As the Remembrance season draws near, John Phillpott visits the scene of the opening battle involving the British Army in the First World War, and relates the strange tale of the Angels of Mons. Is this just a myth… or could there be any truth in a story that has remained in the public imagination for more than a century?
DURING a working lifetime in journalism I’ve met a whole host of fascinating people.
Pop stars, criminals, politicians – not to be confused, of course – and even a circus strongman who memorably astounded his fellow pub regulars by hammering a six-inch nail into a block of wood with nothing more than a clenched fist wrapped in a handkerchief.
But the person I would really have loved to meet is my late great uncle Ernest Phillpott.
My relative was a member of that select band of brothers known to legend as The Old Contemptibles. He’d arrived at Le Havre, France, with the Northamptonshire Regiment (48th) on the morning of August 13, 1914, and was soon seeing action during the Battle of the Frontiers, a highly mobile campaign that would finally grind to a halt in the Flanders mud with the onset of winter.
Great uncle Ernest lived through the battles of Mons, the Marne, the Aisne, and finally the great struggle of First Ypres, when a hugely outnumbered British army – against all the odds – finally stopped the attacking Germans from reaching the Channel ports.
Along the way, he managed to make his very only little bit of First World War history. My ancestor was the first man from the ranks to be commissioned in the field during the First World War – at the Aisne in September, 1914, he was promoted from company sergeant major to second lieutenant.
For a working class man from Leicester, who had left school at the age of 13, to enter the officer class was quite an achievement.
On Saturday, October 31, 1914, as the crisis of First Ypres reached its climax with the loss of the village of Gheluvelt – a few hours later retaken by the 2nd Bn Worcestershire Regiment – my great uncle was badly wounded while in the process of rescuing his injured friend and comrade – a Major Harold Cartwright – as the Germans broke through the ragged British lines.
However, the gunshot injury was quite possibly a blessing in disguise. In May, 1915, ‘the Cobblers’ were virtually wiped out at the battle of Aubers Ridge.
Holding the most perilous rank in the British Army might well have gone against him had he been there instead of lying in a hospital bed near Portsmouth.
Finally recovered in 1916, he was sent to the Somme, getting through the summer offensive unscathed before finally succumbing that autumn to what was then called ‘trench fever’ but which was in his case technically nephritis.
Further promoted to the rank of captain in 1917, great uncle Ernest never fully recovered from his wartime experiences. He died in 1929 from a combination of wounds, nephritis and tuberculosis.
There are many reasons why I would love to have met my relative, but the overriding one would have been about a story that has fascinated and perplexed First World War researchers right up to the present day.
And that is – just what was the truth about The Angels of Mons?
This was, of course, an incident which many veterans claimed to have witnessed.
My late father was a schoolteacher and was nothing if not a pragmatic sort of man. Yet the story of the angels, passed down to him no doubt by his favourite uncle, must have intrigued him just as much as it has in turn captured my own imagination.
The story is well known enough. By midday on Sunday, August 23, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force was facing the full force of General Von Kluck’s divisions.
Outnumbered by at least three to one, the British rifleman exacted such a toll on their attackers that the Germans thought they were facing massed machine guns.
In fact, the storm of lead that cut them down in heaps was the result of the British infantry’s skill with the Lee-Enfield rifle. Each man could fire 15 aimed shots a minute, but many could do even better.
The result was carnage, with as many as 15,000 Germans killed, compared to the 1,760 casualties in the BEF.
Nevertheless, the British, fearing envelopment, were forced to withdraw during the night, thereby beginning the fabled Retreat from Mons.
A few weeks later, in the September of that year, journalist and occult writer Arthur Machen published a fictional story titled The Bowmen in the London Evening News in which a small British rearguard had found themselves surrounded.
The position appears to be hopeless, but then a number of soldiers started calling on St George ‘to help the English’ and the patron saint duly obliges.
Rallying the British troops, St George appears in the sky mounted on a white charger, leading ranks of spectral archers, ghosts from the 1415 Battle of Agincourt.
The sky becomes thick with flying arrows and soon the battlefield of Mons is littered with German dead. The survivors flee in disarray and the English make good their escape.
In the ensuing days, weeks and then months, what would later be termed an urban myth started to take form, eventually gathering a momentum all of its own.
Soldiers returning from the front insisted that the story was true. And although Machen insisted all his life that it had been a figment of his imagination, the legend of the archers – who had by now been substituted by angels – had now caught the public imagination.
This was a population that by now had become used to bad news from the Western Front. By 1915, the long list of setbacks during the previous year had been added to by disastrous actions at Neuve Chappelle, Loos and the second battle of Ypres.
