Aftermath - when the boys came home

Monday 22 February 2010

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Angels of Mons

The legend of the Angels of Mons, the substance of which depends on who is telling the story, received a remarkable boost when one of Britain's foremost historians seemed to endorse the idea that there had been heavenly intervention on behalf of the retreating British Expeditionary Force in August 1914.

It is hard to believe that A.J.P.Taylor did not have his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote the highlighted section of the following passage from his book The First World War published in 1963:

The British force was in position by 20 August, though far from knowing that the Germans were anywhere near. It fumbled forward, reached the mining town of Mons on 22 August. There the Germans blundered into it, equally surprised. On 23 August, two British divisions were attacked by two German army-corps; and held them off. The British rifle fire was so accurate - 'fifteen rounds rapid' per minute - that the Germans thought it came from machine guns. In fact the British had two machine guns for each battalion. The battle of Mons was a small affair by later standards, no bigger than some of the engagements in the Beer War. Still, it was the first British battle; and also the only one where 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. Sir John French, the British commander, was pleased with the battle. He intended to stand firm and fight again the next day. During the night he discovered his precarious position: the French army on his right falling back fast, and on his left no troops at all. The British army, too, had to retreat: falling back, day after day, an even harder feat of footslogging than that accomplished by the Germans. On 26 August the British had to stand and fight again at Le Cateau. Once more they held the Germans up and got away.

From The First World War by AJP Taylor (1963)

Whether or not Taylor really believed the story that a host of shining angels had been seen fighting on the side of the British is not really an issue. The legend is often explained as the result of hallucinations by soldiers who had not slept for days. The truth of the matter is that the legend seems to be entirely based on a short story written by Arthur Machen and published in the London Evening Standard at the end of September 1914.

The story itself which you can read in full here doesn't amount to much. Machen, who was noted for his occult stories, came up with the idea that one of the beleagued soldiers summons St.George, who brings the bowmen of Agincourt back to destroy thousands of Germans with their invisible arrows. There's no mention of angels anywhere in the tale.

Machen probably wrote the story in a few hours, and nobody was more surprised than him when all over the country people started taking it seriously. One Church of England vicar wanted permission to publish it in his parish magazine. Other people insisted that Machen must have received telepathic messages from soldiers on the battlefield, and that the incident actually happened. Stories began to circulate that German bodies had been found punctured with wounds which could only have been made by arrows fired from longbows.

At this time of course, war hysteria was at its height, and there's no doubt that the BEF's early reverses had scared a nation which had been so certain that the war would be over by Christmas.

But Machen's insistence in print that it was "just a story" caused uproar, with those who wanted to believe that heaven was on Britain's side practically accusing him of heresy. Even today, there are frequent references to the legend in features about the battle of Mons, but Machen's part in creating such an enduring myth is not always acknowledged.


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