During World War One and in the decades that followed, the Angel of Mons was widely believed to be a well attested and genuine instance of supernatural intervention in battle. During the latter half of the Twentieth Century this belief became tempered with a view that perhaps this was simply a case of collective hallucination brought on by exhaustion or even an early urban myth originated by a piece of fiction. However, there is good reason to believe that none of these theories is entirely correct and that instead the Angel of Mons is an example of something very different indeed.
On August 22nd 1914, just eighteen days after the beginning of World War One, the 2nd Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) occupied defensive positions along the Mons – Conde canal in Belgium. The task facing the men of 2nd Corps was to stop or delay much larger numbers of German troops who formed the 1st German Army under General Alexander von Kluck which was then advancing through Belgium and heading for northern France.
Advancing German troops, August 1914
After successfully holding off the initial waves of German attacks, the British were forced to undertake an exhausting fighting withdrawal between 23rd and 26th August. The retreat of the BEF came as a terrible blow to a British public conditioned to regard their troops as invincible. Contemporary British and French newspaper reports were extremely gloomy. On 30th August The Times reported that the attacking German infantry was so strong that “that they could no more be stopped than the waves of the sea.” Somehow the soldiers of the BEF continued to fight as they pulled back and the German advance slowed and then was finally brought to a standstill on the River Marne in early September. Combat in Flanders then descended into the bloody inertia of static trench warfare.
Soldiers of the BEF resting in Mons before the retreat
While the retreat from Mons may have shocked and horrified the British public, this action quickly became legendary amongst the soldiers of the ever expanding British Army. A fighting retreat is one of the most difficult maneuvers for any army to undertake because there is a constant danger that retreat will turn into rout. This didn’t happen to the disciplined, determined and professional soldiers of the BEF. Exhausted and outnumbered they may have been, but their determined defence of one line after another slowed the German advance sufficiently to allow the preparation of more permanent lines on the Marne.
The arts and religion correspondent at the London Evening News during this period was a man called Arthur Machen. Machen, a Welshman, had been the author of a number of popular gothic horror novels in the 1880s and 1890s. One of his novels, The Great God Pan, had been a huge hit when it was published in 1890. Machen’s novels provided an eager Victorian audience with a titillating combination of the occult, sex, violence, religion and horror. However, by 1914 gothic novels were no longer popular and Machen had been forced to find work with London’s largest circulation newspaper, the Evening News.
The grim news from Belgium in late August 1914 persuaded Machen that what was needed was a piece of fiction that would boost morale in Britain. During September he worked on a short story in which supernatural forces come to the aid of British troops during the retreat from Mons. This was published on September 29th on the front page of the Evening News as The Bowmen. The story was a lurid tale of doughty British Tommies fighting valiantly against overwhelming numbers of dastardly Germans. Just when it looks as if the British soldiers are done for, one of them unwittingly utters an invocation to the spirit of St. George. At the last possible moment, ghostly archers appear and save the British troops from the final German onslaught;
“… he 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 tingling through the air towards the German hosts.”
The story goes on to describe in enthusiastic detail how thousands of Germans are killed by the arrows of the ghostly archers, the attack is turned back and the British troops are saved. When it was printed in the Evening News on 29th September The Bowmen was not specifically identified as a piece of fiction. The Evening News often included fiction within its pages and, perhaps confusingly, another piece in that edition of the newspaper was titled “Our Short Story”. However, given the tone, content and approach of The Bowmen, it’s difficult to believe that anyone could have mistakenly read it as a piece of reportage as has been claimed.
The Bowmen was welcomed as a patriotic piece of fiction and was re-printed in many parish magazines in the latter part of 1914. Although largely forgotten now, in the early 1900s local parish magazines were widely read and extremely influential in Britain. However, following its publication, Machen was also contacted by the editors of two specialist publications – The Occult Review and the spiritualist magazine Light. The editors asked whether The Bowmen was based on real events? Machen assured both that the story was simply a piece of fiction with no foundation in reality.
