This past week was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Machen (3 March 1863 – 15 December 1947). He is celebrated for his novella The Great God Pan and his other fantasy and horror stories such as “The White People,” but in paranormal circles he is known for his role in the controversy over the so-called Angels at Mons, the visions of angels and St. George seen protecting British troops from the Germans as the soldiers retreated after the Battle of Mons in late August of 1914.
On 29 September 1914 Machen published his short story entitled “The Bowmen” in the London newspaper The Evening News, after reading accounts of the Battle and the retreat. The story, which was written in first-person, was not identified in the newspaper as fiction and Machen was soon besieged by requests for more information about the events. To his horror, he realized he had unwittingly abetted a hoax. In spite of his protests, which were seen as unpatriotic and undermining to morale, the case quickly became hopelessly tangled—with some persons claiming that they had spoken to eyewitnesses or had letters about angelic visions from participants prior to Machen’s story. Perhaps the best we can say is that the story of the angels is a twist on ostension: that is, where a legend is told, then the incidents in the story actually occur in real life—except that in this case, there is no real evidence that they did, but people thought that they did. [All straight? Glad we could clear that up….]
Despite Machen publishing an explanation of the facts (or rather, non-facts) of the case (and, rather endearingly, saying that he day-dreamed about the story in church and had been disappointed by how it came out), there was a keen desire to get to the bottom of the truth of the angel visitants. The following account tells of enquiries put in train almost immediately, and their result.
AN ENQUIRY CONCERNING ” THE ANGELS AT MONS.”
BY MRS. W. H. SALTER (H. DE G. VERRALL).
[In the following report the names of the various people concerned have usually been omitted or else they have been replaced by pseudonyms or initials. In one or two instances this has been done because correspondents asked that their names should be withheld, and in other cases the identity of the writer being a matter of no moment for the purpose we had in view, we have not asked permission to reveal it. We take this opportunity of thanking all those who have assisted us in our enquiry, and especially the Editor of “The All Saints’ Clifton Parish Magazine.” ED.]
VERY widespread interest has been aroused by the stories current during the past year of “visions” seen by British soldiers during the retreat from Mons. Many enquiries have reached us as to whether we have received any first-hand evidence of these visions, and it seems worthwhile to go into the question at some length, not only with a view to determining, so far as is possible, what is the truth of the matter, but also because the whole history of the case throws an interesting light on the value of human testimony and the growth of rumour. These points are of particular interest to those concerned in psychical research, because it is upon human testimony that their conclusions must to a great extent be founded.
The tide of rumour was at its height in May and June of this year, and of the reports which reached us about that time a large number can be directly traced to an article which first appeared in The All Saints’ Clifton Parish Magazine for May, 1915, and was there reprinted in July.
This article ran as follows :
Last Sunday I met Miss M., daughter of the well-known Canon M., and she told me she knew 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 cross-roads. One of Miss M.’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since. The other 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. This officer swore he saw the angels, which the horses saw plainly enough. This gave them time to reach the little fort, or whatever it was, and save themselves.
We received reports almost exactly identical with the above from several other sources. It is worth noting that these statements are ascribed to various authors, but taking into account the fact that, save for a word here and there, all the statements are verbally identical, we are justified in assuming that they all originate from one source, probably the All Saints’ Magazine.
In each case the story is told on the authority of Miss M., who is said to have known personally the officers concerned. Accordingly we wrote to Miss M. to ask whether she could corroborate these stories, and received the following reply:
May 28, 1915.
I cannot give you the names of the men referred to in your letter of May 26, as the story I heard was quite anonymous, and I do not know who they were.
It will be seen, therefore, that these reports, based on the authority of Miss M., break down at a crucial point. They prove to be no more than rumours which it is impossible to trace to their original source. There is also another suggestive point to note in this connexion.
The Vicar of All Saints’ Parish, Clifton, when he sent us the statement, which had appeared in his parish magazine and is printed above, sent with it another report, attributed to a certain Miss E. W., as follows :
A Hospital Nurse, who has been attending to a wounded British Soldier, said to him the other day: “Do you believe in God?”
