In August 1914, Brigadier-General John Charteris was one of the senior officers in the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was a staff officer to General Sir Douglas Haig, working with him at G.H.Q., and also a close personal friend.
During the earliest weeks of the Great War, he was an involved observer within the B.E.F. as the men retreated from Mons in the face of substantially superior German forces. He also sent home detailed and eloquent letters, a chronicle of that demanding and dramatic time. These were published some 17 years later (At G.H.Q., Cassell, 1931), apparently in their original form, certainly with no hint of rewriting or later addition. The entry for September 5th, 1914, includes the following passage: -
” 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.”
If a perceptive and open-minded Brigadier-General, knowing his men and the experiences they had been through could not get to the bottom of the stories of angels some ten days after the events are said to have happened, what hope do I have nearly 80 years on? I have plenty of written sources – though there are many more, the tales being told again and again – and the perspective of history in my favour. Yet I can make no promises as to what may have occurred, and cannot say with certainty that any particular, named individual, of perhaps 100,000 soldiers in the B.E.F. at that time, saw any one vision or another. But it is clear to me that the debunking that has in recent years been the only published context for the Mons material has been hopelessly inadequate, if not actually dishonest. It is time to present the contemporary sources – as close to the truth as we can come – however confusing they may be. Now we can evaluate this strange and wonderful story in a new and independent way.
In his marvellous study of wartime myths and legends, The Smoke and the Fire – Myths and Anti-Myths of War, 1861-1945 (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980) historian John Terraine records that Private Frank Richards – later to be author of the Billy Bunter books – wrote of angels in the context of the retreat from Le Cateau, which was on August 26th, 1914. There are few specific references to dates, but it seems that the 26th or 27th are the most likely. Whatever happened, probably happened then.
On September 29th the Evening News published the Arthur Machen story The Bowmen for the first time: just 17 column inches on page 3 of a London evening paper. Unfortunately, copyright prevents me from reproducing this fine story in full, but Light magazine for 10.10.14 – always very literate for a specialist journal in the Spiritualist field – summarises it well: -
” The Evening News of the 29th ult. contains a remarkable piece of imaginative word-painting by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, entitled ‘The Bowmen’. Picturing one of the stands made by the allies early in the war against the overwhelming German host that was slowly pressing them back, he makes a British soldier with some knowledge of Latin recall the motto he had seen on the plates in a certain vegetarian restaurant. “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius” – ” May Saint George be a present help to the English”. The man utters the invocation aloud, and at once the roar of battle seems to die down and in its place he hears a tumult of voices calling on St.George: ” Ha! Messire: Ha! sweet saint, grant us good deliverance! St.George for merry England! Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St.George, succour us.”
And as the soldier heard these voices 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 host. To their astonishment, the other men in the trench see the ranks of the enemy dissolving like mist, the foe falling not in dozens or hundreds, but in thousands. After the engagement the German general staff, finding no wounds on the bodies of the slain, decide that the English must have used Turpinite, but the soldier who knows Latin knows that St.George has brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English!”
If you are not familiar with ‘The Bowmen’ then I would commend it to you most heartily, along with most of Machen’s other, marvellous fiction: quite possibly the finest writing on supernatural and horror themes of its period. Actually, this was not the first Evening News piece in which Machen had used legendary figures to make an encouraging and patriotic point. On 17.9.14, a piece of Machen’s appeared under the title ‘The Ceaseless Bugle Call’. Starting with observations on the huge training camps at Aldershot, it waxes lyrical about St.George, and concludes: -
” Tuba mirum spargens sanum: wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth. It shall resound till it call up the spirits of the heroes to fight in the vanguard of our battle, till it summon King Arthur and all his chivalry forth from their magic sleep in Avalon: that they may strike one final shattering blow for the Isle of Britain against the heathen horde.”
I find The Ceaseless Bugle Call particularly interesting. It is virtually a trial run for The Bowmen, yet we hear nothing more of King Arthur playing any part in the course of the war. It was The Bowmen that caught the public interest, and the more respectable ‘occult’ and Spiritualist journals wrote to Machen after publication, to ask him what truth there was in the story, and how he had come by these marvellous facts. He responded that the story was entirely of his own making, written as his response to the horrors of the war, particularly the reports in the Weekly Dispatch of 30.8.14. Light and the Occult Review reported this response with little comment and there, for a time, the story rested.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of the way the Mons stories unfolded is the ‘missing link’. How the visions ceased to be reported in October 1914, having been given little or no credence, but then suddenly reappeared – in different forms, in different places – the following spring, over 6 months later. There had been many dramatic events during that time: hundreds of thousands of young men had marched willingly to war, and many of them had died or suffered appalling injuries. The British public had become all too familiar with the names of other places, other battles. Yet it was the few days of the retreat from Mons – a fortunate event, marked by great bravery, but hardly a memorable victory – involving smaller numbers of men, and lower casualties, that became the subject of tremendous attention throughout the summer of 1915. The first of the array of reports I have traced comes from Light magazine, 24.4.15., under the title The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front: -
” In Light of October 10th last we referred, under the title of The Invisible Allies to a remarkable story by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, which appeared in the Evening News of a few days before, and which depicted our soldiers at the front as being aided by the spirits of the English soldiers of the past. The soldier about whom the story revolves sees a vision of the Agincourt bowmen and hears their voices. A short time ago we were asked by a well-known publisher if we could tell him anything of the origin of the story, as statements were being made that it was founded on fact. We replied that we thought it nothing more than an effort of that imagination of which Mr Machen’s stories are full. However, being curious on the point, and having a personal acquaintance with the author, we wrote to him asking the question, and were not surprised to receive his answer that the tale was merely a fanciful production of his own. He though it rather curious that any legend should have grown up around his story.
A few days ago, however, we received a visit from a military officer, who asked to see the issue of Light containing the article in question. He 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. It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British. Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy. We wonder what truth there is in the report. Legends spring up quickly, but so far as we have observed there is always some core of truth, however small, at the back of each. Even the ‘Russians in England’ rumour, we understand, was not entirely without foundation. But this legend of Mons is fascinating. We should like to hear more of it.”
This was a simple story. The effect – the protection of the British soldiers – is the same as in The Bowmen, but it occurs as the result of the presence of a mysterious cloud. Only six days later, on 30.4.15., the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Universe, published in London, carried a more detailed and rather different account, headed On A White Horse: St.George and Phantom Army: -
” An extraordinary story, which recalls an incident in the Crusades, reaches The Universe from an accredited correspondent who is, however, precluded from imparting the names of those concerned.
