The Angels of Mons: A Perfect Hoax from World War One

by JoHarrington

Did ghostly Welsh bowmen, from the Battle of Agincourt, rise up to cover the retreat of beleaguered British soldiers in World War One? No, but many believe that they did.

There's no doubt that the Battle of Mons sent shock-waves through the British psyche.

With their Empire now stretching across the globe, the population of Great Britain was not used to losing on the battlefield. As their highly trained and disciplined troops set off to fight the Germans, it was widely believed that they'd be home by Christmas.

The Battle of Mons, right at the outset of the First World War, shattered all such illusions. It's little wonder then that a comforting fantasy was soon taken up as fact.

The Angels of Mons is a story which many Britons today still think was true. But they were given help to believe so.

The Story of the Angels of Mons

On August 23rd 1914, British soldiers made the desperate retreat from a superior German force. A month later, a strange tale surfaced.

The Battle of Agincourt has gone down in history as the greatest British battle on French soil. Employing much superior weaponry - in the form and skill of Welsh long-bowmen - the victory was assured before most of the army had even stepped out.

And at the other end of the scale was the Battle of Mons.

Vastly out-numbered and severely out-gunned, the unwarranted arrogance of the British army was sorely exposed.

The French realized it first. Fleeing the field, they allowed the Germans to practically surround the remaining Britons. Perhaps they too had learned a few historical lessons from Agincourt.

Reeling from shock and heavy casualties alike, the British soldiers at Mons raced into the retreat, all the time believing that they'd never make it.

That was when the miracle occurred. That was when the Agincourt longbow-men rose from the very soil itself and took to the skies. Their phantom arrows raining down upon the encroaching German army.

Long dead, but still deadly, those British men would not let their descendants die like this. A celestial light blazed around them, as the ghosts of Agincourt covered the retreat. The Angels of Mons - as they were later to be called - stood as a bright, impenetrable wall between the fleeing Britons and the German gunners.

Nor were these phantom patriots alone. Soldiers reported, in stunned tones, the roaring exhortations of St George himself, charging along the front line of Mons on his white stallion.

Others saw none of that. They were already out into the countryside, racing alongside the railway tracks, hurrying away as fast as they could. But those British infantrymen too saw something. As they ran, they could have sworn that a ghostly cavalry rushed past them towards the horrors of the Mons battlefield.

The British Army was woefully tiny, relative to their enemies on the other side of Mons. But that was only if you counted the living. By the end of the Battle of Mons, it seemed that every British warrior in history was back and willing to take up arms.

Angelic hosts and brothers in arms from beyond the grave, there to keep the ordinary British Tommy safe.

History Books about the Battle of Mons

Learn more about what really happened out on that battlefield, and what forced a morale busting retreat for the British army.

The Bowmen as the Origin of the Angels of Mons Myth

'The Bowmen' was a short story submitted to a London newspaper by Arthur Machen. It became the basis of the Angel of Mons legend.

It's an incredible story, which seems stranger than fiction. It's not. But only because it is fiction.

The author was Arthur Machen, a man with a great deal of horror, fantasy and supernatural books and short stories already published by 1914. Stephen King has mentioned him as an influence upon his own story-telling.

Machen was the pen-name of Arthur Llewellyn Jones. A Welshman from Caerleon, he was also known for his mysticism and his work with the Golden Dawn. Though he maintained his Christian religious beliefs throughout.

He was not a man to embrace the preternatural for the sake of it. He required proof for all purported events and sightings. Today, he would probably have been called a Skeptic.

With such a background and portfolio, it seems bizarre that anyone wouldn't see the author's name and be tipped off that the story was fiction.  The Bowmen, with its mix of Welsh mysticism and supernatural narrative, was precisely the sort of tale for which Arthur Machen was famous.

But he wasn't just writing fiction anymore.  In 1914, he had accepted a job as a journalist and many of his reports were about the fighting on the Western Front.

Even so, there was usually a very clear line between his news items and his fictional work. The latter tended to be on the pages given over to story-telling. They generally appeared under headings like Our Short Story.

On September 29th 1914, The Bowmen was published in the London Evening News. The story was told as a first-person narrative, as if an eye-witness was sharing his experiences. It was not in the fiction section, it was in amongst the factual, mainstream news. In the Our Short Story column was another work by an entirely different author.

