Angels Ever Bright and Fair
A short story written in the earliest days of the First World War became an enduring symbol of British providence.
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought its first battle in western Europe since Waterloo on 23 August 1914. Under the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans entered Belgium and aimed to advance towards France and on to the French capital. On 22 August, the British entered Belgium, where men of the BEF lined the canal between Obourg and Conde against 3 Corps of the superior German army under General Alexander von Kluck. The following day, the British inflicted mass casualties with machine guns and superior rifles but were ultimately unable to hold off the German advance. By the end of the day, the BEF had lost over 1,500 men at Mons. Once the French had begun to fall back, they could hold the line no longer and so the ‘Great Retreat’ began. This led to the battle of Le Cateau on 26 August and, eventually, the Battle of the Marne (6-12 September 1914), alongside the French. There, British and French troops succeeded in preventing the Germans advancing on Paris, drove them back and put a stop to the Schlieffen Plan. In Britain, news of the retreat had reached the public. It was not the news that those back home had been hoping for.
In the reports and stories that followed the battle a myth arose: the ‘Angels of Mons’, heavenly beings, who appeared before the men and guided them as they retreated. The myth has its roots in a story by the author Arthur Machen, first published in the London Evening News on 29 September 1914. ‘The Bowman’ describes British troops seeing in the distance ‘a long line of shapes with a shining about them’, who then fired arrows ‘through the air towards the German hosts’. The story concludes that these apparitions were from St George, who had sent ‘his Agincourt Bowman to help the English’. The story was written by Machen, supposedly after reading reports of the BEF’s first battle in Belgium, to create a sense of patriotism, pride and hope within the British public. The story captured the hearts of the public and spiritual magazines, such as The Occult Review, were so taken with the tale, often choosing to believe that it was based in truth, that Machen had to make clear that it was a fictional story.
The tale persisted and was published, alongside more writings by Machen, in a 1915 book, The Bowman and Other Legends of War. In its introduction, Machen wrote that he had created the story and that there was no truth to it.
Despite the clarification, the myth had taken hold. Machen’s shining bowmen had been reinterpreted to take the form of angels. This new version was useful propaganda, printed in newsletters, by churches and religious groups and recited in sermons and in pamphlets, including one titled The Real Angel of Mons. Written by Reverend A.A. Boddy, a clergyman with the Church of England and a descendent of John Wesley, the pamphlet was used by the War Office as a boost for public morale and war propaganda. Boddy had visited the battlefields of France in 1915 to pray with the troops. He believed that the story was to some extent true and that the horrors of war had given men a stronger faith in higher powers, making them more susceptible to these beings. For many readers, both the stories of bowmen and angels went some way to show that the BEF and the British people were being guided by faith and that divine intervention had turned the tide of war in their favour.
Newspapers began to report eyewitness accounts of these apparitions. A British nurse, volunteering in France, reported and later wrote a book of stories she had been told by soldiers who had been at Mons, including accounts of men with visions of St George. Off the back of these accounts, the author Harold Begbie wrote On the Side of the Angels, which suggested that Machen was falsely claiming that his story was fictitious and that men had indeed witnessed such visions at Mons. Machen’s original story became intertwined with the increasing number of ‘true’ accounts of angels and heavenly beings on the battlefield, the ever-turning propaganda machine and the personal need of both the troops and the British public to believe in greater powers during the bleak days of conflict. Machen’s original story may have been forgotten, but it inspired hope and patriotism on a scale that he could not have anticipated.
The creation of tales of heavenly beings and of greater powers descending to earth to aid and to guide the worthy in battle was not new and many myths have formed during battle, including the presence of St George at the Battle of Agincourt.
Nor was ‘The Angels of Mons’ the only myth to come out of the First World War. There were those who spoke of seeing Christ in No Man’s Land – ‘The White Comrade’, as he came to be known – or King Arthur leading troops into battle. And it was not only the British who succumbed to such stories. In France, Joan of Arc and St Michael played similar roles of national providence and redemption, while the presence of the Virgin Mary was often cited by Russian Tsarist troops.
Myths and legends arise at times of national crisis and persist in folk memory. ‘The Angels of Mons’ is now associated with remembrance and commemorating the lives of those who died in the First World War.
Maria Ogborn is completing an MA in Military History at the University of Birmingham.