The story is told by a Catholic officer in a letter from the front, and is told with a simplicity which shows the narrator’s own conviction of its genuineness . . .
” 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.”
I think we can safely regard this as the basic ‘bowmen’ legend, and it has undeniably close parallels to Machen’s story. Why it should suddenly appear in the respectable Roman Catholic press, apparently in a letter from the front in France, I cannot imagine.
It is not easy to work out a precise chronology, but it seems that the next item of importance to be published was a report in the All Saints,Clifton, Parish Magazine for May 1915. This version – which appears elsewhere, and which I assume to be a correct transcription – comes from the Church Family Newspaper, in its July 1915 issue. It was also reprinted in the same Parish Magazine, in its July 1915 issue. It has the title, An Angelic Guard – Strange Experiences.
” The following account is published in the current issue of the All Saints, Clifton, Parish Magazine: -
Last Sunday I met Miss M., daughter of the well-known Canon M., and she told me she knew two officers both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during the retreat from Mons.
They expected annihilation, as they were almost helpless, when to their amazement they stood like dazed men, never so much as touched their guns: nor stirred till we had turned round and escaped by some crossroads. One of Miss M’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since. The other man she met in London. She asked him if he had heard the wonderful stories of angels. He said he had seen them himself and under the following circumstances: -
While he and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them. They saw a place where they thought a stand might be made, with sure hope of safety; but before they could reach it, the German cavalry were upon them. They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels. The German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded. The men tugged at their bridles, while the poor beasts tore away in every direction from our men. This officer swore he saw the angels, which the horses saw plainly enough. This gave them time to reach the little fort, or whatever it was, and save themselves.”
Looking at the development of the accounts of the visions, this is a particularly important piece. It seems to represent the basic ‘angels’ legend, and it bears only a minimal resemblance to The Bowmen. In the ‘angels’ legend, there is no decision by the soldiers to take their chance, no invocation of St.George or any other figure, no foreknowledge of the words to use to call for assistance, such as those on the plate in the vegetarian restaurant. The ‘angels’ have neither leader nor weapons. Indeed, this version of intervention has more in common with the ‘strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British’, than it does with The Bowmen. The claims of many commentators, and of Machen himself, that all the accounts of visions and interventions at Mons were generated by his brief column in the Evening News can, at times, seem very far-fetched.
Yet nothing in this investigation is straightforward or simple. To anticipate a little, the Society for Psychical Research, in its Journal for December 1915, published An Enquiry Concerning the Angels at Mons. This is an excellent piece of work, and I’ll refer to it again. The Society was swiftly off the mark in writing to Miss M. (actually Miss Marrable, daughter of Canon Marrable) on May 26, 1915
” . . the story is told on the authority of Miss M., who is said to have known personally the officers concerned. Accordingly we wrote to Miss M. to ask whether she could corroborate these stories, and received the following reply, dated 28.5.15.
‘I cannot give you the names of the men referred to in your letter of May 26, as the story I heard was quite anonymous, and I do not know who they were.”
I suspect that Miss Marrable had a busy few weeks answering enquiries about her alleged informants: there are reports of other publications also pursuing her.
Early May saw a fascinating mixture of accounts appearing in the ‘occult’ and Spiritualist press. In Light for 8.5.15, a feature appears headed Supernormal Phenomena at the Battle Front: -
” The following letter from ‘Scota’, a correspondent in Ireland, embodies statements some of which had already been received by us from other quarters: -
Sir, I am very glad that in the last issue of Light you had noticed the story about the intervention of spirit helpers at Mons, for the subject is well worth investigation. It has reached me through three different channels having no connection with each other.
A friend who was in London last autumn read in the Evening News the story of the vision and accompanying shout. She was much struck by it, but was inclined to question its credibility. A few days later, however, she met a young soldier, a private who had been wounded. Directly she heard he had been at Mons she asked, “Oh, did you see the vision, and hear the shout?” He answered, “I did not hear the shout, but I did see the vision and, he added very emphatically, the Germans saw it too, they couldn’t get their horses to come on!” He said that on comparing notes with his comrades afterwards they found that some had seen the vision, and some heard the shout, but very many had neither heard nor seen.
Shortly afterwards this same lady met a member of the family of an officer, General N., who also had been at Mons. He stated that in that rearguard action there was one specially critical moment. The German cavalry was rapidly advancing, and very much outnumbered our forces. Suddenly, he saw a sort of luminous cloud, or light interpose itself between the Germans and our forces. In the cloud there seemed to be bright objects moving: he could not say if they were figures or not, but they were moving and bright. The moment this cloud appeared the German onslaught seemed to receive a check; the horses could be seen rearing and plunging, and they ceased to advance. He said it was his opinion that if that check, whatever its cause, had not come, the whole force would have been annihilated in twenty minutes.
Since then another friend of mine has had a visit from a relative, a young officer home on short leave from the front. He, too, had been at Mons, and told her that the story, as she had heard it, was perfectly correct. He had seen the luminous cloud and the sudden check to the enemy’s cavalry, exactly as General N. had described it, and he said, “After what I saw that day, nothing will make me doubt for one moment but that we shall win in this war.”
The following week, Light published further accounts, from different sources: an interesting variation on the ‘vegetarian restaurant’, and a surprisingly Christian report in this Spiritualist context: -
” In a sermon preached by the Rev. Fielding Ould, vicar of St.Stephen’s, St.Alban’s, he is reported to have said -
I heard a story last week from three sources, and which I think may be true. A sergeant in our army had frequented a house of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and had seen there a picture of St.George slaying the dragon. He had been deeply impressed by it, and when, at the front, he found himself in an advanced and rather isolated trench, he told the story of St.George to his men – St.George, the patron saint of England, whose name the warriors have shouted as their war-cry in the carnage of Crecy, Poitiers, and on many another glorious field. When shortly afterwards a sudden charge of the grey-coated Germans in greatly superior numbers threatened the sergeant’s trench, he cried, “Remember St.George for England!” to his men as they advanced to meet the foe. A few moments afterwards the enemy hesitated, stopped, and finally fled, leaving some prisoners in our hands. One of the latter, who seemed dazed and astonished, demanded to be told who were “the horsemen in armour who led the charge. Surely they could not have been Belgians dressed in such a way!” There are many similar stories of supernatural intervention in the old battles of the world and I, for one, would hesitate to say that they had no basis of fact.”