This Machen tale, of ghostly Britons rising to defend their latter-day countrymen, was presented to the readership as reality; something which had actually been witnessed by terrified soldiers fleeing from the front.

Within hours, word of mouth had spread the story as fact, from the capital to the rest of Britain. Within weeks, it was being preached from the pulpits of churches up and down the country. Even the clergy seemed convinced of its reality, though they identified the visions as angels, not ghosts.

Hence the legend of the Angels of Mons was born.

Horror, Fantasy and Mystical Stories by Arthur Machen

Stephen King once called 'The Great God Pan' the greatest horror story in the English language, and you know what happened with 'The Bowmen'.

A Convenient Belief in the Angels of Mons

The fact of the matter was that people WANTED to believe in these ghostly saviours, while it suited the needs of church and state to encourage it too.

At times it seemed like only Arthur Machen himself was willing to countenance the possibility that his story was fiction. From the moment he first saw it in print, he was at pains to tell all who'd listen that it had stemmed solely from his imagination.

The trouble was that nobody was listening.

In late 1914, it was finally dawning on the British public that the Great War was going to be a catastrophe. Their national pride had been smashed by the Battle of Mons.

Forward-thinking people were realizing that the Kaiser's blueprint for European dominance was entirely feasible, and the British army simply wasn't big enough to do anything about it. Men in their droves were signing up for war, kissing their families goodbye and disappearing into the trenches of the Western Front. This was not going to be over by Christmas.

For the men going into that carnage, there was a sense of patriotic fervor prevailing over all anyway. Added to that was the notion that the Almighty Himself was on the side of Britain - this demi-paradise, this other Eden -  and what further evidence was needed of that than the fact that the sun never set on the British Empire?

Mons was a slap to morale, that was true. But the Almighty had so marked Britain for greatness, that even its dead returned to make good any deficiencies. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

For the wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and sweethearts left at home, it was a comforting thought to imagine that something supernatural would keep their men safe. If not God, then ghosts.

For the owners and editors of newspapers, it was a story which sold papers. Hence it kept on being told, with embellishments and in differing versions. This is why the legend as exists now isn't quite the same as that printed as The Bowmen.

For the clergy, there was much to recommend in this tale. Though they didn't know it, they were presiding over the last generation of British with an almost universal Christian faith. The First World War would do much to shake those beliefs, hurtling Britain towards widespread secularism.

Even so, vicars and priests across the country were increasingly having to deal with the loss of substantial parts of their congregations. Every person killed in battle required a memorial service. Each casualty left behind those in mourning.

This was the age of the 'Pal's Brigades' - friends, brothers, groups, whole communities of men - who would enlist together, serve alongside each other, and frequently all be killed en masse. Clerics were facing situations when every single member of their flock had lost somebody, and had to make sense of it.

Any wonder then that the Angels of Mons featured so heavily in sermons across Britain. Here was 'proof' of God's hand in the war. Here was the evidence that they weren't forgotten. For those losing their religion, this was also the counter-argument that God existed.

It was in Britain's churches that the longbow-men and cavalry ghosts became angels, and that was why.

For the government, the Angels of Mons was a useful propaganda tool. No smoking gun has yet been shown, proving that the War Department was behind the scores of 'eye witness accounts' that began to creep out, as the war progressed. But it does seem likely.

This theory is explored in depth by David Clarke in The Angel of Mons.

As for Arthur Machen, he constantly, loudly and publicly denied that he'd ever received any 'secret intelligence' from government, nor had he interviewed the exhausted survivors from the Battle of Mons to receive the story. 

It was his own, influenced by nothing more than the history of Agincourt coupled with elements from Welsh mythology - particularly King Arthur hearing the clarion call to come and save them all, or Y Ddraig Goch rising from its cave to fight back the Germanic White Dragon - and placed in the modern day. A ghost story interwoven with Cymric Mysticism, just like 90% of everything else that he wrote.

But no-one cared to hear that. In the terrible aftermath of Mons, it was a story that soothed the national psyche and that was all that mattered.