As 1914 turned into 1915, the war which many people had confidently forecast would be “over by Christmas” was not only still being fought, it had become a bloody stalemate where casualties mounted relentlessly for no appreciable gains. The French launched the First Champagne Offensive in December 1914. The battle raged for three months and the only notable outcome was 90,000 French casualties. On 10th March, British forces opened the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. The battle achieved absolutely nothing and cost the lives of more than 10,000 British and Commonwealth troops. In August 1914 the British public had been wildly supportive of the war and many young men volunteered to join the army between August and November. Six months later, public enthusiasm for the war had abated to a notable extent and the flood of volunteers had become a trickle.
Neuve Chapelle after the battle in 1915
On 3rd April 1915 a small English provincial newspaper, the Hereford Times, carried an article called “A Troop of Angels”. This seems to have been the first time that the term “Angel of Mons” was used in print. The article was a second-hand account originating from a story told by a Miss Marrable (described as “the daughter of the well-known Canon Marrable“.) Miss Marrable had met two officers from the BEF:
“Both of whom had seen angels which had saved their left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during our retreat from Mons.”
The 24th April (23rd April is St George’s day) 1915 edition of Light magazine ran a similar story titled: “The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front.” Although not identical to the Hereford Times piece, this also claimed that supernatural forces had come to the aid of British forces at Mons. In May 1915 an article in the Occult Review stated that at Mons “those who could see said they saw ‘a row of shining beings’ between the two armies.” You’ll recall that the editors of Light and The Occult Review had contacted Machen in September 1914 to ask whether the The Bowmen was based on fact. His denial does not appear to have dampened their enthusiasm for the story – the events described in both magazines were very similar in substance to Machen’s story though they claimed to be factual reports of real events.
Also in May 1915 a reprint of the Hereford Times article appeared in the All Saints Church Parish Magazine in Bristol (the April edition of the same magazine had included a reprint of The Bowmen). Reverend Gilson, the editor of the All Saints magazine, was quickly overwhelmed due to interest in the article about the Angel of Mons;
“…to find that our modest little parish magazine has suddenly sprung into almost world-wide notoriety; every post … has brought letters from all over the country, not asking merely for single copies, but for dozens of copies, enclosing quite embarrassing numbers of stamps and postal orders, the more so since there were no more magazines to be had.”
The Reverend R. F. Horton was a popular and influential Manchester preacher whose sermons were well attended and eagerly read when printed versions were distributed. The story of the Angel of Mons had so completely gripped the British popular imagination that in June 1915 he said in a sermon:
“… when soldiers and officers, who were in the retreat from Mons say they saw a batch of angels between them and the enemy…, no thoroughly modern man is foolish enough to disbelieve the statement or to pooh-pooh the experience as hallucination.”
Several major newspapers became interested after Reverend Horton’s sermon and a number reprinted the account based on Miss Marrable’s original story from the Hereford Times. In August 1915 The Occult Review published the first of a series of articles by a British Nurse, Phyllis Campbell, who had served in field dressing stations near the front line in France and Belgium during the retreat from Mons. She claimed to have heard many stories from wounded soldiers of supernatural entities helping British troops. Some of these stories were repeated in her book Back to the Front, published in 1915. Also published in 1915 was On the Side of the Angels, a book by journalist Edward Harold Begbie which described the Angel of Mons. This book included an account by an anonymous Lance-Corporal who testified that during the retreat on 28th August 1914:
“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 quite 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 cloak.”
These stories, or derivations from them, were repeated in newspapers and parish magazines and used in sermons across the UK. A small number of eyewitnesses also came forward to give first-hand testimony. One of the best known, Private Robert Cleaver of the 1st Cheshire Regiment, gave to newspapers a detailed account of Angels he had seen at Mons and swore to the truth of this under oath. The Angel of Mons was frequently cited as evidence that God was on the side of the Allies. By late summer 1915 it was said to be “unpatriotic, almost treasonable, to doubt” the story of the Angel of Mons.
The Occult Review from August 1915. Including “The Angelic Leaders – Evidence from the Wounded at the Front”, the first article by nurse Phyllis Campbell on the Angel of Mons.