Mrs F.H.Fitzgerald Beale, writing from Mountmellick, Ireland, says -
” You mention in Light of the 24th ult. that a strange cloud came down at Mons and hid the allies from the Germans. I am pleased to be able to tell you it is true. We have among other wounded soldiers home from the war a soldier of the Dublin Fusiliers who was injured at Mons. I told him of the story and asked him whether it was true. He said, “Yes, I saw it myself. A thick black cloud: it quite hid us from the enemy.” Indeed, all the other men have told me of the miraculous way that crucifixes were preserved. One soldier said that in a wood there was a mound with a large crucifix on top to mark the burial place of a number of soldiers killed in a former war. The trees were swept away by shell fire as if they had been cut down with a scythe, but the crucifix stood untouched. This preservation has been so very marked everywhere, he said, that even the Jews in the trenches were asking for crucifixes from Catholic soldiers, and people were embedding them in the walls of their houses. I hear this from every soldier who has returned.”
In Bladud, The Bath Society Paper of Wednesday, 9th June 1915, The Rev.M.P.Gilson, Vicar of All Saints, Clifton, told of his experiences since he published the earlier account of the ‘Angels’ . . .
” You will, I think, be no less surprised than I have been to find that our modest little parish magazine has suddenly sprung into almost world-wide notoriety; every post for the last three weeks has brought letters from all over the country, not asking merely for single copies, but for dozens of copies, enclosing a quite embarrassing number of stamps and postal orders, the more so since there were no more magazines to be had.”
He goes on to express surprise that everyone is so amazed that miracles should still be occurring, and prayers still being answered . . .
” Why should it seem more strange that a regiment of Prussian cavalry should be held up by a company of angels, and their horses stampeded, and our infantry delivered from a hopeless position, than that an angel with flaming sword should have withstood Balaam, or that St.Peter should have been delivered from the hand of Herod by the intervention of an Angel? Do they really relegate all such miracles to ‘Bible Days’, and believe that when the Church made up the Canon of Holy Scriptures she also brought to a close the age of miracles?”
Bladud also quotes some of the accounts sent to the Rev. Gilson, who passes comments on the developing stories – comments that seem quite perceptive to me. The accounts first . . .
” The first is an extract from an officer’s letter: “I myself saw the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans during the retreat from Mons. We heard the German cavalry tearing after us and ran for a place where we thought a stand could be made; we turned and faced the enemy expecting instant death. When to our wonder we saw between us and the enemy a whole troop of Angels; the horses of the Germans turned round frightened out of their senses; they regularly stampeded, the men tugging at their bridles, while the horses tore away in every direction from our men. Evidently the horses saw the Angels as plainly as we did, and the delay gave us time to reach a place of safety.”
” Another contribution comes from a more unexpected source. A captain in charge of German prisoners states that these men say it is no use to fight the English, for at Mons “there were people fighting for them”, that they saw angels above and in front of the lines, also that it is happening at Ypres.”
” From another source I heard that many prisoners were taken that day who surrendered when there was no call for it. At home it was suggested that they were underfed and did not want to fight. Some of these German prisoners were afterwards asked why they surrendered, ‘for there were many more of you than us; we were a mere handful,’ they looked amazed and replied, ‘but there were hosts and hosts of you.’ It was thought that the angels appeared to them as reinforcements of our ranks.
The St.George story is, I believe, a fiction. It has been enquired into, and apparently it is only based on a perversion of the story of the angels, and that I do believe. The only very astonishing part of it is that so many men were allowed to see them. (If other accounts of the visions agree with these, it is surely noteworthy, adds the Editor of the All Saints Magazine, that the angels appear to have taken no part in the killing: they defended our men, and caused the Germans to flee or to surrender).
Included in the same feature is a report of a sermon given in St.Martin’s Church, Worcester: -
” He told”, says the writer describing his sermon, “about this vision of angels, which had been seen by so many of our soldiers, on that Saturday in August, when the situation looked so hopeless that the Times correspondent wired that the British army ‘had been annihilated’, and the Sunday papers all published it, and if it had not been for the angels there would have been no contradiction of it in Monday’s papers.”
” In particular he spoke of twelve men in a quarry, who all saw the angels, and among the mass of the army some saw and some did not. Two colonels, he spoke of, who said they had seen them, one of whom had until then been an unbeliever. But all saw the unlooked for salvation of the remnant of the army.”
An interesting point there – that the vision was in some way selective. This is not the only time this element is mentioned, and it is not an uncommon phenomenon in reports of paranormal experience.
Another sermon, reported in various church and secular newspapers had considerable influence, presumably due to the status of the preacher. It received wide publicity, and introduced some new elements to the apparent role of the supernatural in the course of the war, in addition to the ‘legions of angels’ version of the retreat from Mons: -
” In a recent sermon at Manchester, Dr R.F.Horton, the well known Congregational minister, told how, in the Dardanelles, the airships of the enemy came over a troopship and dropped bombs. The captain, who was a devout man, gave the order to his crew to pray. “They knelt on the deck, and the Lord delivered them. The eighteen bombs which seemed to be falling from overhead fell harmlessly into the sea.
Dr.Horton then mentioned the story of the ‘Comrade in White’, which was dealt with recently in Light, and passed on to a consideration of the ‘company of angels’ which intervened to save our soldiers in the retreat from Mons. He referred to it as ‘a story repeated by so many witnesses that if anything can be established by contemporary evidence it is established.”
I haven’t found any fuller version of the story of the troopship in the Dardanelles, but this seems to be a good point at which to consider the matter of the ‘Comrade in White’ – or ‘White Helper’ – a figure that moves surely through the battlefields and hospitals of the early part of the war, without any real specifics of places or dates. The first account is from Dr Horton again -
” Now and again a wounded man on the field is conscious of a comrade in white coming with help and even delivering him. One of our men who had heard of this story again and again, and has put it down to hysterical excitement, had an experience. His division had advanced and was not adequately protected by the artillery. It was cut to pieces, and he himself fell. He tried to hide in a hollow of the ground, and as he lay helpless, not daring to lift his head under the hail of fire, he saw One in White coming to him. For a moment he though it must be a hospital attendant or a stretcher-bearer, but no, it could not be; the bullets were flying all around. The White-robed came near and bent over him. The man lost consciousness for a moment, and when he came round he seemed to be out of danger.
The White-robed still stood by him, and the man, looking at his hand, said, ‘You are wounded in your hand.’ There was a wound in the palm. He answered, ‘Yes, that is an old wound that has opened again lately.’ The soldier says that in spite of the peril and his wounds he felt a joy he had never experienced in his life before.”
