- The Legends and Traditions of the Great War: The Case of the Elusive Angel of Mons





Alan S. Coulson, MD, PhD.
and Michael E. Hanlon, Website Editor

One of the abiding legends of the Great War is of an intercession by a heavenly agent -- allegedly observed by many soldiers -- during the opening action at Mons, Belgium, part of the larger action known as the Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914. In his book ANGELS A TO Z Matthew Bunson recounts, 'One of the most famous episodes of angelic intervention, [was] the supposedly widely reported descent of an angelic army in August 1914, which came to the aid of the British forces against the Germans in Mons. . . The angelic host's assistance could not have come at a more propitious moment as the British were being driven back by the relentless German advance."

Bunson also relates one version supposedly corroborated by German prisoners describing a force of phantoms armed with bows and arrows and led by a towering figure on a shining white horse who spurred on English forces during an assault on German trenches. Another story spoke of three angelic beings seen by the British, hovering in the air over German lines, providing a source of deep inspiration for them. Aside from these beings, Bunson states that soldiers later claimed to have seen St. Michael the Archangel, the Virgin Mary, even Joan of Arc. [D See reference list at end of article.]

Present day writer Philip Haythornthwaite gives a curious example of the story's lasting power. An employee of his grandfather, a veteran of Mons, became convinced that he had seen the angel. He had recounted that before this he had been a hard drinker. After, he apparently became not only a teetotaler but a pillar of the community. [M]

British Tommy On His Way to the Front
Chats with a Life Guard in London

None of these eyewitnesses, however, who later asserted having viewed the Angel came forward in 1914 and had his name recorded in any log or document. British Army veterans who later told of seeing the Angel were suspect.. Few who fought at Mons survived the war. Most of the "Old Contemptibles", the regulars who fought in the early actions of the Great War, were killed off early.

It would be expected that if some dramatic event had occurred and the men of a particular battalion or company had seen something unusual around Mons, it would be would be mentioned somewhere. In the histories of the regiments most seriously involved in the fighting there is no mention of any events that could be construed as a distraction or an intervention in the fighting. The Units that suffered most heavily on the 23rd, the 4th Royal Fusiliers and the 4th Middlesex did not record any peculiar events whatsoever. Nor did such regiments active in the battle or retreat such as the West Kents and the 2nd Scots Borderers chronicle anything but the brutal combat.

Nevertheless, the Angel did leave a trail. The contemporary diaries and letters of many sane, sober people show that by 1915, in something of a focusing of national collective consciousness, the British had accepted that a supernatural event had taken place at Mons. In the consensus version, the nature of the apparition was angelic rather than, say, saintly or ghostly. Henceforth, Tommy Atkins and his family on the homefront believed in a somewhat standardized legend of the Angel of Mons whose timely appearance showed the Lord's sanction and active support for the opponents of the Kaiser's legions -- at least the British opponents.

German Forces Advancing

Furthermore, military historians who have studied Mons have enthusiastically incorporated the legend of the Angel of Mons into their writings up to the present day. Trevor Wilson and Martin Gilbert mention the apparition in their recent works. Daniel David in his bock, THE 1914 CAMPAIGN reports that "Some beleaguered soldiers reported being rescued by angels and ghostly bowmen." Arch Whitehouse in an earlier book, HEROES AND LEGENDS OF WORLD WAR I. states that after the battle on what is known as the Retreat from Mons some Coldstream Guards being the last to withdraw, got lost in the area of the Mormal Forest and had dug-in to make a. last stand. Whitehouse reports an angel then appeared as a dimly outlined female figure. She was tall and slim, wearing a white flowing gown. The Guardsmen followed the glowing figure across an open field to a hidden, sunken road which enabled them to escape. [F,L,Y,Z]

Present day students of the First World War can be excused for scratching their heads in wonder as to what really transpired on those hot August days in 1914 to beget a fragment of folklore that won so many adherents and has had such staying power. Either something unusual happened during the battle or in the subsequent retreat or, as some theorize, the Angel legend has a source away from the battlefield.. The Angel of Mons remains elusive. Eighty years of historical and scientific investigation have left a situation where many reputable sources point to events at Mons, while others treat the Angel a phenomenon created on the homefront. The present authors concluded that to avoid falling in to past traps, a new approach was needed to sort through the evidence, but how could we proceed in a way both systematic and logical given our subject was a spiritual entity?