Belief in some sort of supernatural intervention on behalf of British troops at Mons became well-established in Britain, France and America during the remainder of World War One. Even after the war this belief was widely held. For example, J.R.R Tolkein (author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Mary Norton (author of the Bedknobs and Broomsticks trilogy and The Borrowers series) were both said to have been inspired by the story. As late as 1966 respected British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote in The First World War (An Illustrated History) that;
“Supernatural intervention was observed, more or less reliably, on the British side. Indeed the ‘angels of Mons’ were the only recognition of the war vouchsafed by the Higher Powers. “
In The 1914 Campaign, by D. David published in 1987 it was noted that at Mons;
“Some beleaguered soldiers reported being rescued by angels and ghostly bowmen.“
In the years since World War One some of the surviving British veterans of the First World War have been interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles and have appeared on television and radio giving first-hand accounts of the Angel. A number of books and articles in newspapers and magazines have presented the Angel of Mons as a documented example of divine intervention in human affairs and as proof of the existence of angels.
Three theories have been put forward to explain the Angel of Mons:
- That there was some sort of supernatural manifestation during the retreat from Mons.
- That the Angel was either a misidentification (of strange cloud formations, for example) or a hallucination experienced by exhausted troops.
- That there was no Angel of Mons: memories of The Bowmen were conflated and assimilated until they became regarded as real events.
Theory one was widely believed in Britain during World War One and in the years that followed. After all, there was both first-hand testimony from soldiers who had actually seen the Angel and second-hand testimony from nurses and others who had worked with wounded men who spoke about the Angel. However, there is a major and fatal flaw to this theory. Both British and German military units kept detailed war diaries and communication records during the period of the retreat from Mons. None of these mention anything at all about supernatural forces. If several thousand (or indeed any) German soldiers had been killed by supernatural beings, it’s reasonable to assume that this would have been worth mentioning in their communications with HQ and in unit diaries. Soldiers on both sides also regularly wrote home to their families and friends and again it would be reasonable to expect at least some discussion of this subject in their letters. However, no letters from the relevant period were found which mentioned the Angel or anything similar.
1916 postcard showing the “Angels of Mons”
In the period following World War One, the literal truth of story of the Angel was increasingly doubted, with many people coming to believe that its origin could be traced back to Arthur Machen’s fictional short story which had mistakenly been read as a piece of reportage and assumed to be real. However, supporters of the theory of a supernatural event continued to search for first-hand testimony about the angel in military records and in letters from soldiers at the front. The initial focus for most of these researchers was the four week period between the end of the retreat from Mons and the publication of The Bowmen. If any mention of the Angel could be found during this time, it would prove that sightings of the Angel were real and not influenced by Machen’s short story. Despite diligent searching, researchers were unable to find any mention of the Angel of Mons or indeed of any supernatural events in August 1914 in any military records or in even a single letter written by a soldier in the period August – September 1914. That was (and is) a major blow to those who believe that something supernatural really happened in August 1914.
What researchers did discover was that accounts of the Angel (and claims to have seen it) only began to appear in British soldiers’ letters after June 1915, when the story became widely known and publicized. To most people this suggested that, whatever its actual origins, the Angel of Mons was not a real event.
But what about witnesses who claimed either to have seen the Angel themselves or to have spoken to soldiers who had seen it? It quickly became clear that these didn’t stand up to close examination either. Many articles could be traced back to accounts given by British nurse Phyllis Campbell who had provided information for the first Occult Review article on the Angel. Ms Campbell claimed to have spoken a number of wounded officers and men who had personally seen Angel during the retreat from Mons. However, Ms Campbell had an intense and visceral hatred for all things German. In one of her interviews she noted that:
“It seemed to me that all the wickedness, all the fear and filthiness imaginable that exists can be summed up in one word: “GERMAN.”
