Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Angel of Mons

Some state this story actually happened others state that it is just an English folktale or legend that has been passed down. Regardless, the following story is an excellent example of how humans use ghost stories to draw comfort. 

The Angel of Mons involves protective spirits that were seen by British troops during World War I in Mons, Belgium.

At the beginning of the war, the first clash between the British and Germans occurred in August of 1914, near the French frontier at a 60-foot- wide canal in Mons. The English had 70,000 troops but the Germans outnumbered them almost 2 to 1. 

In this fight known as the "Battle of the Frontiers," the Belgiums and French were fighting alongside the British, but these allies were all driven back to France.

Despite the Germans superior numbers, the British were able to inflict heavy losses using their rapid-fire rifles. But as the day wore on the commander of the British army realized that their position was untenable, so he ordered his men to withdraw to Paris as soon as possible. 

The British troops hastily retreated with the Germans pursuing them. It was at this point that something quite extraordinary happened according to eyewitness accounts.

Illustration by Alfred Pearse 1915
Many British soldiers reported seeing a “supernatural apparition in the sky.” This apparition was described as “three angel figures” that appeared to ward off the attacks by the Germans. 

These witnesses went on to state that that they would not have been able to successfully retreat if it had not been for the intervention of these angelic figures.

Very quickly the story of the Angel at Mons spread across England. Many articles were published about it, and Harold Begble, an author, published a book about the phenomenon. In his book he quoted a lance corporal that had witnessed these angels:

“I could see quite plainly in mid-air a strange light which seemed to be quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon, nor were there any clouds in the neighborhood. The light became brighter and I could see quite distinctly three shapes, one in the centre having what looked like outspread wings, the other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from the centre one. They appeared to have a long loose-hanging garment of a golden tint they were above the German line facing us.”

At the time of these reports, several skeptics came forward despite the numerous eyewitness accounts to disprove what these soldiers had seen. 

One fiction writer, in particular, Arthur Machen wrote a book entitled The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War. In it, Machen claimed that the Angel of Mons story was inspired by his writing. But his claim was debunked because there were references made to the Angel of Mons before his account was even published.

Many soldiers who witnessed the unusual event, responded to Machen’s claim by writing letters stating that they would swear on their honor that they had seen the Angels at Mons with their own eyes. Several of these letters were published at the time, so there is still a record of them.

Brigadier General John Charteris in a letter to his wife in early September of 1914 which was written two weeks before Machen’s book was published, stated:

“…then there is a story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong through the 2nd Corps, of how an angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress.”

Some discount his statement because John Charteris was known to be involved in propaganda activities during the war. As a result, skeptics at the time claimed that the Angel of Mons was a creation of British Intelligence. 

But this does not explain the passionate eyewitness accounts that came out after the retreat that day.

Some historians who have written about the Angel of Mons and World War I state that it is obviously a legend. They say if  these angels really appeared the Germans would have been so shaken up they would not have continued on. 

These historians support this belief by stating that just the opposite happened after the Battle of the Frontiers. 

They point to the fact that the German victory during this battle made them so confident that they swept across the Belgium countryside conquering everything in their path on their way into Northern France. While the British allies scrambled to rally their defenses. 

This is all true, but I am not sure how this proves the Angel of Mons is just a myth. There are still the eyewitnesses accounts that state this divine intervention saved British lives that day. 

What is known for sure is this story did help bolster the British spirit at the time. Eyewitness accounts seem to belie that it was just a legend that was spread. What these historians all leave out is that a group of German soldiers, prisoners at the time, also described seeing:

“a force of phantoms armed with bow and arrows and led by a towering figure on a shining white horse who spurred on the English forces during the assault on German trenches.”

Some skeptics claim that no eyewitnesses to the Angel of Mons were ever found—this is not true because there are many eyewitness accounts written down about what the soldiers saw in August of 1914. 

Many of these accounts were cited in newspapers, magazines, and books. Artists used them to paint their own versions of the Angel of Mons.

Here is just one of the eyewitness accounts I have read--A grandson who told how his grandfather, a veteran of WWI, had been a hard drinker up until that day at Mons when he saw the angel. 

This experience so altered his grandfather that he returned from the war a reformed man. He became a teetotaler and a pillar of his community.

One distinguished historian who believed the Angel of Mons story was A. J. P. Taylor. He believed the story because of the numerous accounts. 

But today, despite these soldier accounts that told how their lives had been saved-- this story is considered just a legend. This is surprising since many people universally believe that a divine power intercedes in their lives--then why not during this battle?

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