Local Citizens Welcoming the BEF

Interestingly, one historian of Mons who remained oblivious to any angelic participation in the battle was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His alter-ego, the master consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, seems to have shared his creator's blind spot for airborne beings, once having declared: "I have investigated many crimes, but I have never yet seen one which was committed by a flying creature!" Nevertheless, as all Baker Street irregulars know, Holmes craved new challenges -- problems contrary to conventional wisdom or incongruent with his vast store facts and observations. Holmes once confidently stated, 'The more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be.'

Inspired by this irresistible Conan Doyle / Holmes connection to Mons, the present authors decided to see if Holmes's universally respected methodology could help guide a more thorough search for the Elusive Angel of Mons. Certainly some of Holmes's key maxims provide a sound footing on which to build any research effort: The present authors will try to follow these guidelines:

  1. "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts. . .
  2. "There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so neglected as the art of tracing footsteps.. . .
  3. "One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it. It is the first rule. . .
  4. "...Watson you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see."


First, we will survey the closest thing to first hand sources, the published sources which focus primarily on the Battle of Mons, to learn what actually happened there while keeping alert for firsthand facts or subtle clues about any unusual sightings or events . . .


The bitter struggle at Mons was unintended. The British Expeditionary Force [BEF] went into Belgium to provide an extension on the left [westerly] flank for the opening French offensive plan of World War I, Plan XVII, a unique monument to military arrogance and stupidity. Concurrently. French armies had advanced over the Belgian frontiers to secure the River Sambre. It was in fulfilling its part as the left anchor of the Allied line that British troops had begun to move north towards Belgium on August 18th and 19th of 1914.

Opposing Commanders at Mons
Sir John French & Alexander von Kluck
It was believed then that the German forces would be approaching from the northeast and the main attack was expected to the Allied line through the Ardennes -- the correct solution for 1940, but not 1914. Under Plan XVII the intention was to deploy the British forces on the extreme left facing northeast along the line Binche-Lens, situated eight miles north of Mons (map 1.) The German center of gravity, however, was much further west than France's supreme commander, Joseph Joffre or BEF Commander Sir John French had anticipated. On August 21st the French 5th Army encountered the enemy just to the east of Namur and Charleroi where the Germans were attempting to cross the Sambre. Subsequently, in the course of the afternoon of the 22nd of August, the Royal Flying Corps made reconnaissance flights toward Charleroi (map 1.) and ascertained that the French center had been driven back.

On the evening of the 22nd, Sir John French held a conference at Le Cateau, and he subsequently announced the anticipated British offensive would not take place. Instead, he agreed to form a position on the Mons-Conde canal (map 2.) for 24 hours as a delaying tactic tactic. [H, p.59]


Mons lies in the center of an industrial mining area, and in fact, was the center of coal mining in Belgium. The Mons-Conde Canal runs southwest from the River Sambre toward the River Scheldt (map 2.) The ground on which the British Army took up its position was a narrow coal field 2 miles wide which extended 20 miles along the canal from a point 6 miles east of Mons to a point 14 miles west. For a mile on either side of the canal, the ground is swampy, and intersected by a network of artificial water courses and is checkered by osier beds. South of the canal and marsh area was a confusion of mining villages built over the coal field. These villages contained endless cobbled roads, broken pit heads, deep ditches and colossal slag heaps, some of them over 100 feet high.

The Mons-Conde Canal

The Mons-Conde Canal loops north around the village of Nimy (map 3.) and is crossed by three road bridges and one railroad bridge. This salient was a key area. At its southern base, the ground rises with two hills and a small wood, the Bois la Haut. North of the canal, particularly near the bridges over the canal in the salient, low woods coming down to within 300 to 400 yards of the canal would provide cover to the approaching Germans. (J, pg 31)


The BEF that halted on August 23 was composed of two corps of two divisions each and a 5-brigade cavalry contingent, totaling about 70,000 effectives. Their deployment transpired in apparent ignorance of the true nature of the flawed, but breathtakingly daring opposing strategy known as the Schleiffen Plan. The German Army had long prepared a gigantic seven army wheeling movement through Belgium and France that would roll up their opposition from the west. The British Regulars,. half entrenched in a. weak position would be eventually faced by 240,000 men from the 1st German Army, coming primarily, not from the northeast, but the northwest. They were lucky that German First Army Commander General Alexander von Kluck was equally in ignorance of the strength and location of his opposition.