He answered: “I do now, but I used not to. But ever since the Battle of Mons my opinions have changed.” Proceeding, he said: “We had a terrible time and at last a company of us was hemmed into a large chalk pit. We were quite powerless and heard the German cavalry approaching. Suddenly I looked up and encircling the top of the pit was a ring of shining Angels. As the cavalry rushed up the horses saw them and there was a general stampede. Our lives were saved and the Germans were put to confusion.”
Seven soldiers including officers saw the Angels. The soldier gave the names and addresses and the nurse wrote and had the story authenticated, one of the officers writing: “It’s all perfectly true, but it is too sacred to put in a paper, so it must not be published.” This story was told me by Miss [Leonard], of E.W.
We have also received through a member of the Society, Mrs. S., the following statement, which was sent to her by a friend:
A hospital Nurse who has been attending to a wounded British Soldier said to him the other day: “Do you believe in God? ” He answered: “I do now, but I used not to, but ever since the Battle of Mons my opinions have changed. We had a terrible time and at last a company of us was hemmed into a large chalk pit. We were quite powerless and heard the German cavalry approaching. Suddenly I looked up and encircling the top of the pit was a ring of shining Angels. As the Cavalry rushed up the horses saw them and there was a general stampede. Our lives were saved and the Germans put to confusion. Seven soldiers including an officer saw the Angels.”
The Soldier gave the names and addresses and the Nurse wrote to them and the story was authenticated; one of the officers writing says: “Its all perfectly true but it’s too sacred to put in a paper.” One of the officers was a friend of Miss M., Canon M.’s daughter; he was not a religious man before, but has been a changed man ever since.
If this last statement is compared with Miss E. W.’s report and the report in the All Saints’ Parish Magazine, it will be seen to be a combination of the two. The first paragraph and the first half of the second are verbally identical with Miss E. W.’s statement, but whereas Miss E. W. gives Miss Leonard as her authority, in the account sent by Mrs. S. Miss M. appears again as the source of the story.
One of the officers was a friend of Miss M., Canon M.’s daughter; he was not a religious man before, but has been a changed man ever since.
There can be little doubt that this sentence is from the same source as one which occurred in the All Saints’ Magazine: One of Miss M.’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since.
It has already been shown that Miss M. denies having any authority in this matter. As regards Miss Leonard, one of our members wrote to ask whether she could substantiate the story attributed to her. He was referred by Miss Leonard to another lady, to whom he also wrote; but so far he has received no reply.
One other piece of alleged evidence in support of the “Angels of Mons” may be briefly dismissed. In the Daily Mail for August 24, 1915, there appeared a communication from Mr. G. S. Hazlehurst stating that a certain Private Robert Cleaver, 1st Cheshire Regiment, had signed an affidavit in his presence to the effect that he “personally was at Mons and saw the Vision of Angels with [his] own eyes.” Speaking of his interview with Private Cleaver, Mr. Hazlehurst said:
When I saw Private Cleaver, who struck me as being a very sound, intelligent man, he at once volunteered his statement and had no objection to signing an affidavit before me that he had seen the Angels of Mons.
He said that things were at the blackest with our troops, and if it had not been for the supernatural intervention they would have been annihilated. The men were in retreat, and lying down behind small tufts of grass for cover. Suddenly the vision came between them and the German cavalry. He described it as a “flash “… The cavalry horses rushed in all directions and were disorganised.
In the Daily Mail for September 2, 1915, there appeared a further communication from Mr. Hazlehurst to the effect that in consequence of a rumour that Private Cleaver was not present at the battle of Mons, he had written to the head- quarters at Salisbury for information as to his movements, and received the following reply:
Records Office, Cheshire Regiment.
. . . (10515 R. Cleaver.) . . .
With regard to your enquiries concerning the above man, the following are the particulars concerning him. He mobilised at Chester on August 22, 1914. He was posted out to the 1st Battalion, Expeditionary Force, France, with a draft on September 6, 1914. He returned to England on December 14, sick.
Mr. Hazlehurst concludes:
The battle of Mons was in August, 1914, and readers will draw their own conclusions. Information sworn on oath is usually regarded as sufficiently trustworthy for publication, but apparently not in this case. . . .
