“‘Heaven’s Knight, aid us!’
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.”
ARTHUR MACHEN ‘The Bowmen’ pub. 29th Sept 1914
The British Expeditionary Force, the BEF, had its first major encounter with the German Army, the ‘Deutsches Heer’, near Mons in Belgium on the 22nd/23rd of August 1914. Although they were heavily outnumbered the British troops were able to hold the Germans back for about 24 hours until eventually forced into a rapid retreat. Following this sobering experience the British public began to realise that defeating Germany was not going to be as easy as they first thought.
On the 29th September 1914, a short story, “The Bowmen”, by Welsh writer Arthur Machen appeared in the “Evening News”, inspired by the events at Mons. It tells of how at the moment of the BEF’s greatest peril a British soldier called upon St. George, ‘Heaven’s Knight’, for divine help. It came in the form of ghostly bowmen summoned from their graves at Agincourt. These spectral archers were able to stop the German Army’s relentless advance towards Paris until the BEF had a chance to make a strategic withdrawal. Unfortunately this story, written as actuality in the first person, and never clearly identified as a work of fiction, became accepted as a true account of the battle.
A few months later Machen began to receive requests from the editors of various parish magazines asking if they might reprint the story. One vicar asked if Machen could add a short preface giving sources for his account. Machen replied that there weren’t any sources because the story was a fiction. The priest insisted that Machen must be mistaken as the “facts” of the divine intervention must be true. Machen later wrote…
“It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that… I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. The snowball of rumour that has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”
Arthur Machen, Introduction to ‘The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War’
Encouraged by the popularity of the “Bowmen” story accounts of other supernatural visitations began to surface. Joan of Arc was seen guarding the French trenches. German soldiers reported that ghostly white horses had charged their lines and their fallen had died from arrow wounds. Machen’s original description of the Bowmen as “a long line of shapes, with a shining about them” soon evolved into the myth that angels had been sent by God to protect the British in a blessed crusade against the heathen Germans.
It is worth noting that at the same time the British were claiming that God was on their side German soldiers were also carrying the motto ‘Gott Mitt Uns’ (“God Is With Us”) on their belt buckles.
Over time the story of celestial beings holding back the German line at Mons became woven into the true history of World War 1. Although Machen himself tried to put the record straight the tale continued to reappear. In 1915, after a detailed examination of so-called eyewitness accounts, the Society for Psychical Research, usually keen supporters of the supernatural, said the story had no basis in fact…
“We have received nothing that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon. The stories relating to battlefield “visions” which circulated during the spring and summer of 1915, prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.”
At a time when public belief in the ‘Angels of Mons’ story was being bolstered by popular songs and poems any denial of the event was seen as treasonous. Questions about lack of proper evidence were quickly rebuffed by so-called ‘official claims’ that sources could not be revealed ‘for security reasons’.
More recently reseachers have taken a fresh look at the myth of the Angels of Mons. Some say that the visions - if they did occur - were no more than the hallucinations of exhausted and frightened soldiers who hadn’t slept for days. In his 2005 book ‘The Angels of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians’, David Clarke, a lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, suggested that the whole thing was a propaganda exercise cooked up by the British to boost public morale depressed by the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’, Zeppelin attacks at home and stalemate on the Western front. As it probably came from the same team that dreamed up such persistent anti German disinformation as the crucifixion of Canadian soldiers at Ypres and the grisly “Corpse-Rendering Works” (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) it all seems highly likely.
FOOTNOTE - THE CONTEMPTIBLE ARMY
The British Expeditionary Force are popularly known as “The Old Contemptibles”. The term is thought to originate from a mistranslation of a letter from the Kaiser, Wilhelm 11, to the commander of the German First Army Alexander von Kluck, in which he supposedly wrote: “It is my Royal and Imperial command that you concentrate your energies for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate the treacherous English, and walk over Sir John French’s contemptibly small army.” No evidence of any such order being issued by the Kaiser has ever been found. It has been suggested that it is probably yet another British propaganda invention now repeated as fact….sound familiar?
The Old Contemptibles were equally dismissive of Alexander von Kluck as evidenced by a popular ditty of the time…
"Kaiser Bill is feeling ill, The Crown Prince, he's gone barmy. We don't give a f--- for old von Kluck And all his bl--ding army."
– from Martyn Day