The BEF was isolated and had no sort of strategic defensive position. With II Corps on the left of I Corps, the BEF deployed roughly from just west of Mons east to Binche. (map 2.) Later the eastern limit of the line was contracted to Bray, leaving the BEF some nine miles from the left flank of the nearest French unit. Tactically, the units were scattered along a defensible straggle of mining villages, water courses, and osier beds with some fields of fire restricted. The loop on the Mons-Conde Canal would first prove a hornets' nest for the Germans attacking it and, later, a veritable death trap for British forces trying to escape. [B]

Smith Dorrien's II Corps stationed in the Nimy Peninsula would bear the heaviest burden at Mons, specifically, the 6th and 9th brigades of his Third Division. We will focus on their operations, since their plight was most dire and needful of divine assistance. The line of II Corps was so thin that it was little better than an outpost line, a chain of small groups lying on the coal bank, almost invisible. From left to right this most pressed part of the British line would be held by the 4th Royal Fusiliers (9th Brig.), the 4th Middles, the 2nd Royal Irish and the 1st Gordon Highlanders (all 8th Brig.) In the westerly section the Royal Fusiliers held the Nimy Bridge, the railway bridge and positions about Lock 6 and the Ghlin-Mons Bridges. (map 3.) The Gordon Highlanders to the far right were entrenched on the eastern slope of Bois la Haut. Officers of all the battalions were on every elevation, peering north and east through glasses, looking for the first sign of the enemy.


British Cavalry Scouting for the Enemy

The mounted troops of both armies were astir early. British Dragoons reconnoitering east of Mons soon encountered small parties of the enemy. The Germans were completing a grand wheel in from the northeast The wave of Von Kluck's army was soon rolling around the Mons pocket. Before 9am. German guns were in position on the high ground north of the canal, and shells began bursting thickly along the line where battalions of the Middlesex (8th Brig.) and Royal Fusiliers (9th Brig.) met. By 9am the German infantry was pressing on to engage the Middlesex about the village of Ubourg and was fully engaged by 10am. Shortly afterwards, the machine gun section of the Royal Irish (8th Brig.) joined the Middlesex to lend support.

Meanwhile, the Royal Fusiliers were continuously shooting down enemy assault troops. What transpired now is a big part of the non-supernatural legend of Mons. The Germans were coming in swarms, like grey clouds drifting over green fields. They broke out of the woods and came rapidly towards the entrenched British, advancing in what has been described as a medieval "20-acre formation". They were moving against the best riflemen in Europe who were firing 15 rounds a minute. The massed, independent fire from the British position at 800 to 1000 yards had a devastating effect on the German forces. Here they were turned back.

As the southward wheel of Von Kluck's army progressed, however, the wave of the attack gradually spread westward, breaking briefly along the line of the canal. By 11am III German Corps on the right of the unit attacking the Nimy Peninsula came up against the Bridge of Jenappes two miles west of Mon. (map 2.) The BEF was getting surrounded.

Moments Before the Start of Battle


Before our description of the action reaches the crisis point, we return briefly to our other objective of searching the record for clues of odd or transcendental happenings. Where there any special influences which may have effected events at Mons this hot August day? Were there cloud formations shaped like angels that day? Were airships or aircraft of peculiar design floating about? Were odd behaviors or other baffling events observed among the troops on August 23rd? Let us see.


The morning of the 23rd of August started out with mist and rain, but this cleared around 10am to fair weather with a prevailing westerly wind. Conan Doyle [as historian] describes a warm August sun later in the day, and Ascoli, a stifling August heat and hot sunshine. There is no mention in any of the texts of any unusual cloud formations.


The British Flying Corps was flying over and behind the battlefield looking for enemy movements and locating enemy batteries [U, pg 304]. There were likely many flights by British and German planes over and around the battlefield. It could be anticipated the regulars who composed the BEF would be somewhat familiar with military aircraft and would not be likely to confuse airplanes or their vapor trails with ethereal apparitions. Further, at Le Cateau three days later, British officers [U, pg 314) described how "the sight of our airplanes above them raised the hopes of the troops and gave them a feeling of security". It is appears doubtful, therefore, whether any powered aircraft at Mons could have been confused with angels. Once it got dark, though, the Germans used an airship with search lights [K, pg 216] It is conceivable that this could have been confused with an angelic host, but none of the later alleged sightings. mention a nighttime event.


