The Angels of Mons
Belgium’s Mons-Condé Canal is where one world started to die, with another growing up to take its place. It was here that the British Army, supporting the French, first opposed the army of the German Empire in World War I. The Germans were badly hurt, but pushed their opponents back toward France; they would only be stopped just outside Paris. Unlike the romantic conceptions of war most held at the time, the battle was a bloody, homicidal affair with the German First Army walking into rifle fire so intense they thought they were up against machine guns. The British, for their part, had to use the Royal Munster Fusiliers to protect their retreat and a unit with 1,000 men was reduced to 201 over the course of six days. By the middle of September 1914, the battle at Mons and others in the weeks to follow had injured or killed half a million men. It was the beginning of four years of mass bloodletting that would shake the confidence of European nations down to the present day, their place on the world stage eventually taken by the United States and the USSR.
What’s most remarkable about Mons isn’t the battle itself—though there’s no shortage of stories there—but the way the old order in the UK tried to fit it into their worldview. Unable to accept right away that Europe had stumbled into a disaster of unprecedented dimensions, there was an attempt to place Mons into the long line of English military glory extending back most of a thousand years. Myths of chivalry, righteousness, and divine providence were bundled up and brought out one last time. By the spring of 1915 stories were circulating about the Angels of Mons.
The basics are simple. Interest in the supernatural was at a peak in the first decades of the 20th century; Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were among many who had taken up sides pro and con. On April 24th, 1915 the British spiritualist magazine Light published an article named “The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front”. Prefacing it, the publishers claimed to have heard stories of mystical events in Belgium circulating back as far as September of the previous year. They had decided to publish them after a visit from an unnamed military officer who attested to their truth. The story snowballed from there, and as it did the accounts quickly transformed from a strange glowing cloud holding back the Germans, to spectral medieval longbowmen, to a host of angels. This final form was commonly believed to be true for the course of the war, eventually fading into the background noise of stories brought up in books about ghosts.
The first account of the events had actually been published as “The Bowmen” in London’s Evening News the previous autumn, it was just that no-one had paid it very much attention at the time. The author was Arthur Machen, famous as a writer of supernatural stories such as “The Great God Pan” and “The White People“. The important elements were all there: the bowmen, St. George, the turning of the German Army at Mons. The most important thing was discounted, though, from the next spring’s report in Light: “The Bowmen” was another one of Machen’s stories. The spiritualist magazine acknowledged “The Bowmen” was fictional, but claimed that it was based on fact. However, it was presented as just a story in the Evening News, and Machen never claimed otherwise; when his work was reprinted later in 1915, he wrote a preface expressing his bemusement that the short story had somehow become a commonly accepted truth.
Many people refused to accept Machen’s disavowal of the Angels of Mons, and set out to prove that word of them was already circulating in the month between the battle in Belgium and “The Bowmen”‘s appearance in print on September 29th. Several times a witness was brought forth or an old letter was found which seemed to support the believers’ case, but none of them stood up very well. As late as the 1990s, the story inspired a hoax involving a film reel supposedly shot on the battlefield and showing an angel making its appearance. Marlon Brando was rumoured to be interested in making a movie that would climax with the footage.
The most unusual piece of evidence about the Angels at first seemed to support their existence. The WWI letters of Brigadier-General John Charteris were published in the book At GHQ in 1931, and the entry for September 5th, 1914 mentions “the story of the Angel of Mons going strong through the 2nd Corps”. Unfortunately, two facts intruded that make suspicious minds think the entry is evidence in the opposite direction. First, another letter that mentions the Angels is dated February 11, 1915 but refers to the publication of a parish magazine that occurred in May of the same year. If one date is off by three months, what about the other? This raises the question of what would lead a person to misdate his own letters, and the answer is the second interesting fact. Charteris was Chief Intelligence Office for the British, and involved in spreading propaganda and rumours in aid of the war effort. His most notable achievement was to convince many people in Allied countries that the Germans were using fat rendered from battlefield corpses to make munitions and margarine; the lynchpin to his success being that the German word for the animal corpses actually used for this — die Kadaver — is close to an English word for a human corpse, which let Charteris produce an apparently incriminating photograph.
Charteris’ occupation leads back to the original source of Light’s report: “a visit from a military officer”, to use their own words. It’s impossible to prove now, nearly a century after it happened, but some believe that the officer was Charteris himself. His goal was the conversion of Machen’s literary ideas into a propaganda coup for the British Army. Why falsify his diary? When he revealed the truth behind the Kadaver story in 1925, the furor was great enough that it became an issue in Parliament. The insertion into his memoirs of a false or misdated letter could have been a way to avoid another scandal.
Whatever the exact truth, Mons is an interesting enough place without any actual angels. Faced with unforeseen horrors, the British public fell back on what was literally a myth: the use of the supernatural to explain something they couldn’t understand rationally.