- Angels of Mons
- During 1915, there were strong rumours that British and French troops had been miraculously protected from the Germans during their retreat from Mons late in August 1914. The earliest allusions are in letters written by Brigadier-General John Charteris on 5 September 1914 and 11 February 1915, though only published in 1931: [5 September 1914] 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 imaginations play weird pranks in these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.[11 February 1915] I have been at some trouble to trace the rumour to its source. The best I can make of it is that some religiously minded man wrote home that the Germans halted at Mons, as if an Angel of the Lord had appeared in front of them. In due course the letter appeared in a Parish Magazine, which in time was sent back to some other men at the front. From them the story went back home with the 'as if' omitted, and at home it went the rounds in its expurgated form. [At GHQ (1931), 25-6, 75].During the spring and summer of 1915 the story flourished in the religious press, whether Spiritualist, Catholic, or Anglican, in parish magazines, and in sermons, before eventually reaching the national press. The accounts are given with heartfelt conviction, but none is a first-hand eyewitness report. The details vary considerably. In some versions there are only two or three angels, in others a whole troop; in some, they are visible to the British soldiers, in others only to the Germans; in some they merely deter the Germans from attacking, in others they actually kill large numbers of them; in some, there is an individual leader of the visionary host, described as a horseman in armour and identified by the English as St George and by the French as the Archangel Michael or as Joan of Arc; in some, 'a strange cloud' comes between the Germans and the British.Arthur Machen, a leader-writer on The Evening News, later maintained that these rumours had all grown out of a story he published in that paper on 29 September 1914, entitled 'The Bowmen'. This tells how an English soldier called on St George for help, and became aware of an army of medieval archers slaughtering the Germans with their arrows; he realizes they are the bowmen of Agincourt. As Brigadier-General Charteris's first letter shows, the legend was current three weeks before Machen's story, so his claim to be its originator cannot be accepted, though he may have genuinely believed he was. Moreover, there are no angels in his story, and no ghostly bowmen in the oral rumours. The latter are best explained as a *contemporary legend which satisfied religious and patriotic needs, and became a powerful and enduring part of the mythology of the Great War.■ Kevin McLure, Visions of Angels and Tales of Bowmen (Harrogate, 1996); John Harlow, The Sunday Times (26 Jan. 1997), 9.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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