As at nearby Waterloo 99 years earlier, August 23rd was a Sunday. Could there have been a suggestion of forthcoming help at a chapel service that morning? Church bells were ringing early and the inhabitants of the villages near the canal were seen in their best attire going to worship. But not one of the British official or unit histories records any type of worshipping by the troops at Mons. There is much detail about what they ate, where they slept, and how they were dressed, but there is no mention whatsoever in any of the books of any type of worship during the day. Without any chapel services, it is difficult to maintain that an idea of an angel may have been planted earlier in the day.


At Rest in Mons, August 22, 1914

Conan Doyle also notes that the men appeared to be in excellent spirits, singing from one end of the line to the other. They dug fairly shallow rifle pits, more like fox holes of later wars than the trenches of the Great War. . The shallowness of the pits is notable only because later in the war when trenches were deeper than a normal man's height, "sky watching" was a major pastime of men who could see little else of the outside world. At Mons, however, this pastime likely had not developed yet. Besides, fast action was soon occupying the troops attention.

Morale stayed generally high as action unfolded. The perception by the fighting men was that they were more than holding their own. They were inflicting heavy losses on the much-vaunted Germans and were, at least initially, driving them back. Lynn MacDonald in her book 1914 (O, pg 104) stated, "The Tommies, outnumbered by more than 3 to 1, had not merely thwarted the Germans -- they had slaughtered them. Both sides fought like lions; both sides were exhausted". Later, the battlefield was seen to be littered with the German dead and wounded. Ross of Blandenburg describes the men as being "jubilant" (V, pg 33), and when they were later ordered to retreat, they were "much disappointed".

Not finding any hard clues about matters supernatural due to any of these factors, let us return to the middle of the action and review the remainder of the battle and the famous 'Retreat from Mons'.



The bridges leading into the Salient would eventually provide an easy passage for the German invaders allowing them with their greater numbers to swamp the British position. At 5:30am on the morning of the 23rd, corps and cavalry division commanders had met with General French and orders were issued for the bridges over the canal to be prepared for demolition. Later, destruction was to be successfully completed for only a few bridges. In an early action the West Kents (5th Div; 13th Brig.) lost 2 officers and 100 men as its Company covering the northerly access to the bridges was driven back.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers guarding south end of the Nimy Railroad Bridge were assaulted early, held off for nearly five hours, but eventually saw their position eroded. The Germans ultimately succeeded in taking all the remaining bridges into the Salient, and the Middlesex and Gordons of the 8th Brigade on the right had to retire. Along with the Royal Irish and Royal Scots, they fell steadily back, fighting every yard of the way. The Germans were shaken but still came on. By 5pm, according to MacDonald, they were trickling into the streets of Mons. British soldiers were doing their best to leave. General Doran's 8th Brigade was able to keep hold on Bois la Haut until after nightfall. (F, pg. 103)


At 5pm a telegram was received from General Joffre confirming what the British were learning firsthand, that the original estimate of German forces had been grossly low. There were not only four German corps totaling 200,000 men ahead of them, but 40,000 more troops approaching around their left flank from Tournai.

A second piece of bad news was that the Germans had burst through the line on the River Sambre so the French armies on the British right were in full retreat. The BEF was on its own and would have to fall back. In the early morning of the 24th of August. French gave orders to retire to corps commanders.

Up to that point, British casualties were between 3000 and 4000 men, particularly in the 8th, 9th and 13th brigades. It was estimated that Germans had lost between 7,000 and 10,000 men in the fighting. The 4th Middlesex, one of the units catching the brunt of the German attack lost 350 men.

That same day, Sir John French gave instructions for I Corps to feign an offensive in the direction of Binche in order to take the pressure off II Corps so they could disengage. In withdrawing, Hamilton's 3rd Division, including the 7th, 8th and 9th Brigades once again sustained the most severe losses, especially at Frameries, four miles south of Mons. (map 2.) The 2nd Royal Scots of the 8th Brigade were later attacked by a heavy German column but succeeded in driving the enemy back. During the first full day of the retreat the 7th Brigade (3rd Div.) held positions near Ciply and later Babai They lost several hundred men to heavy fire from the German machine guns positioned on slag heaps. Eventually, all the brigades of the Third Division made their way 30 miles south to the west of the town of Le Cateau. (map 1.)

