Angel of Mons

David Clarke. The Angel of Mons. Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians. Wiley, 2004.

Mons was an important battle for several reasons. One of the earliest engagements in the Great War, it was also virtually the last battle of movement in that conflict, now seen as an archetypally static and destructive contest. Mons also proved the virtue of the British Army’s insistence on musketry training: so disciplined, rapid and accurate was the BEF’s rifle marksmanship (these were all professional soldiers) that the advancing Germans were convinced they were facing massive machine-gun fire. Technically, the British lost the fight. In practical and propaganda terms, Mons was a victory, because it halted the German advance. Finally, the battle featured, certainly in hindsight and just possibly at the time, curious sights and visions that were taken to be angels acting in support of the retreating BEF.

It is scarcely news that fighting for one’s life may have bizarre psychological side-effects. One well-known result of adrenaline and endorphin ‘dumps’ into the bloodstream is the subjective slowing-down of time. In one of his Lethal Force Institute lectures, Mas Ayoob cites several cases of policemen having out-of-the-body experiences in the midst of a fire-fight. Their consciousness seemed to gain altitude, so that they found themselves looking down at themselves, in the midst of mayhem, from above. There is a whole literature on the effects of combat on memory, which in some individuals under stress may intensify radically, and in others simply not function at all.

As in debates on firearms, so it is in the history of warfare (whether on a battlefield, or in the street). Folklore may reflect and report actual facts, or it may distort them. Dubbed by some academics ‘unofficial history’, the base material of folk stories is neither necessarily true nor necessarily untrue. The narratives tend to dramatize emotions rather than be forensically picky as to facts. One of the many strengths of Dr Clarke’s book is the way he traces how what may have been partly a battlefield rumour and partly a series of false if honestly recalled memories, was turned to advantage by the Allies’ psychological warfare experts, to raise and maintain morale during the darkest days of the war.

The standard paranormalist version of events is that advancing German troops were stopped dead in their tracks at Mons by ghostly reinforcements of the British and French armies. In the former case, these spooky interventionists were variously knights on horseback (identified as St George), bowmen (spirits from Agincourt), or angels. The French were aided by St Jeanne d’Arc and her ethereal echelons.

The standard rationalist view is that these tales were back-formations from a hugely popular story by journalist Arthur Machen, titled ‘The Bowmen’, and published well after the battle at Mons. Machen himself believed that this was what had happened. Some soldiers may have incorporated Machen’s fiction into their own memories of the battle and its aftermath, while in other cases the published story helped to generate a folk legend that was always told second- or third-hand, and in which the participants were always a friend of a friend. Even more significantly, the legend of the angels did not begin to circulate until the following year, when the war was not going well for the British; and then angel-lore soon became a veritable industry.

One initial difficulty with the debunkers’ version is the appearance of Joan of Arc among the French - who had not read Machen’s story; and no equivalent literary effort in French has turned up. Similarly, there was a Russian version of the Mons legend, in which the Virgin Mary appeared at the battle of Augustovo in September 1914. Dr Clarke notes, however, the long history of ‘divine’, saintly, and ghostly interventions to assist the imperilled on battlefields. In view of that venerable tradition, Machen’s story may be said to have been a catalyst. Among the British, at least, it both tapped into an existing stream of the folk imagination and gave it new, concrete life. A key ingredient in its success was the lack of direct reportage from the front line - the British public had little idea, but a desperate wish to know, of how the war in France was going.

As noted, the tale of the angels of Mons answered an emotional need, as well as a thirst for facts, and was subtly encouraged by the authorities for that reason. Certainly no senior soldier or civil servant strove officiously to deny it. Yet not everyone accepted it unthinkingly. As with all ‘unofficial history’, it generated a massive dispute, and there was a vigorous and outspoken opposition led by Machen, to taking the story at face value. The debunkers seem to have had little impact at the time.

Did anyone see anything remotely angelic, really? Clarke’s research has been prodigious, and shows how the accounts of bowmen, gallant knights and other visionary wraiths slowly rendered themselves down to tales of angels alone. The best candidates for paranormal entities of any kind appear to be a few radically misinterpreted odd lights in the sky, either from stars or atmospheric effects such as the Aurora borealis. No first-hand witnesses have ever been found: no veteran of the battles of 1914 has ever claimed to have seen the ‘angels’ with his own eyes. Soldiers did report strange experiences, but these are recognizably the result of extreme exhaustion. The great value of this book is that it shows how a combination of actual events (the battle, and a piece of popular fiction), propagandaganda, and existing folklore can combine to create a fresh ‘truth’. Compare the way the press, police and government handle (or create stories about the use and misuse of firearms, and their appliance of folklore and propaganda.

Highly recommended for these reasons, and to anyone with an interest in the weirder byways of military history. -- Reviewed by Peter Brookesmith.


Jan Theuninck Art said...

Fortunately the Angels of Ypres got lead in the wings (Lapidarium, Cathedral, Ypres)

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.