In her book nurse Campbell also passed on stories about German soldiers crucifying civilians and cutting the hands off children. These atrocity stories proved to be completely false and were deliberately invented in the hope that they would increase general loathing for the Germans. Given that part of the thrust of the Angel of Mons story is that God is on the side of the British and opposed to the Germans, most researchers came to believe that the tales told by Nurse Campbell about wounded soldiers describing the Angel were invented by her – it’s certainly notable that no other British nurses or doctors claimed to have heard the same stories. When challenged about this, Phyllis Campbell claimed that military authorities had ordered soldiers not to talk about the Angel or to write about it letters or military diaries, though there is no evidence whatsoever to support this. Most people now believe that Phyllis Campbell’s hatred of Germany led her to invent stories of hearing about the Angel of Mons from wounded men.
Miss Marraple, who was quoted in the very first account of the Angel in the Hereford Times, was swamped with requests for more information about the soldiers she had spoken to who had told her about the Angel. She found this extremely irritating as she said that she had never claimed any such thing and that she knew nothing about the Angel or anyone who may have claimed to have seen it. Finally, in exasperation she wrote to the London Evening News:
“I shall be much obliged if you will inform the Editor of The Occult Review that I know nothing whatever of officers or men who saw the angels.“
Despite this, accounts which had originally been attributed to her continued to be included in leaflets and articles as a true account of a real event, though now with her name removed.
An enterprising journalist did some research on Private Robert Cleaver of the 1st Cheshire Regiment. Cleaver had provided sworn testimony to newspapers that he had seen the Angel at Mons but it was quickly discovered that Cleaver had not joined the Army until late August 1914 and did not arrive in France until 22nd September – four weeks after the end of the battle at which he claimed to have seen the Angel! Even the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), which might have been expected to support a supernatural explanation, concluded a report on the Angel in December 1915 by saying that the stories:
“Prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.“
After a great deal of research, most people agreed that there simply was no source evidence to support the theory that anything supernatural happened at Mons in 1914. Every story of the Angel could be traced to the period after the publication of the story in the Hereford Times in April 1914. Nothing was found to support the idea that this had been mentioned before that date. The conclusion was that, once the story became known, a number of people claimed to have had sightings. However, none of these sightings could be confirmed and none had been mentioned at the time.
The second theory, of a misidentification of natural phenomena such as clouds or a mass hallucination by exhausted soldiers, simply isn’t viable for the very same reason – If soldiers mistakenly believed that they had experienced some strange event, whether supernatural in origin or not, this would have been mentioned in letters and elsewhere. It was not. There wasn’t an Angel at Mons or anything that was mistaken for an Angel. The whole story is a piece of folklore which seems to have arisen almost spontaneously beginning in April 1915.
Which brings us to the third theory, that the Angel of Mons was no more than an urban myth which began with The Bowmen. This theory became popular after the end of World War One. Arthur Machen certainly believed this to be the true origin of the Angel of Mons. In August 1915 he re-published The Bowmen in an anthology of patriotic short stories. This book was wildly popular and quickly sold out. In the preface Machen included a clear statement noting that The Bowmen was the basis for the Angel;
“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, sometime in April, 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.”
At the time, this had no effect on the general belief in the reality of the Angel, but later historians and researchers came to agree with Machen. In the 2000 book A Dictionary of English Folklore by J. Simpson and S. Roud, the Angel of Mons is described as:
“A contemporary legend which satisfied religious and patriotic needs, and became a powerful and enduring part of the mythology of the Great War.“
Most historians and folklorists now agree that the Angel of Mons was a spontaneous myth which can be traced back directly to The Bowmen. So, is that it, case closed? No Angel, no hallucination, just a folk tale originating from a short story? Well, I don’t think so. If The Bowmen really was the origin of the Angel myth, why did it take more than six months for this to happen? The Bowmen was well received as a piece of fiction when it was published in September 1914, but source evidence shows that there was no discussion of the possible reality of the Angel until April 1915. That doesn’t make sense if the myth had arisen directly from the short story. Instead, I believe that a close examination of the evidence in the Angel of Mons story suggests something more complex and contrived than the conventional explanation.