Artillery Unit Retreating from Mons

The other division of II Corps, the Fifth, also suffered on the retreat. On the evening of the 23rd of August, the 14th Brigade had fallen bark to Dour. The15th Brigade was now exposed to a German flanking movement and were only saved by the 2nd Cavalry Brigade. Some hours later, the enemy pressure was again heavy on their flank, and the 1st Cheshires and 1st Norfolks incurred heavy losses. The Cheshires never got the order to pull back and were surrounded. Only 193 out of 1007 men survived the fighting. The Division's 13th Brigade halted at Wasmes and was fiercely attacked by a German vanguard at dawn. The 2nd West Riding Regiment lost their commander, Colonel Gibbs, and almost all their officers. For the remainder of the day and for the whole 25th of August. both divisions fell back with little fighting to Le Cateau

It was the intention of Commander-in-Chief French that the BEF occupy this position the next day with -- once again -- I Corps on the right and II corps on the left. Almost disastrously, though, the two corps became separated, losing communications.

To the east, Sir Douglas Haig's I Corps after the diversion of the 24th of August fell back to the line Babai-Maubeuge by 7pm. On the 25th of August, he continued his retreat by the way of Feignies to Vavesnes and Landrecies. The considerable forest of Mormal now intervened between the two corps of the BEF. Than night Germans attacked, but without much success. It was the Forest of Mormal that the last alleged sighting of an Angel occurred as reported by Arch Whitehouse.

Lynn MacDonald's, 1914, includes one important account. During the retreat from Mons, Captain Arthur Osbon of the 4th Dragoon Guards, a cavalry unit, was involved in intercepting German cavalry coming from Valencielle. He thought that the threatening skies reminded him of Milton's description of legions of dark angels driven by St. Michael to the plains of Hell.. [O, pg. 141]

Apprehensive Cavalrymen on the Retreat

On the 26th of August, II Corps Commander Smith-Dorrien, cut-off from Haig's I Corps chose to fight a rear-guard action at Le Cateau. (map 1.) In this lesser-known struggle the exhausted soldiers of II Corps again inflicted heavy casualties on the German First Army and managed another narrow escape. Interestingly, Le Cateau has never been associated with an angel or bowman siting. It would seem evocative that August 26th is the anniversary of the Battle of Crecy where honors of the field were won by English bowmen, but no link has ever been made.

After winning some time at Le Cateau, the BEF was able to continue retreating to the River Marne in fairly good order. There they would turn back to the north and play a part in one of history's decisive events, the First Battle of the Marne..

Our survey of sources focusing on the Battle of Mons seems to have provided us with mixed results. The course of the battle and the need for the BEF to withdraw before its more numerous opponent seems clearly delineated, yet reliable reports of sightings of the Angel remain elusive.


After reviewing every primary and secondary source we could find on the Battle of Monss, we are left with these facts. There is no documented case single person or group of people named as actually claiming to have made a sighting of benign heaven-sent agents during either the Battle or Retreat from Mons. Captain Osbon's dramatic description of clouds looking like legions of dark angels is neither inspiring nor friendly.'

Nevertheless, many respected modern-day historians (cited at the beginning of the article) seem too have been seduced by the charm of the legend into treating folklore as established fact. The secondhand retellings of the angelic sightings crumble under scrutiny. Bunson's account is pure hearsay and mentions the staving off of nonexistent disasters for retreating English troops. The German prisoners' story references to a force of phantoms is very suspect as the Germans did not have the trenches he cites, and the British were never on the attack at Mons. Trevor Wilson whose account refers to 'all seeming lost' seems inaccurate because this never occurred to the men fighting at that time; they thought they had done very well and the morale was high despite the need to withdraw. Whitehouse's story of the Cold Stream Guards at the Forest of Normal is unrecorded in any primary source or unit history. Gilbert's description of the day dissolves on meteorological grounds. His description of mist and rain lasting all day does not ring true as, in fact, there was sunshine after about 10am.

Yet could such a strongly held and broadly accepted legend be a 100% spontaneous fabrication? Wouldn't it had to have had some origination? Mr. Holmes, at this point, would probably tell us tiresomely that 'there is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you.' Certainly, however, he would be as mystified as we are by the absolute lack of firsthand evidence of either an angel or anything even vaguely supernatural appearing during the Battle of Mons. But, let's not give up on the master yet -- where would he turn next? Maybe our scope is too broad. Perhaps Holmes's dictum that there is 'nothing so important as trifles' should guide us for awhile.


