The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had its first major engagement on 22nd – 23rd August 1914. The “Contemptable Little Army” although heavily outnumbered by the Germans, stopped their advance and repulsed them at the Battle of Mons. The Germans attempted to outflank the BEF the following day, causing the British to fall back into a retreat. At the time this was widely perceived as one of the pivotal moments of the Great War and effectively stopped the Schlieffen Plan in its tracks. It also, despite the censorship in Great Britain at the time, proved that defeating the Germans and getting the boys home by Christmas, wasn’t going to be as easy as first thought.
The legend of the Angels of Mons probably started when an Arthur Machen published a short story called “The Bowmen” in the Evening News. The story was a fictional account set during the retreat from Mons, of how phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt were summoned to destroy the German host. Because it was written in the first person, the story came to be regarded as a factual account of actual events. Machen made it clear that he had no wish to create a hoax. Unfortunately the story was embellished and re-published in other periodicals and magazines as a factual account.
The following year in April, the British Spiritualist Magazine published an article of how supernatural forces had stopped the Germans, allowing the British to evade encirclement. This supernatural force consisted of bowmen being led by St George, and a spearhead force of Angels. Not the nice ones with fluffy wings that visited Mary to tell her she was carrying the son of God, but kick-ass angels, veterans who had fought Lucifer and his cohorts. The stories were circulated at the same time as reports of actual and invented Hunnish atrocities, were coming out of Belgium. Inevitably, these stories became perceived wisdom and cited as proof that God was truly with the British, and maybe a bit with the French. The French didn’t need God, there were frequent reports of Joan of Arc rallying the chaps, and presumably beating the British-sponsored angels with the edge of her sword. Inevitably given the jingoism of the time and the penchant of spoiled little rich girls handing out white feathers, any questioning of these increasingly lurid tales became tantamount to treason.
But what of the soldiers who were actually there. Some men reported seeing phantom cavalrymen but not bowmen or angels. They were seen during the retreat and at no time intervened by attacking the Germans. It is possible that these sightings were the result of exhaustion, lack of sleep and dislocation of expectation. The stories became less important on the home front as the war dragged on to affect virtually every family in the country. It wasn’t angels who were going to defeat the Germans. It was going to have to be a numerically superior and well-trained military. The British left the Great War with the finest trained and equipped Armed Forces in the world.
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