In the opening days of the First World War between 22–23 August 1914, the professional soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fought what today would be called an encounter battle with the German Imperial Army in the coal mining area of Mons in Belgium. Though heavily outnumbered they halted the German advance but suffered casualties and as more German troops outflanked the position they were forced to withdraw the next day.
The battle was the first indication to the British public had that the war would not be “over by Christmas” and defeating the mass armies and industrialised power of Germany would be long and costly. Considering the numbers of German forces that were involved in the battle, the British ability to hold them off for as long as they did seemed remarkable and as the papers reported the news at home recruits hurried to join the army to fight in what was seen as a just war against an aggressive Germany that had violated Belgian neutrality.
The sense that the British were engaged in a war sanctioned by divine or supernatural forces was accidentally fostered by a patriotic short storey written Arthur Machen. Machen had already published an accurate account Mons, but this one in a reportage style described how phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt had come to the support of the BEF. In Britain rumours, mass hysteria and urban legend, claimed visions after the battle and also possibly deliberately seeded propaganda saw the bowmen morph into a group of angels. Illustrations showing brave but battered British soldiers with angelic support in the skies above appeared in popular magazines. Machen went to considerable lengths to discredit the Agincourt bowmen story but this seemed to enhance its credibility.
Writing in the introduction to his book The Bowmen Machen explained how the Vicar of an English parish asked if he could re-publish to story.
“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 if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, some time in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”
The nearest the story of the Angels of Mons comes to reality was reports by some of the men of the BEF as they withdrew from Mons they saw phantom cavalry. However unlike the “bowmen” these horsemen did not go into action against the Germans and were clearly product of hallucinating exhausted minds.
Here is a report from a newspaper of the time - fascinating to read after all this time.