Then there was . . .
” A letter from Miss Stoughton, whose sister was a nurse in the hospital at Tekleton. ‘There is a wonderful story,’ she writes, ‘of the man called by the soldiers, ‘A Comrade In White’, who is going about at the front, helping the wounded. A man told my sister that, though he had not seen Him himself, he knew many soldiers who had. He was supposed to be ‘The Angel of the Covenant’ – our Lord himself. He has been seen at different places.”
This isn’t exactly first-hand testimony – the writer is the sister of a nurse who spoke to a soldier who knew some others who said they had seen the figure! But it’s interesting to note that there are much more modern cases where similar figures have been involved inguiding or rescuing lost travellers in times of severe danger.
Quite moving is the story of the dramatic rescue of a young boy during battle, supposedly told by a nurse who had served in France (this may have been Phyllis Campbell, who we will discuss later): -
” How did you manage to pick up the child under the German guns? I asked. He shifted a little uncomfortably, then looked bravely into my eyes. “It’s a bit of a queer thing I’m going to say – but it’s true,” he said. “It was a kind of golden cloud between us and the Germans, and a man in it on a big horse – and then I saw the child in the dust on the roadside, and I picked it up.” “Yes, Sister,” he added, “Lots of other chaps saw it too.” There was a murmur of confirmation. “The minute I saw it,” he continued, “I knew we were going to win. It fair bucked me up.”
You can see the sort of structure these accounts have. The following – from Life and Work magazine for June 1915 – is a particularly detailed one, from which I have taken extracts. It is, apparently, from a letter from an unnamed soldier: -
” Strange tales reached us in the trenches. Rumours raced up and down that three-hundred mile line from Switzerland to the sea. We knew neither the source of them nor the truth of them. They came quickly, and they went quickly. Yet somehow I remember the very hour when George Casey turned to me with a queer look in his blue eyes and asked if I had seen the Friend of the Wounded.
And then he told me all he knew. After many a hot engagement a man in white had been seen bending over the wounded. Snipers sniped at him. Shells fell all around. Nothing had power to touch him. He was either heroic beyond all heroes, or he was something greater still. This mysterious one, whom the French called the Comrade In White, seemed to be everywhere at once. At Nancy, in the Argonne, at Soissons and Ypres, everywhere men were talking of him with hushed voices.”
The writer continues, explaining that he expected no such help should he be injured in battle. Then, in an advance on the facing trenches, he was shot in both legs, and lay in a sheell-hole till after dark,
” The night fell, and soon I heard a step, but quiet and firm, as if neither darkness nor death could check those untroubled feet. So little did I guess what was coming that, even when I saw the gleam of white in the darkness. I thought it was a peasant in a white smock, or perhaps a woman deranged. Suddenly. with a little shiver of joy or fear, I don’t know which, I guessed that it was the Comrade in White. And at that very moment the German rifles began to shoot. The bullets could scarcely miss such a target, for he flung his arms out as though in entreaty, and then drew them back till he stood like one of those wayside crosses that we saw so often as we marched through France.
And he spoke. The words sounded familiar, but all I remember was the beginning, “If thou hadst known,” and the ending, “but now they are hid from thine eyes.” And then he stopped and ushered me into his arms – me, the biggest man in the regiment – and carried me as if I had been a child.
I must have fainted again, for I woke to consciousness in a little cave by the stream, and the Comrade in White was washing my wounds and binding them up. It seems foolish to say it, for I was in terrible pain, but I was happier at that moment than ever I remember to have been in all my life before. I can’t explain it, but it seemed as if all my days I had been waiting for this without knowing it. As long as that hand touched me and those eyes pitied me, I did not seem to care any more about sickness or health, about life or death. And while he swiftly removed every trace of blood or mire, I felt as if my whole nature were being washed, as if all the grime and soil of sin were going, and as if I were once more a little child.
I suppose I slept, for when I awoke this feeling was gone, I was a man, and I wanted to know what I could do for my friend to help him or to serve him. He was looking towards the stream, and his hands were clasped in prayer: and then I saw that he, too, had been wounded. I could see, as it were, a shot-wound in his hand, and as he prayed a drop of blood gathered and fell to the ground. I cried out. I could not help it, for that wound of his seemed to be a more awful thing than any that bitter war had shown me. “You are wounded, too”, I said faintly. Perhaps he heard me, perhaps it was the look on my face, but he answered gently: “This is an old wound, but it has troubled me of late.” And then I noticed sorrowfully that the same cruel mark was on his feet. You will wonder that I did not know sooner. I wonder myself. But it was only when I saw his feet that I knew him.”
The identification of the figure with Jesus Christ was not an uncommon one, but I am rather intrigued by the ‘transformation’ of personality mentioned above. Whatever we call these accounts – wishful thinking, imagination, hallucination, spirit or divine intervention, or whatever – they are perhaps closer to traditional forms of religious experience than the visions involving interventions by non-human figures in military battles. They made popular reading, and no doubt brought hope and some comfort to those at the front in France, and to those at home
Before we return to the continuing development of the stories of angels and bowmen as they emerged in August and September of 1915, a little time should be spent with Phyllis Campbell, a lady who was, apparently, a nurse at front-line hospitals in France.
Over the past ten years or so, I have managed to find most of the important books and references relating to Mons, but one item has eluded me – Miss Campbell’s booklet Back of the Front, published by George Newnes Ltd in 1915. I gather that even the British Museum Library doesn’t have a copy, and apart from some extracts, all I have seen is a flyer showing the front cover! However, she received a lot of publicity, particularly via Ralph Shirley, editor of the Occult Review, and played her part in the growth of some of the more extreme legends.
In this particular instance, I tend to concur with the opinion of the sceptical writer, Melvin Harris, and I am unwilling to accept her unsupported testimony. Her work had appeared in the Occult Review before the war, and it is clear from her accounts of atrocities supposedly committed by the advancing Germans that she was prone to believing what she wanted to believe. I don’t suppose she was alone in that publicising the horrendous practises of the Bosch did wonders for Army recruitment. Anyway, some excerpts from her writing will convey her approach – bearing in mind that the content was, in 1914 and 1915, quite acceptable to many of her readers. From Light, 7.8.15 -
” The Occult Review for August publishes an article by Miss Phyllis Campbell, a nurse who was in the Mons retreat. She tells of a great outburst of pious enthusiasm on the part of the French wounded, some of whom were in a state of great exaltation of mind. They clamoured for ‘holy pictures’ – the little prints of saints and angels so common in Catholic countries – but were unanimous in selecting St Michael or Joan of Arc. A wounded English soldier – a Lancashire Fusilier – asked for ‘a picture or medal of St.George because he had seen the saint on a white horse leading the
British at Vitry-le-Francois when the allies turned.’ An RFA man, wounded in the leg, claimed to have seen a man with yellow hair, wearing golden armour and riding on a white horse with his sword upraised. He endorsed the account given by the fusilier that the phantom cavalier led the British troops. The French troops maintained that the figure seen was that of St Michael. Many of them professed also to have seen Joan of Arc.