Brigadier-General John Charteris
Those who sought to prove that the Angel of Mons was real continued to search for proof in the years following World War One, but without success. Then, in 1931, everything changed. In that year a senior British staff officer during World War One, Brigadier-General John Charteris, published a book, At GHQ, covering his experiences during the war. Charteris was a prolific letter writer, sometimes writing several letters each day to his wife and friends. At GHQ was a compilation of letters written by Charteris from August 1914 to November 1918. One letter to his wife was dated 5th September 1914 and contained the following lines:
“… the story of the Angel of Mons going strong through the 2nd Corps of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress.”
Here at last was definitive proof that soldiers were talking about the Angel of Mons before the publication of The Bowmen (which was first published on 29th September). Which in turn supports the notion of the Angel was a real event rather than something inspired solely by Machen’s short story. Those who believed in the reality of the Angel used this as a triumphant vindication of their position. Here was a senior and respected British staff officer confirming what they had always claimed. However, things weren’t quite as they seemed.
First of all, the term “Angel of Mons” did not begin to appear in the press until around June 1915. It seems uncannily prescient that Charteris would happen to use a phrase which would later become almost universally adopted nine months before anyone else. Then in another letter in the book, this time dated February 11th 1915, Charteris again mentions the Angel in a letter to his wife:
“I have been at some trouble to trace the rumour to its source. The best I can make of it is that some religiously minded man wrote home that the Germans halted at Mons, AS IF an Angel of the Lord had appeared in front of them. In due course the letter appeared in a parish magazine, which in time was sent back to some other men at the front. From them the story went back home with the “as if” omitted, and at home it went the rounds in its expurgated form.”
This is demonstrably untrue. We know that the first mention of supernatural intervention at Mons in a parish magazine was in the May 1915 edition of the All Saints Church Parish Magazine in Bristol. So, Charteris cannot have been writing to his wife about it in February 1915. Microfilm copies of the original letters on which At GHQ was based are held by the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s College, University of London. A search of the archive by social historian Dr David Clarke found that there are no letters dated 5th September 1914 or 11th February 1915 in the collection (the majority of other letters used in At GHQ are present in the collection). The originals of Charteris papers were donated to the Intelligence Corps Museum on his death, but letters for these dates are not to be found there either. It is possible of course that the originals of these particular letters have been lost. However it is also possible that they never existed and that the entries published in At GHQ have been falsified. But why on earth would Charteris want to do this?
To understand, we need to look more closely at the wartime career of Brigadier-General John Charteris. Charteris was part of the Intelligence Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and travelled to France with the BEF on the outbreak of war. He became a close friend of General Douglas Haig (later Field Marshal Haig) who commanded 1 Corps of the BEF. Charteris was promoted by Haig to become Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ (General Headquarters of the BEF), a role he kept until January 1918. Charteris was close to Haig, advising him on intelligence and wider military matters. He was not popular with fellow officers, being considered devious and manipulative and he was referred to on more than one occasion as “Haig’s evil counselor”. One of his own secretaries during the war called him “really a horror of a man” and by the end of 1917 he was known as “the U-Boat” due to his alleged propensity for launching unexpected attacks on colleagues. After the war, Charteris wrote two complimentary biographies of Haig.
The Intelligence Corps of the British Army which Charteris came to lead hadn’t even existed prior to 1912, and at the outbreak of war in August 1914 it numbered less than 50 officers and men. In the beginning, the Corps carried out the gathering of battlefield intelligence – officers and men were sent to the front to gather information about enemy forces and these reports were then collated and provided to GHQ. However, under Charteris’ leadership the Intelligence Corps also began to work with emerging theories of psychology to develop, amongst other things, effective de-briefing techniques for extracting information from German prisoners of war. The Corps was also involved in several tactical deceptions – for example planting information leading the Germans to expect an attack on a particular sector when a real attack was planned for a different area. In addition, there is good evidence that the Intelligence Corps was also involved in much larger strategic deceptions which would fall under the heading of what we’d now call propaganda and psychological warfare.