So far, therefore, as concerns Private Cleaver and the other evidence which has been considered up to this point, the legend of the Angels at Mons remains insufficiently corroborated, and the suggestion has even been made that it owes its origin entirely to a story by Mr. Arthur Machen, called The Bowmen, which first appeared in the Evening News of September 29, 1914, and, as its author himself affirms, was purely fictitious.
Subsequently The Bowmen was published in book form, and in his preface to the first edition Mr. Machen supports the contention that the source from which the legend of the “Angels of Mons” sprang is no other than his own tale. In his preface, however, to the second edition he says that, in consequence of further evidence which has been brought to his notice, he has modified this opinion. Apart from this evidence, which will be considered in due course, one would have expected that, had Mr. Machen’s story been the sole origin of the legend, the various versions of it that have been current would have borne clearer traces of their origin. Those versions which have been quoted above bear hardly any resemblance to Mr. Machen’s tale beyond the fact that the central incident in each case is a supernatural intervention on behalf of the British army. Shortly after the publication of The Bowmen in book form, Mr. Harold Begbie published a pamphlet entitled On the Side of the Angels, in which he set out to refute the assertion that Mr. Machen was solely responsible for the reports concerning the Angels at Mons. Mr. Begbie’s object is to prove “not that Angels appeared at Mons, but that before Mr. Machen had written his fiction British soldiers in France believed that Angels had appeared to them.” We may therefore expect to find, as we in fact do, that Mr. Begbie’s evidence is not such as to throw any clear light on the precise nature of the experiences which he relates. That is not primarily his purpose, and the reports which he has collected are in some cases given at second hand, and in others have been described by the percipients only after an interval of many months since the date of the experience, so that due allowance must be made for inaccuracy of memory, the force of suggestion, and other common sources of error. We have, however, tried to get further particulars in all cases which seemed likely to prove interesting, but the result has hitherto been small. In one way or another many possible witnesses have passed out of reach and other witnesses do not feel themselves able to assist us. It may, however, be of interest to quote and discuss some of the best accredited reports, together with such additional information as we have been able to obtain about them.
In the Daily Mail of August 12, 1915, there appeared a report of an interview with a wounded lance-corporal, whose name was not given. His statement quoted also by Mr. Begbie was as follows:
I was with my battalion in the retreat from Mons on or about August 28. The German cavalry were expected to make a charge, and we were waiting to fire and scatter them. . . .
The weather was very hot and clear, and between eight and nine o’clock in the evening I was standing with a party of nine other men on duty, and some distance on either side there were parties of ten on guard. … An officer suddenly came up to us in a state of great anxiety and asked us if we had seen anything startling. . . . He hurried away from my ten to the next party of ten. At the time we thought that the officer must be expecting a surprise attack.
Immediately afterwards the officer came back, and taking me and some others a few yards away showed us the sky. 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 neighbourhood. The light became brighter and I could see 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, and they were above the German line facing us. We stood watching them for about three quarters of an hour. All the men with me saw them, and other men came up from other groups who also told us they had seen the same thing. . . .
I remember the day because it was a day of terrible anxiety for us. That morning the Munsters had a bad time on our right, and so had the Scots Guards. We managed to get to the wood. . . . Later on the Uhlans attacked us and we drove them back with heavy loss. It was after this engagement, when we were dog-tired, that the vision appeared to us.
We wrote to the Lady Superintendent of the hospital at which the man had been treated, to whom he was said to have told his experience before it was published, and asked her whether she could put us into communication with him. She replied on October 28, 1915:
The man about whom you enquire has left here and has failed to answer my letter and postcard. I do not therefore know his present whereabouts. When I hear from him Again I will write to you.
We have heard nothing further, and up to the present, therefore, the report, having reached us only at second hand, does not conform to the standard of evidence which any scientific enquiry demands. But assuming for the moment that this report gives an accurate account of the lance-corporal’s experience, it would be a weak scaffolding upon which to build up a theory of supernatural intervention.