That night (writes Miss Campbell) we heard the tale again, from the lips of a priest this time, two officers, and three men of the Irish Guard. These three men were mortally wounded; they asked for the sacrament before death, and before dying told the same story to the old abbe who confessed them.
In the Occult Review article – The Angelic Leaders – she stresses that she had written to its Editor about the stories of visions before the publication of The Bowmen in the Evening News. There is no confirmation of this; it would have been remarkable had a field nurse been able to stop and send out a letter amidst the havoc of retreat, and even more remarkable had the astute Ralph Shirley not used such a report if it had been offered him. The following piece is apparently taken from Back of the Front, reporting on how she was moving around France with the Army hospital, and recounting what soldiers had supposedly said to her, in her own, gory style . . .
” For forty-eight hours no food, no drink, under a tropical sun, choked with dust, harried by shell, and marching, marching, marching, till even the pursuing Germans gave it up, and at Vitry-le-Francois the Allies fell in their tracks and slept for three hours – horse, foot and guns – while the exhausted pursuers slept behind them.
Then came the trumpet call, and each man sprang to his arms to find himself made anew. One man said, “I felt as if I had just come out of the sea after a swim. Fit, just grand. I never felt so fit in my life, and every man of us the same. The Germans were coming on just the same as ever, when suddenly the advance sounded, and I saw the luminous mist and the great man on the white horse, and I knew the Boches would never get Paris, for God was fighting on our side.
Poor Dix, when he came into hospital with only a bleeding gap where his mouth had been, and a splintered hand and arm, he ought to have been prostrate and unconscious, but he made no moan, his pain had vanished in contemplation of the wonderful things he had seen – saints and angels fighting on this common earth, with common mortal men, against one devilish foe to all humanity. A strange and dreadful thing, that the veil that hangs between us and the world of Immortality should be so rent and shrivelled by suffering and agony that human eyes can look on the angels and not be blinded. The cries of mothers and little children – the suffering of crucified fathers and carbonized sons and brothers, the tortures of nuns and virgins, and violated wives and daughters, have all gone up in torment and dragged at the Ruler of the Universe for aid – and aid has come.”
The Society for Psychical Research was also interested in Miss Campbell’s reports. As part of their enquiry they reported that,
” We wrote some time ago to Miss Campbell asking whether she could give us any further information or put us in touch with the soldiers to whom these experiences had come, but we have not heard from her.” So far as I can establish, she made no further claims, and it was left to others to eagerly back her accounts when they could be used in support of their own contentions. But even so, if anyone comes across a copy of Back of the Front, I’d still be delighted to own one!
Miss Campbell’s contributions aside, by July 1915 the initial impetus of the reports had slowed down. Even the religious press only printed versions of earlier accounts – often set in the context of religious events in history – and many commentators began to wonder at the lack of witness testimony for which a witness could actually be identified. August saw two apparently promising testimonies in the Daily Mail. The first appeared on the 12th, and was a report of an interview with a ‘wounded lance-corporal’.
” I was with my battalion in the retreat from Mons on or about August 28th. The German cavalry were expected to make a charge, and we were waiting to fire and scatter them . .
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 . . 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. At the time we thought that the officer must be expecting a surprise attack.
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 neighbour hood. The light became brighter and I could distinctly see 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 above 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 they had seen the same thing.
I remember the day because it was a day of terrible anxiety for us. That morning the Munsters had a bad time on our right, and so had the Scots Guards. We managed to get to the wood . . . Later on, the Uhlans attacked us, and we drove them back with heavy loss. It was after this engagement, when we were dog-tired, that the vision appeared to us.”
The Society for Psychical Research wrote to the Lady Superintendent of the hospital at which the man had been treated, to whom he was said to have told his experience before it was published, and asked her if she could give details of his whereabouts. She replied on 28.10.15:
” The man about whom you enquire has left here and has failed to answer my letter and postcard. I do not therefore know his present whereabouts. When I hear from him again I will write to you.”
There is nothing to suggest that the witness was ever located, but nor was the report disproved; this was a time of high casualties in France. The situation was a happier one than the Mail found itself in later in the month. The SPR enquiry tells the story well: -
” One other piece of alleged evidence in support of the ‘Angels of Mons’ may be briefly dismissed. In the Daily Mail for August 24, 1915, there appeared a communication from G.S.Hazlehurst stating that a certain Private Robert Cleaver, 1st Cheshire Regiment, had signed an affidavit in his presence to the effect that he “personally was at Mons and saw the Vision of Angels with (his) own eyes.” Speaking of his interview with Private Cleaver, Mr Hazlehurst said:
” When I saw Private Cleaver, who struck me as being a very sound, intelligent man, he at once volunteered his statement and had no objection to signing an affidavit before me that he had seen the Angels of Mons. He said that things were at the blackest with our troops, and if it had not been for the supernatural intervention they would have been annihilated. The men were in retreat, and lying down behind small tufts of grass for cover. Suddenly, the vision came between them and the German cavalry. He described it as a ‘flash’ . . The cavalry horses rushed in all directions and were disorganised”.
In the Daily Mail for September 2, 1915, there appeared a further communication from Mr Hazlehurst to the effect that in consequence of a rumour that Private Cleaver was not present at the Battle of Mons, he had written to the headquarters at Salisbury for information as to his movements, and received the following reply:
” From – Records Office, Cheshire Regiment. 10515 R.Cleaver.
With regard to your enquiries concerning the above man, the following are the particulars concerning him. He mobilised at Chester on August 22, 1914. He was posted out to the 1st Battalion, Expeditionary Force, France, with a draft on September 6, 1914. He returned to England on December 14, sick.”
Mr Hazlehurst concludes:
The battle of Mons was in August, 1914, and readers will draw their own conclusions. Information sworn on oath is usually regarded as sufficiently trustworthy for publication, but apparently not in this case.”
