telling points against it was that no mention could be found of any supernatural event during the retreat from Mons in letters sent home by troops, in diaries or regimental histories (British or German) or in newspapers produced before April 1915. Discussion of the Angel in the press and in soldiers’ letters and diaries and the appearance of “eyewitness” reports all begin after Spring/Summer 1915, following the widespread publication of the story. If the Angel of Mons was a real event, whether supernatural, a result of mass hallucination or a misinterpretation of natural occurrences, it is inconceivable that it would not have been discussed by the troops involved and mentioned in letters and diaries at the time.

However, there were those who after the war continued to maintain belief in the objective reality of the Angel. These people sought proof, and in particular they looked for an account of the Angel which pre-dated the publication of The Bowmen. If they could find mention of the Angel in a letter, diary or other record created in the five weeks between the retreat from Mons and publication of The Bowmen, this could be used to prove that the Angel was a real event and not based on Machen’s story. Despite diligent investigation, no such account was found. In desperation, believers even suggested that The Bowmen, was actually a true account unknowingly written with the aid of telepathy because Machen;

…may have received from the brain of a wounded or a dying British soldier in France some powerful impression of the battlefield at Mons" (15)


Brigadier John Charteris

Then in 1931 a book titled At GHQ, the war memoirs of Brigadier-General John Charteris was published. Charteris was part of the intelligence branch of the BEF and travelled to France on the outbreak of war. He became a close friend of General Douglas Haig and was promoted by him to Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ (General Headquarters of the BEF). Charteris was close to Haig, advising him on intelligence and wider military matters. He was not popular with fellow officers, being referred to on more than one occasion as “Haig’s evil counselor”. After the war, Charteris wrote several books on Haig. During the War he was a compulsive letter writer, sometimes penning several letters a day to his wife. After the war these letters were collated, edited and published in book form as At GHQ.

The book includes a letter from Charteris to his wife dated 5th September 1914 – almost two weeks after the retreat from Mons and critically, twenty four days before the publication of The Bowmen. The letter contains the following lines;

... the story of the Angel 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.” [16]

Taken at face value, this looks like the proverbial smoking gun for those who believed in the reality of the Angel. Written by a respected senior officer and clearly dated before publication of Machen’s story, this letter seems to prove that supernatural intervention at Mons was being discussed before publication of The Bowmen. It is curious though, that no other contemporary document can be found that supports this. In a follow-up letter dated 11th February 1915, Charteris again mentions the Angel;

I have been at some trouble to trace the rumour to its source. The best I can make of it is that some religiously minded man wrote home that the Germans halted at Mons, AS IF an Angel of the Lord had appeared in front of them. In due course the letter appeared in a parish magazine, which in time was sent back to some other men at the front. From them the story went back home with the "as if" omitted, and at home it went the rounds in its expurgated form.” [17]

This is demonstrably false. The publication in a parish magazine to which Charteris refers must be the magazine for All Saints Church which gave the account of Miss Marrables’ experiences. But this was published in May 1915, so it would not have been possible for Charteris to refer to it in February 1915. This text can only have been written some time after the event and inserted in a letter claiming an earlier date.

Microfilm copies of the original letters on which At GHQ was based are held by the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King's College, University of London. A search of the archive by social historian Dr David Clarke found that there are no letters dated 5th September 1914 or 11th February 1915 in the collection. The originals of the Charteris papers were donated to the Intelligence Corps Museum on his death, but the letters are not to be found there either [18]. It is possible of course that the relevant letters have been lost. However it is also possible that they never existed and that the entries published in At GHQ (or at least the dates) have been falsified. But why would Charteris do this?


From Bewitched Battalion, Fantastic No. 11, 1955

To understand possible motives we need to look more closely at Charteris career and in particular at the significance of propaganda, disinformation and rumour in 1914. At that time the only means for the public to obtain news other than through personal contact with soldiers was through newspapers, magazines and letters from the front. This was often several days out of date, and content was strictly controlled by the authorities (reporters were not allowed near the front and generally had to rely on information provided by the army; censors controlled the content of soldiers letters). As a result there was a huge appetite for information, and rumours spread wildly by word of mouth. People eagerly repeated the most unlikely stories as fact.

A well-documented example happened in August/September 1914 when a rumour swept Britain that thousands of Russian soldiers “with snow on their boots” had been seen travelling through England by rail to the Channel ports. These were supposed to be Russian reinforcements hurrying to support Allied troops on the Western front. The detail of “snow on their boots” is presumably used to add vermisilitude to the idea that these are soldiers from snowy Russia. The fact that it is plainly absurd to believe that snow could remain on the boots of a soldier who had travelled all the way from Russia to England in August did not impede the spread of the rumour. The German spy Carl Lody passed the information on to the German High Command. It has been claimed that this was part of the reason that the Germans moved two divisions to guard the Belgian coast in 1914. The two Divisions that were moved might otherwise have been present at the battle of the Marne, and their presence there could have influenced the outcome of this vital battle. There was no truth in the rumour, though it was widely believed for a short time in Britain and beyond.

Here we can see a possible blurring between rumour and disinformation. This rumour was clearly beneficial to the Allied cause, and had the added advantage of official deniability without any loss of credibility. It would certainly be very simple for those in the military to provide unattributable “off the record” information to reporters. Likewise censorship would enable not only the removal of harmful information from soldier’s letters, but would also allow the retention of information that, although inaccurate, was felt to be helpful. As an intelligence officer, Brigadier-General Charteris would certainly have been aware of the power and usefulness of disinformation.