It appears that, having had their attention directed to it by an officer “in a state of great anxiety,” the lance-corporal and some of his companions saw a light in the sky, divided into three parts, of which the central part resembled a figure with outstretched wings. We are not told how, or by whom, this resemblance was first observed, and nothing is easier than to interpret a vague cloudlike shape according to one’s fancy. The lance-corporal tells us that there were no clouds in the sky that night, but tells us nothing about smoke. It seems on the face of it not improbable that a bank of smoke, which was in some way lit up, might have been hanging “above the German line,” and it has to be remembered that men who are ” dog-tired,” who have just repulsed one hostile attack and are momentarily expecting another, are not likely to be in a state conducing to accurate observation. The lance-corporal told the Lady Superintendent at the hospital that “under the feet of the three figures was a bright star and that when the figures disappeared, the star remained.” It was in fact a “real” star, and perhaps constituted the point de repere of the illusion.
It is interesting to compare with the lance-corporal’s statement the following report in the Liverpool Courier (October 25, 1915) of a sermon by the Rev. C. M. Chavasse :
He had never yet got first-hand evidence on the subject, but he had been told by a general, a brigadier, who was far from superstitious, that a captain and subaltern serving under him were certain they saw something at Mons. They were men who would never dream of seeing angels, but they said they saw something, some bright pulsating light, which came between the little company of Englishmen and a troop of charging Uhlans on their horses, which frightened the horses so that they scattered and bolted, while a little further along, where the British line was broken, the German troops refused to advance, saying that they saw so many English troops there, although there was not a man to oppose them.
Mr. Begbie also quotes several incidents reported by Miss Phyllis Campbell in an article in the August number of the Occult Review. Miss Campbell was working at a hospital in France during the early part of the war, and she says that several of her patients told her of the “visions” they had seen on the battlefield. We wrote some time ago to Miss Campbell asking whether she could give us any further information or put us in touch with the soldiers to whom these experiences had come, but we have not yet heard from her. In any event, it does not seem likely that we should now be able to get any first-hand knowledge of these cases, and without this we cannot judge them.
We have communicated with several other people whom Mr. Begbie quotes as having first-hand information on the subject of these visions.
One writes that he is “not able to help us”; another refers us to a friend as the chief source of his information. We have written to this friend, but received no reply. A third correspondent writes that she is not in the least concerned as to the proofs. “… I do not really think it is the smallest use trying to bring these things home to roost. They are revealed by God for individual need and are not intended to become the talk and speculation of the market-place.”
Two other incidents remain which are worth relating. In September of this year Mr. Machen received a letter from a lieutenant-colonel at the Front, which was published in the Evening News of September 14, 1915. The colonel’s statement was as follows:
On August 26, 1914, was fought the battle of Le Gateau. We came into action at dawn, and fought till dusk. We were heavily shelled by the German artillery during the day, and in common with the rest of our division had a bad time of it.
Our division however retired in good order. We were on the march all night of the 26th and on the 27th with only about two hours’ rest.
The brigade to which I belonged was rearguard to the division, and during the 27th we took up a great many different positions to cover the retirement of the rest of the division, so that we had very hard work and by the night of the 27th we were all absolutely worn out with fatigue both bodily and mental fatigue.
No doubt we also suffered to a certain extent from shock ; but the retirement still continued in excellent order, and I feel sure that our mental faculties were still … in good working condition.
On the night of the 27th I was riding along in the column with two other officers. We had been talking and doing our best to keep from falling asleep on our horses.
As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen.
These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we were going, and keeping level with us. …
I did not say a word about it at first, but I watched them for about twenty minutes. The other two officers had stopped talking.
At last one of them asked me if I saw anything in the fields. I then told him what I had seen. The third officer then confessed that he too had been watching these horsemen for the past twenty minutes.
So convinced were we that they were real cavalry that, at the next halt, one of the officers took a party of men out to reconnoitre, and found no one there- The night then grew darker, and we saw no more.
The same phenomenon was seen by many men in our column. Of course, we were all dog-tired and overtaxed, but it is an extraordinary thing that the same phenomenon should be witnessed by so many different people.
I myself am absolutely convinced that I saw these horsemen; and I feel sure that they did not exist only in my imagination. . . .
It is interesting to compare with this statement a letter from Lance-Corporal A. Johnstone, late of the Royal Engineers, which was published in the Evening News of August 11, 1915, as follows:
We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and, after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour’s rest in between, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry, all formed up into squadrons fine, big men, on massive chargers.
I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying: “Thank God ! We are not far off Paris now. Look at the French cavalry.”