Much more intriguing is a letter sent to Arthur Machen by a Lieutenant-Colonel whose identity was apparently known to the Daily Mail, and who was present at the Retreat from Mons. It appeared in the issue dated September 14th, and seems never to have been refuted. It is worth mentioning that some historians have placed the publication of this account a year earlier, which would render it as vital evidence for a pre-Bowmen provenance for the stories. However, it definitely appeared over a year after the events that it reports. Nonetheless, its simplicity, and lack of specific identification of individualssomehow lend it a credibility not possessed by some other reports: -
” On August 26, 1914, was fought the battle of Le Cateau. We came into action at dawn, and fought till dusk. We were heavily shelled by the German artillery during the day, and in common with the rest of our division had a bad time of it.
Our division, however, retired in good order. We were on the march all night of the 26th and on the 27th, with only about two hours’ rest. The brigade to which I belonged was rearguard to the division, and during the 27th we were all absolutely worn out with fatigue – both bodily and mental fatigue.
No doubt we also suffered to a certain extent from shock; but the retirement still continued in excellent order, and I feel sure that our mental faculties were still . . . in good working condition.
On the night of the 27th I was riding along in the column with two other officers. We had been talking and doing our best to keep from falling asleep on our horses. As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen. These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we were going, and keeping level with us . . .
I did not say a word about it at first, but I watched them for about twenty minutes. The other two officers had stopped talking. At last one of them asked me if I saw anything in the fields. I then told him what I had seen. The third officer then confessed that he too had been watching these horsemen for the past twenty minutes. So convinced were we that they were real cavalry that, at the next halt, one of the officers took a party of men out to reconnoitre, and found no one there. The night then grew darker, and we saw no more.
The same phenomenon was seen by many men in our column. Of course, we were all dog-tired and overtaxed, but it is an extraordinary thing that the same phenomenon should be witnessed by so many different people. I myself am absolutely convinced that I saw these horsemen, and I feel sure that they did not exist only in my imagination . .”
Quite rightly, the SPR Enquiry juxtaposes the above with this letter from Lance-Corporal A.Johnstone, late of the Royal Engineers, which was published in the Evening News of 11.8.15: -
” We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour’s rest in between, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry, all formed up into squadrons – fine, big men, on massive chargers. I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying: “Thank God! We are not far off Paris now. Look at the French cavalry.” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through them . . .
When I tell you that hardened soldiers who had been through many a campaign were marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts of nonsense in sheer delirium, you can well believe we were in a fit state to take a row of beanstalks for all the saints in the calendar.”
The summer of 1915 saw the publication of several books and booklets dealing with Bowmen, Angels and related issues. They included a fair amount of debate, and not a little name-calling. As I’m trying to stick to source material here, rather than the minutiae of opinions and attitudes, I won’t detail the comings and goings of the various writers; but I will summarise the best-sellers among them.
The first to appear was a 15-page booklet, gloriously titled The Angel Warriors at Mons, Including Numerous Confirmatory Testimonies, Evidence of the Wounded and Certain Curious Historical Parallels, An Authentic Record by Ralph Shirley, Editor of the Occult Review. It was published by the Newspaper Publicity Co., 61, Fleet Street, London, E.C. It covers the basic ‘Angels’ stories, and includes a number of excerpts from the vivid writings of Phyllis Campbell, as well as some interesting accounts of other battlefield visions: the Virgin Mary at Suwalki, and the Battle of Edge Hill.
The next to be published – on 10.8.15 – was The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War by Arthur Machen himself, published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton Kent & Co. This appeared in two separate editions, the second being the better value as in addition to reprinting The Bowmen itself, it also includes five further short stories in a similar vein: The Soldier’s Rest: The Monstrance: The Dazzling Light: The Little Nations and The Men From Troy. Some of these are, in my hopelessly biased opinion, quite beautiful. Why they are described as ‘Other Legends of the War’ I cannot say – so far as I’m aware, they are all completely original.
The controversial part of Machen’s book is the 51-page Introduction, which tells the story of the development of The Bowmen as the author himself saw it: his point of view being that he was its author, not its historian. He fairly quotes evidence from both sides of the ‘event’ hypothesis – vision vs. hallucination – but still stays with his belief that there was no ‘event’ at all. This Introduction is beautifully crafted, and well worth reading in its entirety.
There were, of course, many who believed in the legends, and their views found a popular outlet in On the Side of the Angels – the Story of the Angels at Mons – an Answer to ‘The Bowmen’, by Harold Begbie. I understand that Mr Begbie was quite a notable author at the time, but his writing displays limited critical faculties. His contention is that whether the visions occurred or not, it was not Machen who originated them. Begbie marshalls most of the ‘pro-event’ material, from the fairly reputable down to the worst of the vague and rewritten, but actually adds little to the canon of stories with which the public was already familiar. Nonetheless, it was clearly influential at the time.
Various other publications appeared in 1915 and 1916, while the various stories and opinions held the public imagination to a remarkable degree. Few of them made contributions of any great originality, but an honourable mention must go to a skilful and elaborate parody, Find the Angels – The Showmen – A Legend of the War, by T.W.H.Crosland, published by T.Werner Laurie, 1915. This exquisitely parodies Machen’s Introduction, includes The Showmen itself, and various appendices taking shots at Machen, Begbie and the rest, and ending with some verses parodying Kipling in ‘The White Feather Legion’. I do admire Mr.Crosland’s skill!
One way and another, I think I have presented most – if not all – of the relevant material that appeared in Britain between the retreat from Mons itself, at the end of August 1914, and Christmas 1915. Other than these, there were opinions a-plenty, many quite critical, considered and convincing. Were I playing sceptic – as I often do when commenting on strange events and phenomena – I would weigh those comments heavily in the balance. But that isn’t my aim in compiling this account. To round oof this collection of evidence – and not-quite evidence – there are some other, later reports that deserve a hearing . . .
There is a little-known report in the Grays and Tilbury Gazette for 25.8.17., of angels on the home front: actually, at Grays Thurrock, a place not famed for drama, romance or mystery, situated on the Thames in Essex. Here, at a relatively optimistic stage of the war, were seen the ‘Peace Angels’.
” All Argent Street was out after them”, said one speaker. “They appeared over the Exmouth, two of them sitting on two rainbows with ‘Peace’ in between. Then they faded away, leaving only the rainbow.” Another observer said that the angels had, “roses wreathed in their hair.” It seems that children, in particular, were taken with this attractive story.