Grudgingly, we must return to a theory espoused by several previous students of the Angel. By breathtaking coincidence, concurrently with the battle, an English writer named Arthur Machen wrote a short story (a trifle?) called The Bowmen It was a fictional description of a phantom English army led by St. George marching from Agincourt in the dark days of 1914 to relieve their modern counterparts on an unidentified battlefield.. 'The Bowmen' was published in September 1914 in the LONDON EVENING NEWS. Arthur Machen was an author of mildly supernatural stories and a sometime member of the mystical society, 'The Hermartic Order of the Gordon Dawn'. Several parish magazines quickly sought permission to reprint the story. From there, as Machen later wrote, 'The snowball of rumor was set rolling until it was swollen to a monstrous size.' [R]

Click here to read Arthur Machen's The Bowmen

From this beginning, the story also appears to have been transformed into one which described how archangels rather than medieval bowmen had come to the aid of the BEF. Machen himself commented that if there was any substance to the story, it was unusual that there were no admitted eyewitnesses who presented themselves. ." He also conjectured that since, "In the popular view shining and benevolent supernatural beings are angels. . . I believe, the Bowmen of my story have become 'the Angels of Mons'."

But if, as the only evidence seems to indicate, the legend's source is Mr. Machen's story, how did a popular supernatural story from the homefront, spread and gain legitimacy amongst the frontline troops overseas? Holmes would quickly see track the connections:

  • A timely piece of mock-journalistic fiction appears to shed light on an recent anxiety raising events in France.
  • The story with true, but sketchy and censored reportage of the event are published in a widely read newspaper.
  • The stories true and fabulous are churned via word of mouth and start to unify, with inconvenient details revised or deleted.
  • A simplified version of events becomes the commonly held understanding
  • It enters Army lore with the enlistees of Kitchener's New Armies and
  • Is taken to the front lines by the newly trained Troops.

Machen's rescuing bowmen, converted to Angels then reduced to the simple, singular Angel of Mons, thus, moved from the homefront to the trenches and was sustained by both the public in Britain and the frontline Tommies.

Arthur Machen
Source of the Angel Legend
Holmes would probably avoid speculating about the source of the emotional power the story carried with individuals, impelling its ready acceptance and sustaining it through four years of war and down to the present day.. He always preferred dispassionate logic. The present authors, however, have access to some scientific and historical findings possibly not available to Holmes or Conan Doyle.

That individuals under stress and group pressures become highly suggestible is a finding of modern experimental psychology. Studies of such phenomena as the thought reform of Chinese intellectuals by the Communists; outbreaks of mass hysteria and shared belief in apparitions of Christ or crying Virgins by religious groups seem to verify this. That the summer and fall of 1914 the whole populations of the combatants were suffering great anxiety is clearly demonstrable.

Such processes effecting belief systems, of course, would work also more readily in a population already inclined to believe in ghosts, spirits or angels. While it is not possible to measure such predispositions among the Britons of 1914, their country has had a long history of linking the heavenly and the military.

The Battle of Edgehill in 1642 during the English Civil War was followed by rumors of the dead from the struggle rising from the earth before the eyes of the survivors. Afterwards, a battle on Marston Moor reportedly featured a body of horsemen in the sky. Spirits reportedly even made it to the New World and purportedly assaulted a British garrison there in 1692. In the Eighteenth century there were heavenly sightings at Culloden and twice at a battlefield called Souter Fell. It appears that the Angel of Mons is just the most recent manifestation of a long legacy of apparitions on the battlefields of British armies.

Popular Depiction of the Angel

So what are we left with? As Holmes once told Watson, "It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts which are incidental and which are vital." The authors of this article must concur with Mr. Machen and several later commentators on the Angel legend. The irreducible details about the incident of the Angel of Mons seem to be that a small force of regular soldiers representing a nation with an oral tradition of combat success due to divine participation had a narrow escape against a vastly more numerous opponent at Mons in August, 1914. . Shortly afterwards, a fictional account of a similar battle, by a. certain Mr. Arthur Machen, featuring spectral bowmen aiding the British troops in staving off their advisories appears in the nation's newspapers. Under the stress of national crisis fact and the supernatural were blended together in a myth -- not a superstition, but a part-factual, part-fictional explanation of disconcerting threat and reassurance that the danger would pass. This myth was not tested scientifically; it was not analyzed: it was just accepted. With an explanation of the narrow escape for the Tommies at Mons and a message of divine protection against future defeat, it was exceedingly useful for maintaining the physic stability of Britain's soldiers, citizens and leadership. Folklore, mythology and taboos all start out having practical social use and only become quaint and silly when they have outlived this usefulness.