They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through them. . . .
When I tell you that hardened soldiers who had been through many a campaign were marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts of nonsense in sheer delirium, you can well believe we were in a fit state to take a row of beanstalks for all the saints in the Calendar.
It will be seen that the colonel’s experience and that of Lance-Corporal Johnstone have much in common, but whereas the latter finds the explanation in an illusion of the senses, due mainly to physical fatigue, the former is convinced that the horsemen did not exist only in his imagination. Although it is not possible to prove that the colonel was mistaken, it will, I think, be generally held that the weight of probability is against him, especially in view of his admission that he and his companions were ” absolutely worn out with fatigue both bodily and mental,” and that some effort had been necessary “to keep from falling asleep on [their] horses.”
In addition to the enquiries to which reference has been made above, we have also written to a considerable number of people who had been mentioned to us as possessing first-hand information on the subject of these “visions,” but in no case have we succeeded in obtaining satisfactory evidence. Sometimes our letters have been unanswered, sometimes it has transpired on enquiry that a story purporting to be at first- hand was in reality only at second or even at third-hand. The following is a typical case. Miss R. wrote to the secretary as follows:
The day after I saw you I … saw Mrs. B. When talking of the story of Mons, she said she had met a lady who told her she knew a man who had seen the vision. I asked her to send me his name.
Mrs. B., on being asked for the name of the man, replied:
… I have been told the name of one man who saw it [the vision], but it was given me under strict secrecy, so I may not tell it; and then, again, it is not first-hand, for I did not hear it from him. . . .
Another correspondent, in reporting to us his unsuccessful efforts to track down a story, writes that “somehow, first-hand knowledge seems to be purposely withheld,” and we have certainly found it very elusive, whether “purposely ” so or not.
Summing up the evidence at our disposal, the following conclusions may be drawn:
(a) Many of the stories which have been current during the past year concerning “visions” on the battlefield prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.
(b) After we have discounted these rumours, we are left with a small residue of evidence, which seems to indicate that a certain number of men who took part in the retreat from Mons honestly believe themselves to have had at that time supernormal experiences of a remarkable character. The best piece of evidence of this kind is the statement of the colonel who wrote to Mr. Machen (see p. 115).
(c) When, however, we turn to the question of what grounds there are for assuming that these experiences were in fact supernormal, it must be admitted that these grounds are slight. In the last of the three narratives printed above, the author himself, Lance-Corporal A. Johnstone, puts forward the view that he and his friends were subject to a sensory illusion due to extreme fatigue. When we remember that this condition of fatigue was also present in the other two cases, it seems not unlikely that the same explanation will account for them. The best piece of evidence, as I have said, is that of the lieutenant-colonel, and it may be that we have here a case of collective hallucination rather than illusion. But whether this is so, and whether the hallucination, assuming that it occurred, was purely subjective or due to any external cause, we have not evidence to show, nor does it seem likely that we shall now be able to obtain such evidence.
In the main, therefore, the result of our enquiry is negative, at least as regards the question of whether any apparitions were seen on the battlefield, either at Mons or elsewhere. Of first-hand testimony we have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon. For we cannot make this assumption, until we have established at least a strong probability that the observed effects are such as only a supernormal phenomenon could produce, and in the present instance, as I have tried to show, all our efforts to obtain the detailed evidence upon which an enquiry of this kind must be based have proved unavailing. JOURNAL OF THE ONTARIO SOCIETY FOR PSYCHICAL RESERACH, Vol. XVII 1915-1916: p. 107-118
While I would like to come down on the side of the angels—this is one of those stories that I would, for whatever foolish reason, like to be true–I must regretfully conclude that “The Bowmen” inspired nothing more than a lot of rumors, false memories, and third-hand accounts of FOAFs about St. George and Joan of Arc and German soldiers found dead with arrow wounds.
However, I cannot dismiss so readily the visions of the bone-weary soldiers seeing squadrons of cavalry riding alongside them. Do exhaustion, fear, and battle-fatigue create collective hallucinations? Or do we have an example of “The Third Man Syndrome” on a really impressive scale?
Further reading: The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, by David Clarke and Clarke’s essay from Fortean Times Magazine.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.