True Tales of Haunted Battlefields

Disappointed that the Angels of Mons turned out to be such a hoax? Then sate your supernatural cravings on these stories of true hauntings on battle sites.
The Somme Offensive was one of the biggest, bloodiest battles of the First World War. It's little wonder then that ghosts have been reported on the haunted Somme battlefield.
On April 16th 1746, the last pitched battle on British land took place on Drummossie Moor. Up to 2000 Jacobites lay dead, or injured and dying, in the heather. It was never over.
History knows it as Custer's Last Stand. It was more like Sitting Bull's Last Stand, along with thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Are they still holding firm?
The Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal point during the American Civil War. It's been the location of countless ghostly tales ever since.
Updated: 02/07/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 02/07/2014

When you look at history as the long view, you can see that the push towards peace and fairness is actually happening. It's a slow process though. Very, very slow.

Believe it or not, the 20th century was one of the most peaceful centuries in history. There were two world wars; the clash between Capitalism and Communism; and armies camped out wherever there was oil. But compared to the centuries which preceded it, much fewer people worldwide were entrenched in war and dying in war.

A cold comfort for those involved in one though.

Jo_Murphy on 02/06/2014

I don't know if you have read, listened to or seen the Hungergames but it is about 'staging' -staging realty. In the end, global peace might be about the capacity to "see through" staging and then to remain awake long enough to resist. We used to teach something in schools called "Resistant Reading" that style of teaching fell out of favour at least and was 'stopped' especially in USA.
1. see through staging
2. resist (your story about Reditt is one example)
3. re-imagine
4. tacitly, honestly and democratically implement
5 continue to hold to honesty
Happily ever after (?) Jo

JoHarrington on 02/06/2014

Oh my gosh, yes! I hadn't thought of it in comparison to 'War of the Worlds'. But this one soothed, where the other panicked.

Jo_Murphy on 02/06/2014

And there were stories on the radio that could be mistaken as news. Such as War of the Worlds!

JoHarrington on 02/06/2014

cmoneyspinner - I love the capacity of the human brain to protect us. I've also seen some amazing things under duress, and felt unbelievable too, while in extreme danger.

Yes, these men were in a very bad place, physically and emotionally, so hallucinating wouldn't be too far off the mark.

Ember - Yes, it was very common to have fiction in the papers. *insert joke about the veracity of today's newspaper stories*. This was open fiction though. The original Sherlock Holmes stories were found in a newspaper.

Ember on 02/06/2014

Wow, that's kind of funny, and really interesting.

It was common at the time to have fictional stories published in newspapers, right?

cmoneyspinner on 02/06/2014

I'm not disappointed that the angels of Mons turned out to be a hoax. Quite the contrary. When one thinks that they are knocking at death's door, it shows how the human spirit and mind can summon the necessary “mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual weapons” to defend themselves and find the strength to survive.

Think about it. You're some place and you're terrified. You don't know if you'll be able to escape and live through it. Your mind kicks in and says “You got a protector. Don't worry.” Somehow you manage to live to tell.

I know this can happen because one time my late sister and I went somewhere and we were so scared. Didn't know if we would make it home safely that night. I looked up and saw Jesus Christ with outstretched hands looking at me!! And of course I know I had not really seen Jesus. Why? Because the image I saw, or rather imagined, looked just like all the other common paintings and pictures of Jesus that we are all so familiar with, and we know that there are no images of Jesus when He walked the earth. So nobody knows what Jesus looked like for real!

Nevertheless I want you to know however that we made it home safely. But also know that the sighting of that image is what gave me courage to KNOW that I would make my way home! I had a Protector! I was not alone and helpless.

(Actually I still believe I have a Protector, but I don't need to physically see Him to have the assurance that He will help me through all my trials and tribulations.)

YAGW!! Yet another great Wizzle! :)

JoHarrington on 02/06/2014

In truth, so did I the first time I heard it. I thought it was exhaustion and the stress of battle. Then again, part of it could have been. Those retreating did claim genuinely to have seen the cavalry hurrying by, but their stories only emerged after this was one of the most famous stories in Britain.

frankbeswick on 02/06/2014

Very interestingIand informative, Jo. I have never believed in the tale, but I had thought it just an illusion generated by battlefield stress. Now I know better.

JoHarrington on 02/06/2014

Thank you. :) History fascinates me, so I'm always on the hunt for the stories behind the stories. :)

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