ANGELS TO THE RESCUE
At the outset of World War One, the British Expeditionary Force was pinned down near the French/Belgian border town of Mons, whereupon something quite inexplicable is reported to have taken place. Kevin McClure reinvestigates contradictory rumors of divine intervention.
Debunking is a pretty merciless process. It is seldom that, once debunked, an account of a supposedly paranormal event will ever again achieve credibility.
In the vast majority of cases, this is no loss. I have helped dispatch a number of claims of the extraordinary, and I'm happy to have done so. Much of what is claimed and reported has no substance at all, and we can well do without it.
Occasionally though, something of value and significance risks being trampled in the rush to purge what seems unacceptable. This can occur where a rational explanation easily deals with a number of the elements of a complex investigation, but not necessarily with all the elements. The reports arising from alleged events during the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons in 1914 constitute just such a complex and confusing case. Resoundingly debunked since the summer of 1915 onwards, it is time to reconsider these reports. I think that an injustice has been done, though the details of that injustice remain difficult to define.
The Mons legends have always fascinated me. They bring together several of my own areas of interest: the Great War, religious visions, divine intervention, folklore, the writer Arthur Machen and the role the paranormal plays in the lives of people -- and nations -- under great stress. I've been gathering material on the subject for more than 10 years, but have only recently had the opportunity to bring it all together.
Many will be aware of reports that Saint George and the Agincourt bowmen -- or maybe some angels, or possibly both -- came between the British and German forces, halting the German advance long enough for an organized withdrawal and regrouping to take place. Many, too, will have read that the reports were all a myth, arising entirely from the retelling - Chinese Whispers style -- of a short story by Arthur Machen entitled "The Bowmen," first published in the London Evening Standard on 29 September 1914. It's an explanation Machen himself originated in the summer of 1915. It was probably misleading then, and has been ever since.
If anything wonderful happened, then it happened in the last days of August 1914, as superior German forces pushed a tired, but heroic, BEF back through France from the Belgian border. I must stress that no contemporary history of the war mentions any visionary event of any kind, the earliest account from a named military source being published in 1931, though apparently taken from letters written at the time. Certainly, when Machen's exquisite little story of a beleaguered British soldier invoking Saint George, and the saint arriving with a host of bowmen to drive back the Germans, first appeared in print, the public had read nothing of any claim of divine intervention. Few, though, doubted that we had 'God on our Side.'
When 'The Bowmen' was first published, the two leading paranormal journals of the time, Light and the Occult Review, both reported on its content and both inquired of Maclien whether there was any truth in the tale. He replied that there was not, and both reported back to their readership accordingly. By the end of October 1914, it seemed that the matter had been forgotten.
One of the intriguing mysteries of the Mons legends is what happened next. After a full six months without tales of bowmen, or anything else, an account appeared in Light for 24 April 1915 under the title "The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front." This refers back to Machen's story and continues in part:
"A few days ago, we received a visit from a military officer, who asked to see the issue of Light containing the article in question. He explained that, whether Mr. Machen's story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons. It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British. Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy."
"They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy a whole troop of angels."
Early in May, a fuller version of a similar account turned up in the All Saints, Clifton, Parish Magazine. This both inquired of Maclien whether there was any truth in what was quoted in papers and magazines all over the country, attracting attention from the national press and also from senior churchmen wanting to present patriotic material in their sermons. It seems that the editor of the Parish Magazine had met the daughter of one Canon Marrable, who relayed to him what she had been told by "...two officers, both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during the retreat from Mons.
They expected annihilation, as they were almost helpless, when to their amazement they stood like dazed men, never so much as touched their guns: nor stirred till we had turned round and escaped by some crossroads. One of Miss Marrable's friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has, it was stated in some quarters been a changed man ever since. The other had been witnessed by sever man she met in London.
She asked him if he had heard the wonderful stories of angels. He said he had seen them himself, and under the following circumstances:
"While he and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them. They saw a place where they thought a stand might be made, with sure hope of safety; but before they could reach it, the German cavalry were upon them. They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels. The German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded. The men tugged at their bridles, while the poor beasts tore away in every direction from our men."
In the meantime, stories featuring bowmen were also appearing, the first in, of all places, the Roman Catholic paper The Universe for 30 April 1915: "The story is told by a Catholic officer in a letter from the front, and is told with a simplicity which shows the narrator's own conviction of its genuiness... "A party of about thirty men was cut off in a trench, when the officer said to his men, 'Look here, we must either stay here and be caught like rats in a trap, or make a sortie against the enemy. We haven't much of a chance but personally I don't want to be caught here.' The men all agreed with him, and with a yell of 'St. George for England' they dashed out into the open. The officer tells how, as they ran on, he became aware of a large company of men with bows and arrows going along with them, and even leading them on against the enemy's trenches, and afterwards when he was talking to a German prisoner, the man asked him who was the officer on a great white horse who led them, for although he was such a conspicuous figure, they had none of them been able to hit him. I must also add that the German dead appeared to have no wounds on them. The officer who told the story (adds the writer of the letter) was a friend of ours. He did not see St. George on the white horse, but he saw the archers with his own eyes."
And so it went on through the summer and autumn on 1915. Many accounts were published, though some were deliberately fraudulent, and at no time was an account by any named individual proved true. Arthur Machen wrote some more delightful stories along the lines of 'The Bowmen,' with a long introduction explaining that all the accounts derived from his own story, and the resulting book sold remarkably well. Other writers backed the reality of some or all of the legends and one, 'The Showmen,' even parodies the whole affair. Phyllis Campbell, apparently a front-line nurse, mixed some of the legends in with the 'atrocity mythos' that prevailed at the time, recounting the acts of the ghastly Hun in gut-wrenching detail, but providing no evidence for either the paranormal or the psychopathic. The Mons Legends achieved wide publicity and great popularity.
This annotated version was taken from the "Fortean Times."