Although there is no evidence that Charteris was involved in the spread of rumours about Russian troops in 1914, we do know that he was personally implicated in the spread of another piece of disinformation. The ‘Kadaver factory’ (sometimes called the “tallow factory”) was first mentioned during early 1915. It was claimed that Germany had set up a "corpse utilisation plant" (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) where the bodies of dead German soldiers were taken to be boiled down and the results used in the manufacture of munitions and to produce animal feed. The story caused repugnance and condemnation around the world. German denials were immediate but largely disregarded. The story was widely reported in 1915 and continued to feature sporadically in newspapers throughout the war. There was a revival of interest in 1917 when accounts from eyewitnesses who claimed to have actually seen the factory were published. We now know that there never was a Kadaver factory. The story had no basis in fact and all alleged eye-witness reports were invented. The story was very harmful to the German cause and re-inforced the view promoted by the Allies that Germans were uncaring and brutal.

In late 1925 Charteris, by that time Conservative Member of Parliament for Dumfries Shire, made a visit to the United States. During an alcohol fueled after-dinner speech to the National Arts Club in Manhattan he told a number of anecdotes about spies and spying during World War One. In one of these he claimed that the stories about the Kadaver factory (then still widely believed to be true in America), were actually a creation of British Intelligence. According to a New York Times report of the lecture on 2nd November, he went on to describe how one day he had received two photographs. One showed dead German troops being taken for burial. The other showed dead horses being taken to a rendering plant to be made into fertilizer. Charteris simply swapped the captions, so that the picture of dead soldiers showed that they were being sent to a Kadaververwertungsanstalt. At that time Britain was concerned about the attitude of China, which seemed to be moving towards favouring Germany. Intending to play upon Chinese reverence for the dead, Charteris sent the picture and caption to an English language Chinese newspaper in Shanghai. From there, the story spread around the world.


Punch cartoon, 25th April 1917 “And don’t forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you – alive or dead.” A reference to the Kadaver factory.

Charteris revelation was widely reported in the UK, and there was an immediate and furious reaction. The Evening Standard demanded; “It is vital that he deny the statement instantly. . . . Its effect is to discredit British propaganda past, present and future." When he returned to the UK after his US tour, Charteris was summoned to the War Office. He later denied that British military intelligence had any role in the Kadaver factory story, claimed that he had been “misreported” and that quotes attributed to him were “incorrect and absurd”.

Charteris’ denial lacks credibility. The New York Times article was published while he was in the USA, but he made no effort to dispute it at the time. Although he hadn’t been aware that reporters were present to hear his speech, he said that he wouldn’t challenge the article because “any errors it might contain were only of minor importance” [19]. Only some weeks later, after his return to the UK and summons to the War Office did he issue a vehement denial. In the mid-1920s anything that could be seen as dishonourable or underhanded was considered to be harmful to British interests. It seems much more likely therefore that what Charteris told his American audience was true, and that his later denial was a response to outrage at home and abroad.

Could the Angel of Mons also be a story promulgated and encouraged by Charteris and British Intelligence? We have to consider why Britain might have seen value in promoting the story of the Angel in March/April 1915? The first Zeppelin raids on the British mainland had begun, terrifying civilians. The German submarine blockade of Britain had started, raising fears of starvation. The indecisive battle of Neuve Chapelle had produced high casualties but few gains. The initial flood of volunteers to join the British army was lessening. Most of all, war weariness was taking hold as the public began to realise that this horrific and destructive war was set to last much longer than had at first been expected. If the story of the Angel of Mons could help to lift the morale of the British people at this difficult time, persuade them of the divine rightness of their cause and encourage enlistment, it would surely make sense for military intelligence to assist in its spread?

There are two further clues that support the suspicion of Charteris’ direct involvement in spreading the story.

The Reverend C. M. Chavasse served as a chaplain with the BEF in France and Belgium. On his return to England in October 1915, he gave a sermon in which he referred to the story of the Angel of Mons. He said he had:

... never yet got first-hand evidence on the subject, but he had been told by a general, a brigadier, who was far from superstitious, that a captain and subaltern serving under him were certain they saw something at Mons. They were men who would never dream of seeing angels, but they said they saw something, some bright pulsating light, which came between the little company of Englishmen and a troop of charging Uhlans on their horses…” [20]

Finally, the publication in the April 24th edition of Light magazine of one of the first articles about the Angel of Mons was prompted by a visit to their London offices by an unnamed “military officer”. The article noted that the officer;

… explained that, whether Mr Machen's story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons.”[21]

It’s not possible to prove conclusively that Charteris was the “military officer” or Brigadier-General referred to in these quotes, but the circumstantial evidence is strong for British Intelligence involvement in the spread of the myth. This would also explain the crudely falsified letters in Charteris memoirs – having been hauled over the coals in 1925 for announcing that the Kadaver factory was an invention of British Intelligence, he would not wish to be accused of doing the same for the Angel of Mons in 1931.

There is certainly no good evidence to support the view that anything supernatural or even unusual happened during the retreat from Mons. The Bowmen may have had a role in the creation of the subsequent myth, but it does seem likely that this was at the very least assisted by British Intelligence. If true, the Angel of Mons is worthy of note not just as an interesting piece of social history, but also as a masterly and enduring early example of disinformation and propaganda.

* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography
* * *

Copyright © 2011 Steve MacGregor

Written by Steve MacGregor. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Steve MacGregor at:
stevemacg@hushmail.com.

About the author:
My interest in military history began with listening to stories told by my father, who was a tank driver with the Scots Guards in World War Two. I live in the Highlands of Scotland and have travelled extensively in the UK and Europe visiting sites of military significance. I’m particularly interested in European history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I read military history avidly and play military games and simulations on the PC. My other hobbies include riding and restoring old motorcycles and flying gliders. In my day job I work for the Scottish Government developing and implementing IT solutions to support inter-agency data sharing.

Published online: 08/26/2011.
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