Hidden Histories

The Mysterious Events at the Battle of Mons, Belgium in WWI

Friday, 6/27/14

Various newspapers published within Philadelphia and elsewhere carried the account of one of the most famous battles of World War I, which transpired on August 23, 1914, in Belgium's Hainaut Province. The Battle of Mons was the first battle fought by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against fellow Europeans since 1855. Modern weaponry - from machine guns to howitzers - were utilized, as well as traditional infantry, but also the use of centuries old cavalry-based forces, involving thousands of horses in comat. Yet, this battle is also unique for the modern-world, in regard to the supernatural aspects associated with its events.

Beginning in 1914, through the end of the War and beyond, there have been numerous publications concerning what is reported to have transpired at the Battle of Mons. For example, in the North American Review for August of 1915, an article entitled, “Phantom Armies Seen in France” appeared, recounting the purported sighting by British soldiers of “spectral English bowmen” who are said to have killed the opposing German forces. The author of the article claimed to have before her a letter of a soldier present in battle who heard voices and “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 whirring through the air toward the German host…There were thousands of dead German soldiers…No wounds were discernible on the bodies of the dead soldiers.”

Roland G. Usher, Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis, in his monograph, The Story of the Great War published in 1919, remarked how “Men told wonderful stories of what they had seen. At one time there was a great gap in the Allied line. There were no troops to fill it and meet the advancing Germans. Suddenly in that gap there stood—English archers with bows and arrows, knights in armor…” Then between the British and their advancing German foes, “came a flash of brilliant light and then right before them rode a tall man with yellow hair and golden armor on a white horse. It was St. George, the patron saint of England…The French troops also declared they saw at the moment when all seemed most desperate that same blinding flash of light…No one can say, but thousands believe that they saw them.”

Naturally such an event as above, reportedly witnessed by hundreds or thousands of soldiers, would have made an unforgettable and lasting impression upon anyone present. Though it is true that the advancing German forces on that fateful day in August were indeed repulsed by an undermanned British force, the paranormal sightings are said to owe their origins to the short story, The Angels of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, written by Arthur Machen and published in London in 1915. He claimed his account was in reality fictitious, and had originally been published on September 29, 1914 in the London newspaper, The Evening News as simply, “The Bowmen.”

Historically, tales of miraculous visitations of warriors during a battle have an aged heritage in European tradition. On June 2, 1098, while the forces of the First Crusade were in Antioch, a French chronicle, The Gesta Francorum, (the oldest surviving account of the First Crusade), reported how there “appeared from the mountains a countless host of men on white horses, whose banners were all white. When our men saw this, they did not understand what was happening or who these men might be, until they realized that this was the succor sent by Christ, and that the leaders were St. George, St. Mercurius, and St. Demetrius. This is quite true, for many of our men saw it.”

Also during the Siege of Malta by Turkish-Muslim forces against the besieged Christians in 1565, Pietro Gentile de Vendome in his work published that same year, claimed that supernatural aid occurred during the Battle of St. Elmo. He attested that the Turks themselves asked the besieged:  “Who is that woman who stands above your fortress; and who is that man, clad only in animal skins who stood on the bastion along with another with a long beard, and with a naked blade in hand [who] fought against our men so vigorously…We were weakened by the sight of them, and our spirits and strength failed us.”

To date, no known surviving veteran of the Battle of Mons left any written or oral account of angelic intervention during the conflict in Belgium against the Germans in 1914.  All accounts which do exist have been found to be erroneous in origin, or post-date the event itself.  All publications, depositions or eye-witness accounts attributed to soldiers, appear to initially derive from Arthur Machen’s story. 

However, whether fictional or factual, such tales as the Bowmen of Mons, are now an integral part of European and American folklore or oral traditions, which have taken upon themselves a life of their own. As David Clarke attested in his article, “Rumors of Angels..,” published in the journal Folklore, in 2002, the “artistic talents of Arthur Machen had combined with the power of the media to create a rumour [sic] of angels that appealed to a deep well of belief and tradition invoked in times of national crisis…”  The Bowmen thus “set in motion a chain of events that could not be defused,”creating an “enduring legend that outlived the story that inspired it.”

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