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Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Angels of Mons

Bumped up to put it over the less relevant zombie posts below. -Carnacki In keeping with Armistice/Remembrance/Veterans' Day, I thought I'd pass along a few articles looking at perhaps the most famous supernatural event of the First World War, the Angels of Mons. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here's the background... In those initial days of August 1914, Schleiffen's plan of attack called for a massive force to swing across the neutral Belgian frontier like an arm, then form a right hook down the coast, smashing their way into France with overwhelming force: shock and awe, late-19th-century style. The British Expeditionary Force landed in Belgium just in time to blunt the tip of this German hook aimed at Paris and the French heartland. Outnumbering the British 3:2 (six divisions to the BEF's 4), the Germans had every reason to expect success. Except for one little detail: the British troops themselves. John Keegan's classic history, The First World War describes why the Germans were so wrong:

The BEF was equal to the task. Alone among those of Europe, the British army was an all-regular force, composed of professional soldiers whom the small wars of empire had hardened to the realities of combat. Many of them had fought in the Boer War fifteen years earlier, against skilled marksmen who entrenched to defend their positions, and they had learnt from them the power of the magazine-rifle and the necessity of digging deep to escape its effects. [...] Ordered to hold the Mons-Condé Canal, they began to dig at once and by the morning of 23 August were firmly entrenched along its length. The Germans [...] were unprepared for the storm of fire that would sweep their ranks. "The dominating German impression was of facing an invisible enemy"
(The First World War, John Keegan, 1998 - p.98 (Vintage paperback edition)) The BEF inflicted approximately four times as many casualties as they incurred, 5,000 or more Germans lost to 1,600 British. They stopped the German advance cold (momentarily: they were ordered to fall back in retreat the next day). It is then perhaps unsurprising that shortly after this battle stories of a supernatural host fighting on the side of the British started circulating:
In his book ANGELS A TO Z Matthew Bunson recounts, 'One of the most famous episodes of angelic intervention, [was] the supposedly widely reported descent of an angelic army in August 1914, which came to the aid of the British forces against the Germans in Mons. . . The angelic host's assistance could not have come at a more propitious moment as the British were being driven back by the relentless German advance." Bunson also relates one version supposedly corroborated by German prisoners describing a force of phantoms armed with bows and arrows and led by a towering figure on a shining white horse who spurred on English forces during an assault on German trenches. Another story spoke of three angelic beings seen by the British, hovering in the air over German lines, providing a source of deep inspiration for them. Aside from these beings, Bunson states that soldiers later claimed to have seen St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc.
Divine intervention? Mass hallucination? Wishful thinking? Part of an English tradition of divine visions during and following combat? Or perhaps it was the collective psyche of wartime Britain absorbing and holding dear the suggestion of a piece of spiritualist fiction? For, a month after Mons, Arthur Machen published "The Bowmen", a short story in which a ghostly host of English longbowmen resurrected from Agincourt and led by St. George wreak invisible havoc on a German force much larger than the defending British. I leave it to you to decide - a more all-in-one approach to the legend can be found here, while another website breaks it out into an introduction, Machen's story, and Machen's explanation of the origins of the story. Oh, and one interesting aside (mentioned in the first link on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote an account of Mons as part of his six-volume history of the campaigns in Flanders and France. I personally find it interesting that someone so interested in spiritualism and the occult never mentioned anything of the sort.


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