Moving on some years, on 17.2.1930 the Daily News published the following strange tale: -
” The British really saw in 1914 what they called the Angels of Mons, if a story by a former member of the Imperial German Intelligence Service is to be believed. This officer, Colonel Friedrich Herzenwirth, whose narrative is published in a newspaper in New York, says:
‘ The Angels of Mons were motion pictures thrown upon ‘screens’ of foggy white cloudbanks in Flanders by cinematographic projecting machines mounted on German aeroplanes which hovered above the British lines.’
The reports of British troops during the retreat from Mons on August 24th, 1914 – that they had seen ‘angels the size of men’, which appeared to be in the rearguard of the retreating army – were attributed by psychologists to mass hypnotism and hallucination. Colonel Herzenwirth says the object of the Germans responsible for these scientific ‘visions’ was to create superstitious terror in the allied ranks, calculated to produce panic and a refusal to fight an enemy which appeared to enjoy special supernatural protection. But the Germans miscalculated.
‘ What we had not figured on’, adds the Colonel, ‘was that the English should turn the vision to their own benefit. This was a magnificent bit of counter-propaganda, for some of the English must have been fully aware of the mechanism of our trick. Their method of interpreting our angels as protectors of their own troops turned the scales completely upon us. Had the British command contented itself with simply issuing an Army order unmasking our trickery it would not have been half as effective.’
The next day, in the same newspaper, the following appeared:
” Following is a message received yesterday from our Berlin correspondent.
‘ A prominent member of the War Intelligence Department in the present German Ministry declares that the story is a hoax, Herzenwirth himself a myth or, if existing, a liar. It is officially stated that there is no such person.’
Mr Arthur Machen, the author, told the Daily News yesterday that the whole story of the apparitions was a legend invented by himself. It arose, Mr Machen said, from a story called The Bowmen, which he wrote and which was published on September 29, 1914.
” The story told how, during the retreat from Mons, some English soldiers in the trenches saw the advancing Germans dropping down by whole regiments. That, they supposed, was due to the fact that one of them said, half in a joke, ‘May St. George be a present help to the English!’
The tale is that St.George came along bringing with him the ghosts of the bowmen of the old days, and the Germans were supposed to be pierced by ghostly arrows. Nothing particular happened for the next few months, but some time in 1915 it was pointed out that people were taking the story as true. Then they began to turn the bowmen into angels. They elaborated the story and changed it about in all sorts of ways.”
The next, very peculiar tale comes from Fate magazine for May 1968. It is taken from a letter from a Rev.Albert H.Baller of Clinton, Mass. who was apparently lecturing on Unidentified Flying Objects to a group of engineers in New Britain, Conn. in 1955 or 1956, when one of the engineers gave him this report: -
” He said that he was in the trenches near Ypres in August, 1915, when the Germans launched the first gas attack. Since it was the very first, neither he nor any of his buddies knew what it meant when they looked out over no-man’s-land and saw a strange grey cloud rolling towards them. When it struck, pandemonium broke out. Men dropped all around him and the trench was in an uproar. Then, he said, a strange thing happened. Out of the mist, walking across no-mam’s land, came a figure. He seemed to be without special protection and he wore the uniform of the Royal Medical Corps. The engineer remembered that the stranger spoke English with what seemed to be a French accent.
On his belt the stranger from the poison cloud had a series of small hooks on which were suspended tin cups. In his hand he carried a bucket of what looked like water. As he slid down into the trench he began removing the cups, dipping them into the bucket and passing them out to the soldiers, telling them to drink quickly. The engineer was among those who received the potion. He said it was extremely salty, almost too salty to swallow. But all of the soldiers who were given the liquid did drink it, and not one of them suffered lasting effects from the gas.
When the gas cloud had blown over and things calmed down the unusual visitor was not to be found. No explanation for his visit could be given by the Royal Medical Corps – but the fact remained that thousands of soldiers died or suffered lasting effects from that grim attack, but not a single soldier who took the cup from the stranger was among the casualties.
It is certainly not to my credit that I have not remembered the engineer’s name. I do recall that on later enquiry that evening I discovered he was a man of some standing in his profession, known for his complete honesty and integrity.”
This story, with its vague provenance, has all the trappings of an ‘urban legend’ or ‘foaftale’, but I have not encountered it elsewhere. I am intrigued by the similarities to the ‘Comrade In White’ accounts, and as there is clearly some awareness of World War 1 legends in the USA, I wonder if any reader may have come across others?
The final original account I think worth presenting is this quiet, unassuming, and at least signed letter to The Spectator, which published it on 19.10.1918, some three weeks before the Armistice. It is not the first report to claim that some particular element of an event was seen only by the Germans: -
” Sir – Much has been said at various times about alleged superhuman interventions in our favour when, in ‘that dire autumn’ of 1914, our heroic ‘Contemptibles’ were in retreat, pressed hard by overwhelming forces. To myself nothing has come in the way of evidence on that subject with such a claim on attention and, I think, on credence as what I heard not many weeks ago from my friend (he allows the mention of his name) the Rev.W.Elliott Bradley, Vicar of Crosthwaite, Keswick, a reporter whose accurate memory and sober sense I entirely trust.
He got a practically identical account of a certain incident of that crisis from each of three soldiers, old Contemptibles, to whom he talked on three separate occasions. The first two men were, at different times, in a V.A.D. hospital near Ulverston, where the Rev.Bradley was rector between three and four years ago. The third man was seen not many months ago working on a farm near Keswick after discharge from the Army. Mr.Bradley asked in each case whether the soldiers recalled ‘anything unusual’ at the crises of the retreat. And each man without hesitation gave this answer. The Germans were coming on in massed formation, and the men of the thin British line were preparing to sell their lives dear: it was the only thing to do; the Teuton host could not help walking over them on the way to Paris. Suddenly the grey masses halted; even the horses of the cavalry jibbed and reared; and the collision did not take place. German prisoners, taken a little later, were asked why they failed to attack on such an advantage.
The answer was straight and simple: they saw strong British reinforcements coming up. Such was the story told, without leading or prompting as to detail, by these three isolated witnesses at first hand. Two, if not three, added quietly the comment, “It was God that did it.”
