In any major crisis, many crave some sign of God’s favor. When that crisis is a war against a powerful foe, any story of a dramatic omen, or of a seemingly miraculous victory, will be embraced with enthusiasm. The prospect of supernatural aid seems like a guarantee of victory. In August 1914, the British welcomed the most famous story of this kind for the First World War, the Angel of Mons and its variants.
The Battle of Mons was one episode in the broader campaign known as the Battle of the Frontiers. Germany activated the Schlieffen Plan, as modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, in an effort to knock France out of the war before the Russians were able to bring their superior numbers to bear against Germany’s eastern borders. In order to bypass the concentration of French forces along the German border, the bulk of the German army was to pass through Belgium. Belgium resisted, slowing the German timetable at a crucial phase of the plan; British and French forces were sent north to aid the Belgians even as the Germans pressed south toward Paris.
In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) consisted of two corps under the command of Sir John French. The BEF was originally deployed to the French border with Belgium near Maubeuge; in the hope of executing a counterthrust, the BEF advanced to Mons on the Belgian side of the border on August 22. Growing pressure on the French Fifth Army turned this into a defensive effort, with the BEF holding Mons for one day while Fifth Army extracted itself from its perilous position.
On August 23, the German First Army under General Alexander von Kluck made first contact with British forces. This contact was unexpected, and German fortunes suffered as a result of disorganized engagements. Moreover, the professional soldiers of the original BEF were skilled marksmen, firing rapidly and with great accuracy. The battle went well for the British through the afternoon, as the BEF bogged down the German advance while suffering only limited casualties.
Success in one measure can pose challenges in another. Strategically, slowing the German advance gave the French time to muster forces for the defense of Paris. Tactically, however, the delay gave the Germans time to bring their artillery forward, and it was German gunnery that exerted greater pressure on the British position later in the day. II Corps bore the brunt of this punishment, and it undertook a limited and orderly retreat to a more secure position.
By evening, however, the French allies were in trouble. Fifth Army, for whose benefit the British had advanced to Mons in the first place, was driven to retreat, and the British subsequently faced the prospect of being outflanked. Both corps in the BEF undertook a retreat this time, their efforts complicated by rain and the twelve miles between them. A retreat is always a dangerous operation, and in this instance, the BEF had just one division of cavalry to mask it.
It is in this phase of the battle, with the rain and the dark and the disorientation of fatigue, that some soldiers are said to have seen a bright light between them and the German forces advancing in their wake. It is not clear who claimed to have seen anything, or whether any reports can be demonstrated before the story seized the popular imagination in Britain. It was maintained by some later that this light came from an angel that kept the Germans at bay while the British retreated.
A British author of supernatural fiction named Arthur Machen inadvertently created the home front legend quite independently of anything that might have occurred in the battle. Machen, known for macabre tales like “The Great God Pan” and “The White People,” was understandably inspired by the reports of Mons that he read in the newspapers, and drew from this event to create a work of fiction. It should be noted at this point that neither the bright light nor the prospect of supernatural aid was part of the report that Machen read, at least as far as Machen was later able to recall. Rather, it was the human drama that appealed to him, between the remarkable achievements of the BEF in withstanding the German attack and the adversity of the retreat. It was in Machen’s nature as a writer to draw upon those elements and then to invent a supernatural component to accompany them and to give them new meaning.
His first effort miscarried. He set it aside, and in much modified form, it later appeared as “The Soldiers’ Rest.” An alternative soon occurred to him, however, and the result was a tale entitled “The Bowmen.” It concerned a thinly-disguised variation on the fighting at Mons and the retreat that punctuated it. In the story, one of the British soldiers calls upon St. George for aid, and soon, St. George appears at the battle with a company of Welsh longbowmen from the battle of Agincourt. These spirits carry on the task of slaughtering Germans, with a result that effectively doubled the real German losses at Mons. (In reality, the Germans lost about 5000 men at Mons; in the story, it is ten thousand.)
In his subsequent writing, Machen is almost apologetic in his tone concerning “The Bowmen.” Certainly, he had set aside an idea that he had liked better, but which he could not make work, and wrote instead a simpler tale with a decidedly more “crowd-pleasing” tone. Perhaps he was caught up in some of that patriotic zeal himself, and after that moment passed, its naivete embarrassed him. Most of all, however, he seems to have been mortified by the persistent belief that his fiction was simple fact.
“The Bowmen” saw print on September 29, 1914. Almost immediately, Machen began to hear from Britons who took the story for the truth. At first, this came from the British occult community through the form of The Occult Review, but soon the base of people that contacted him expanded well beyond this group. In every case, Machen tried to make clear that the story was fiction alone, and that he had not even been aware of any rumors of supernatural aid when he wrote the story, but his pleas had no effect. By April of 1915, the story was accepted as truth by large portions of the British public, and alternative versions of his story gained common currency, in many cases preserving specific details from his fictional tale.
The legend soon grew past any possibility of setting the record straight. Much like modern urban legends, reports were published citing anonymous witnesses; the weight of repetition gave the impression of incontrovertible fact without adding a single verifiable account. Along the way, the explanation was transformed from a group of ghosts led by a saint to a group of angels. Machen’s own opinion was that this was the result of England’s predominantly Protestant culture. Angels were easier to accept than ghosts or saints, even so “English” a saint as Saint George, and so the legend shifted to accommodate the expectations of its audience.
For all of his efforts to debunk the story, however, it is conceivable that Machen shares a substantial responsibility for the spread of the legend. In a 2003 collection of Machen’s work, editor S.T. Joshi observed that Machen had published the story in a newspaper. While it is true that newspapers of the time could include fiction, as magazines may do even today, it was written in a style that could easily be mistaken for nonfiction. Much like Orson Welles and his radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, Arthur Machen may have tried to toy with the boundaries of fact and fiction, and found that the result escalated well beyond his control.
Whatever the truth of Machen’s intentions, it is clear that this mediocre story contributed materially to the perception of reality on the British home front, and as such is at least a footnote in the history of the First World War. History is full of such footnotes; writers of fiction often shape popular perceptions or anticipate future events. Perceptive readers of “The Bowmen” will find an example of such anticipation, as well. In the last paragraph of this story, German commanders attribute the deaths of unwounded soldiers to poison gas delivered by artillery. It is an interesting point inasmuch as poison gas was not used until 1915, and even then it took some further experimentation before it was delivered by artillery barrage.
Belanger, Jeff. Ghosts of War: Restless Spirits of Soldiers, Spies and Saboteurs. Career Press, 2006
Joshi, S.T. ed. The White People and Other Stories: Vol. 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen. Chaosium, 2003
Neiberg, Michael S. The History of World War I: The Western Front 1914-1916. Amber, 2012
Simkins, Peter. The First World War (2): The Western Front 1914-1916. Osprey, 2002
Winter, Jay et al. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. Penguin Studio, 1996
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