The casualty lists were mounting and people were understandably looking for anything that might indicate God was on the side of Great Britain and her armies.
The Angels – or Angel of Mons, depending on what account you were reading at the time – started to take root in an increasingly grieving, war weary populace.
Meanwhile, Machen was insisting that there was no truth whatsoever in his account. It was purely fictional, he stressed. Perhaps he started to realise that the public was indeed yearning for some kind of divine intervention in a struggle that appeared to have no end in sight.
But then the believers suddenly found an ally in the form of a nurse, Phyllis Campbell, who had just returned from France and Flanders where she had been treating wounded soldiers.
She reported that many of the men she had cared for swore that they had witnessed an angel or angels hovering over the battlefield at Mons. They variously said that it was either angelic hosts or ranks of archers who had miraculously put the enemy to flight.
In fact, some of the German dead were said to have suffered arrow wounds.
Machen’s story of The Bowmen had by now, via a kind of folk process, become an actual occurrence, a divine intervention conducted by a heavenly host. The legend had been born…
Various myths emerged during the First World War. One claimed that thousands of Russian soldiers had travelled in secret from the north of Scotland to embarkation ports on the south coast.
The proof of this happening was backed by reports of snow – from the men’s boots – being left behind at railway stations along the route.
And although a number of atrocity stories relating to civilians were true, there seems to be little evidence that the Germans crucified a Canadian soldier on the Ypres Salient.
But as the war dragged on, the legend of the heavenly hosts at Mons continued to snowball. Britain in those days was an almost entirely Christian nation, with the majority of people regularly attending church.
Children were as familiar with Bible stories as their counterparts are today with social media.
Some argued that the Age of Miracles was not yet over. And if England’s Christian soldiers were indeed locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Kaiser’s anti-Christ, then surely it was entirely plausible that the agents of God might well intervene.
The First World War was the planet’s first industrialised conflict. To many people, it must have seen at times that the end of the world was nigh. Was God exacting some form of retribution, a global punishment for a sinful Earth?
For the preceding two centuries, Western Europe had undergone the massive sea change of agricultural societies being drastically transformed into industrial ones.
Yet the beliefs and superstitions of a relatively recent past would still have survived in the folk consciousness. In Britain’s more remote – and not so remote – villages there was still a belief among older people that fairies, elves and even Robin Goodfellow himself might still reside in The Greenwood, living parallel spirit lives to those of their human neighbours.
For readers who might doubt this, I can recall a woman who lived during the 1950s in my home village in north Warwickshire who regularly spoke without embarrassment about the reality of such entities.
Set in the context of a country that was still relatively poorly served by roads, when newspapers were the only form of mass communication in an age before radio and television, such beliefs were perhaps less far-fetched than they may sound to modern ears and certainly more understandable.
A village ‘wise woman’ could see and hear things that others were incapable of detecting. Could the answer to the mystery of Mons lie in the fact that some people have the power to see where others are blind?
Those men who survived the clash on August 23, 1914, would have been battle-weary to the point of exhaustion. The sunset of that blazing hot day would have mutated into all sort of weird patterns because of the rising smoke from buildings that had been set ablaze by the relentlessly advancing Germans.
To men driven almost beyond endurance, it’s entirely possible that some hallucinated, mistaking the shapes in the sky as being of some supernatural origin. This may well be the logical explanation of the Angel of Mons phenomena.
And yet… I firmly believe, as with any other mystery that seems to defy a satisfactory, rational interpretation, absolutely nothing should be ruled out. Whether scientist or layman, the mind should always be kept open to any possibility.
Cynics might indeed sneer and mock, but no doubt their counterparts of centuries back would have been aghast at the very thought that one day there would be something called the Internet.
I have visited Mons several times over the last few years, walked along the town’s canal where much of the initial fighting took place, lingered in the town’s streets, and also traced the infantry’s line of retreat, skirting Le Foret de Mormal, then on to Le Cateau and St Quentin.
And each visit further adds to my fascination and obsession with this story. So could it just be true? Did soldiers really see angels or bowmen?
We live in a far less spiritual age in which consumerism is the new deity. But despite the cynicism of some quarters, there are signs that people are becoming more open to possibilities, evidenced by the widespread belief in UFOs, alien beings and the existence of as yet unknown creatures.
Perhaps most telling of all is the growing popularity of ghost walks, now a major attraction in many British towns and cities.
All of this shows that there is an increasing appetite to believe or at least keep an open mind.
And that is why I feel the door of understanding should always be left slightly ajar when we consider the strange events in the Belgian town of Mons during that fateful, long-lost summer of 1914.