The story of the Angels of Mons is probably the most famous ghostly legend from the First World War. It holds all the ingredients necessary to create a fantastic supernatural tale – but the question that has haunted sceptics and believers alike is whether or not there is any substance to it. At face value, it’s a story of divine intervention at a time when it was most needed. However, even supporters of the tale are open to the idea that the events could be simply fiction or even a myth created after the event, in a bid to justify parts of the Great War. We take a look at the facts and fallacies behind this tale.
A miraculous escape
In August of 1914, the first major engagement between the British Expeditionary Force and the German army took place at the Battle of Mons in Belgium. The British were severely outnumbered, but held the German forces back, despite suffering heavy casualties. Astonishingly, the British were not only able to hold their ground but, even though they were outflanked, were able to send the Germans into retreat; nothing short of a miracle.
Within weeks, this action was being hailed as miraculous. Reports coming out from the field told of a vision of St George and a legion of phantom bowmen, who stopped the Kaiser’s troops in their tracks. Other tales tell of a host of angels who threw a protective curtain around the British, saving them from disaster. Scant days after the Battle of Mons, the stories were treated as fact and expressing any scepticism was widely considered to be unpatriotic and even treasonable.
A press cutting, published in the Clifton Parish Magazine around 1918, details a ‘Miss M’, who spoke to a number of former soldiers who had been present at the battle. She asked one soldier 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 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.”
However, there were claims, after the event, that the Angels of Mons was little more than propaganda. Indeed, after the story hit the headlines conscription numbers rocketed.
The Gothic Horror writer, Arthur Machen, maintained until his death that the Angels of Mons was nothing but fiction. He claimed that it was inspired by his short story, The Bowmen, which was published in the September of 1914 – shortly after the battle took place. The Bowmen was published in The Evening News – a well-known London newspaper at that time. In fact, Machen had written a number of stories and articles for that paper. This particular story was apparently inspired by the desperate events at Mons, and in his tale a soldier called out to St George and was answered with a host of phantom bowmen, who saw off the enemy with a hail of arrows.
However, this story wasn’t placed in the anticipated ‘Our Story’ section; that was occupied by another tale from another author. Instead, it was placed amongst the news articles. Given that the story was written from a first-person perspective, it would have been all too easy to assume that it was a report or interview direct from the front line.
Weeks later, Machen was contacted by a number of Parish magazines, asking for permission to reprint his work and asking for the sources of his facts. Machen replied that there were no sources as the piece was a work of fiction, to which one priest replied that Machen must be mistaken, the facts must be true and suggested that Machen had simply elaborated on a factual account. Machen later said that: “It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and then it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, sometime in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, ‘til it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”
The beginning and end of the Angels of Mons
That snowball has indeed continued growing – well into the 21st Century. In 2001, it was reported that Marlon Brando, working in partnership with director, Tony Kaye, had paid out £350,000 for some black and white footage that showed the image of an angel. The pair determined to make a Hollywood film about the Angels of Mons.
This footage had been discovered by author Danny Sullivan, in an antique shop in South Wales, along with other military memorabilia – including a journal written by one William Doidge, who fought at the Battle of Mons. Although Sullivan didn’t look at the footage for a number of years, he read the journal, which detailed Doidge’s experiences in the battle including seeing the angels. In addition, there was a romantic twist in which Doidge, who had fallen in love with a Belgian girl at the time, had lost contact with his lover and devoted the rest of his life to finding the angels in the hope that they would reunite him with Marie.
In 2002, after The Sun newspaper had printed this story, Radio 4 sent one of their reporters, Chris Morris, to begin research for a documentary. He went to meet the owner of the antique shop, Mark Kurzik, to ask if he could see the footage. Kurzik suggested they meet Danny Sullivan in a local pub and it was there that the two revealed that the whole thing was nothing more than an elaborate hoax, designed to draw attention to Sullivan’s books and Kurzik’s shop.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Angels of Mons are little more than the first example of an urban myth – but possibly one of the most long-lived.