As my friend pointed out to me, the incident was the more impressive because all the men agreed that our soldiers saw nothing. The vision was not given to them, though their nerves might well be strained to an imaginative exaltation by their tremendous position. It was the Germans, in the full consciousness of their overmastering force and seeming easy certainty of victory, whose “eyes were opened”. I may add that what was seen was of a kind to suggest fact rather than subjective phantasm. The delivering host appeared not as ‘winged squadrons of the sky’ but as British soldiers, neither less nor more. At this hour of mighty victories, let us not forget the Supreme Disposer who, as I for one humbly believe, intervened in mystery and mercy then. (signed) Handley Dunelm, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland.”
The best contemporary investigation was – as has so often been the case – that conducted by the Society for Psychical Research. There is much to be said for a comprehensive knowledge of the field, an open mind, and the persistent application of common-sense. Here are some excerpts from the conclusions of the SPR Enquiry: -
” Summing up the evidence at our disposal, the following conclusions may be drawn:
a. Many of the stories which have been current during the past year concerning ‘visions’ on the battlefield prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.
b. After we have discounted these rumours, we are left with a small residue of evidence, which seems to indicate that a certain number of men who took part in the retreat from Mons honestly believe themselves to have had at that time supernormal experiences of a remarkable character . .
In the main, the result of our enquiry is negative, at least as regards the question of whether any apparitions were seen on the battlefield, either at Mons or elsewhere. Of first-hand testimony we have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand we have none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon. For we cannot make this assumption until we have established at least a strong probability that the observed effects are such as only a supernormal phenomenon could produce, and in the present instance, as I have tried to show, all our efforts to obtain the detailed evidence upon which an enquiry of this kind must be based have proved unavailing.”
I cannot disagree with those conclusions, but I hope that, still, there may be further evidence still to come to light. Should it do so, I will be happy to rewrite this account accordingly. In the meantime, it is most important of all to remember that the legends we are discussing come from a time and place of tremendous courage, and dreadful suffering: almost impossible for us, now, to imagine. Any quality or worth this account may have is dedicated entirely to those who then fought on our behalf. If there really was some element of divine intervention, they had earned that, and more besides.
I still don’t know what happened during the Retreat from Mons: I doubt that I ever will. Perhaps the most vital point of dispute is whether Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen was responsible, as Machen himself believed, for all the stories and legends of supernatural intervention that appeared from March 1915 onwards. My personal view is that there was rather more to it than that, and I concur with the opinion of the SPR in effectively suggesting that the men of the B.E.F. – or a number of them, anyway – were aware of reports of a ‘cloud’ or of ‘angels’ before the publication of The Bowmen on 29th September 1914. It would be helpful to know what flow of private correspondence there was between the B.E.F. and home that September: whatever there was seems not to have yielded any relevant reports. On the other hand, I doubt that Machen, among the many writers covering the war, alone received a secret tip-off, unknown to the rest of the press. I am sure that he genuinely believed that all the legends sprang from his own.
He may have been right, but there do seem to be two separate stories of intervention – the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘Angels’- though there are certainly later accounts in which both appear, the two forms having apparently been amalgamated. Anyone familiar with the development of folklore will be aware of how easily such changes occur. But the initial formats and characteristics of each story are quite different, and it is hard to see how the one could have emanated from the other. There is no written record of any sort of ‘intermediate’ version, bridging the two.
I have, earlier, made the point that if one does not accept Machen’s explanation, and decides instead that there was either an event, or a belief in an event, then there are physical factors to be taken into account. There are strong arguments put involving the hallucinatory effects of extreme fatigue. I must agree with those who suggest that a combination of tiredness, discomfort and fear, prolonged over an excessive period, can effectively trigger an ASC (altered state of consciousness) of one type or another. This effect would be heightened among an interactive group, though oddly enough the ‘angel’ reports refer consistently to the sudden, almost surprise nature of the phenomenon. It is the ‘Bowmen’ reports, presumably of fictional origin, that stress the positive decision to seek supernatural intervention.
In the end, we all have our own thresholds of belief and acceptance, and responses to the Mons material will continue to vary, as they have already done for many years. So long as any conclusions are drawn on the basis of the breadth of the available source material, which I hope I’ve been able to present, I will have no strong reason to disagree with any of them.
I’ve included a good many references to newspapers and periodicals in the text, but I think it may be useful to collate details of books, booklets and pamphlets to which I’ve either referred while writing this account, or which I know exist, and are relevant, even though I’ve never seen them. I am indebted to the Imperial War Museum’s Booklist No. 1256A: The Angels of Mons, for several of these references, though even they have few of them in their library. I’ve marked with an asterisk the titles that I haven’t actually been able to find.
- Altsheler, J.A. The Hosts of the Air: the story of a quest in the Great War. Appleton, London. 1915. *
- Begbie, H. On the Side of the Angels. Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1915.
- Campbell, P. Back of the Front. Newnes, London. 1915. *
- Charteris, J. At G.H.Q. Cassell. 1931.
- Churchwoman, A. The Chariots of God. Stockwell, London. 1915.
- Corbett-Smith, A. The Retreat from Mons – by one who shared in it. Cassell. 1917. (An early personal account, which makes no mention of any strange or supernatural event).
- Crosland, T.W.H. The Showmen: A Legend of the War. Laurie, London. 1915.
- Garnier, Col. The Visions of Mons and Ypres: their meaning and purpose. R.Banks, London. 1915. *
- Machen, A. The Bowmen and other Legends of the war. Simpkin Marshall, London. 1915.
- Pearson, J.J. The Rationale of the Angel Warriors at Mons during the retreat and the apparitions at the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. Christian Globe, London. 1915. *
- Phillips, A.F. and Thurston Hopkins, R. War and the Weird. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., London. 1916.
- Shirley, R. Angel Warriors at Mons: an Authentic Record. Newspaper Publishing Co., London. 1915.
- Stuart, R. Dreams and Visions of the War. Pearson, London. 1917. *
- Taylor, I.E. Angels, Saints and Bowmen at Mons. Theosophical Publishing Society. 1916.
- Terraine, J. Mons. Pan. 1962.
- Terraine, J. The Smoke and the Fire. Sidgwick & Jackson. 1980.
- Warr, C.L. The Unseen Host – Stories of the Great War. Alexander Gardner, Paisley. 1916.
Thanks . . . are long overdue to many friends and fellow writers, who have contributed to this account in one way or another: particularly by remembering to send me the cuttings and references that have added so much to the variety of sources I have been able to provide. There are many others, but I must mention Michael Goss, Granville Oldroyd, Hilary Evans, Mark Valentine, Andy Roberts, Bob Skinner, Robert Rickard, and Eleanor O’Keeffe and the SPR. Most of them have probably forgotten just how much help they gave!
Kevin McClure 1994
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