"Improbable as it is, all other explanations are more improbable still"


And this brings us to the reason why the authors of this article felt this subject was important enough to re-investigate. Today the Angel of Mons has been reduced to a curiosity -- but only because it no longer serves the valuable function it had for the people Great Britain during World War I. We believe, as with Lord Kitchener pointing out from his recruiting poster and Harry Lauder singing of the pluckiness needed to get to The End of the Road that this story helped carry the British Army and People through the disasters of Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele. And in playing such a concrete role in British life the Angel of Monns deserves a place in the record of the Great War.


A. Anon, The Operations of the British Army in the Present War. The Retreat from Mons, Houghton, Boston, 1917.

B. Ascoli D., The Mons Star, Book Club Associates, London, 1982.

C. Atkinson C.T., The Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment 1914-1919, Simpkin, London, 1924.

D. Bunson M., Angels A to Z, Crown Trade Paperbacks, New York, 1996.

E. Corbett-Smith, A., The Retreat from Mons, Cassell & Co., London, 1916.

F. David D., The 1914 Campaign, Military Press, New York, 1987.

G. Doyle A.C., The British Campaign in France & Flanders 1914, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1916.

H. Edmonds J.E., History of the Great War. Military Operations. France and Belgium, August - October 1914, McMillan & Co., London, 1925.

I. Ewing, J., The Royal Scots 1914 - 1919, Oliver & Boyd, London, 1925.

J. Falls C., Life of a Regiment Vol. IV. The Gordon Highlanders in the First World War 1914-1919, University Press, Aberdeen, 1958.

K. Flower N., The History of the Great War. Vol. I, Waverley Book Co., London, no date.

L. Gilbert M., The First World War, Holt & Co., New York, 1994.

M. Haythornthwaite P., The World War I Sourcebook, Arms & Armour, London, 1983.

N. Illustrated War News, The Illustrated London News & Sketch, London, 1914.

O. MacDonald L., 1914, Atheneum, New York, 1988.

P. MacDonald L. 1914-1918 Voices & Images of the Great War, Joseph. London, 1988.

Q. Machen A., The Bowmen, in the Evening News, London, September 29, 1914.

R. Machen A., The Angel of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, London, 1915, PP 5,7.

S. Molony C.V., 'Invicta' With the 1st Battalion the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment in the Great War, Nisbet & Co., London, 1923.

T. O'Neill H.C., The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War, Heinemann, London, 1922.

U. Raleigh W., The War in the Air. Vol. I, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1922.

V. Ross of Bladenburg, The Coldstream Guards Vol. I, Oxford University Press, London, 1928.

W. The Times History of the War, The Times, London, 1914.

X. Whalley-Kelly H., 'Ich Dien,' The Prince of Wales's Volunteers. (South Lancashire), Gale & Polden, Aldershot, 1935.

Y. Whitehouse A., Heroes and Legends of World War One, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1964.

Z. Wilson T., The Myriad Faces of War, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1986.

AA. Wyrral E., The Die-Hards in the Great War Vol. I 1914-1916, Harrison & Sons, London 1926.

The authors previously collaborated on the article: War and the First Century of Heart Surgery, which appeared in RELEVANCE: THE QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF THE GREAT WAR SOCIETY [Winter, 1997] and can be viewed on line. .The photos used are from the collections of Mike Iavarone and Alan Coulson.

For more Legends and Traditions of the
Great War return to the
Contents Page

For Great War Society
Membership Information

Click on Icon

For further information on the events of 1914-1918 visit the homepage of
The Great War Society

Additions and comments on these pages may be directed to: Michael E. Hanlon (medwardh@hotmail.com) regarding content, or to Mike Iavarone (mikei01@execpc.com) regarding form and function. Original artwork & copy; © 1998-2000, TGWS.