One possible example is the story of the ‘Kadaver factory’ (sometimes called the “tallow factory”). Like the Angel of Mons, this was first mentioned in early 1915. A number of newspapers and magazines around the world which were sympathetic to the Anglo-French cause carried articles which claimed that Germany had set up a “corpse utilisation plant” (Kadaververwertungsanstalt) where the bodies of dead German soldiers were taken to be boiled down and the results used in the manufacture of munitions and to produce animal feed. The story was very widely reported in 1915 and continued to feature sporadically in newspapers throughout the war. There was a significant revival of interest in 1917 when accounts from eyewitnesses who claimed to have actually seen the factory were published. The story caused repugnance and condemnation around the world and immediate, vehement and consistent German denials were largely ignored.
We now know that there never was a Kadaver factory. The story had no basis in fact and all the alleged eye-witness reports were invented. The myth was very harmful to the German cause and reinforced the view promoted by the Allies that Germans were ruthless and brutal. Journalists who initially reported the story claimed that their information came from highly-placed British military sources, but these were never named. During and after the war, many Germans believed that the Kadaver Factory was a story deliberately created by their enemies to blacken the reputation of the German war effort, though they were never able to prove this.
Cartoon in Punch Magazine, 1917 makes reference to the Kadaver Factory story.
In late 1925 Charteris, by that time Conservative Member of Parliament for Dumfries shire, made a visit to the United States. During an alcohol-fueled after-dinner speech to the National Arts Club in Manhattan, he told a number of anecdotes about his involvement in spies and spying during World War One. In one of these he admitted that the stories about the Kadaver Factory (then still widely believed to be true in America), were actually a deliberate creation of the British Intelligence Corps. According to a New York Times report of the lecture on 2nd November, he went on to describe how one day he had received two photographs. One showed dead German troops being taken for burial. The other showed dead horses being taken to a rendering plant to be made into fertilizer. Charteris simply swapped the captions, so that the picture of dead soldiers showed that they were being sent to a Kadaververwertungsanstalt. At that time Britain was concerned about the attitude of China, which seemed to be favouring Germany. Aware of Chinese reverence for the dead, Charteris sent the picture and caption to an English language Chinese newspaper in Shanghai hoping to influence Chinese popular opinion against Germany. To his surprise, from Shanghai the Kadaver Factory story spread around the world.
Charteris went on to describe how a member of the Intelligence Corps forged the diary of a German soldier which described his work in the Kadaver Factory, “and of his horror at finding that he was to assist there in boiling down his brother soldiers.” The plan was to plant the forged diary on the body of a dead German soldier and have it “discovered” by British soldiers, though this was never carried out.
Charteris revelations about the Kadaver Factory were widely reported in the UK and there was an immediate and furious reaction. The London Evening Standard demanded:
“It is vital that he deny the statement instantly. . . . Its effect is to discredit British propaganda past, present and future.“
On 2nd December British Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain was forced to react to German anger over Charteris comments by issuing a statement on behalf of the Government accepting that there was no truth in the Kadaver Factory story (though he carefully avoided admitting any British involvement in its creation). When he returned to Britain after his US tour, Charteris was urgently summoned to the War Office. Soon after, he denied that he or British military intelligence had any role in the Kadaver Factory story, claimed that he had been “misreported” in the US and said that quotes attributed to him were “incorrect and absurd”. This denial lacks credibility. The New York Times article was published while Charteris was still in the USA, but he made no effort to dispute it at the time. It wasn’t until he returned to Britain and became aware of the outrage that his comments had caused that he felt the need to publically deny the story. In the mid-1920s anything that could be interpreted as dishonourable or underhanded was considered harmful to British interests. Charteris revelations about the Kadaver Factory suggested the kind of ungentlemanly behavior which was considered unacceptable even in the midst of war. However, his description of how the Kadaver Factory story was created is entirely plausible and fits with how the story first appeared and then spread. It seems likely that his revelations in America were true, if indiscreet, and that his later denial was simply a politician’s response to unexpected anger at home and abroad.
If the invention of the Kadaver Factory story by Charteris is true, and there seems good reason to believe that it may be, could the Angel of Mons also be a piece of propaganda promulgated and encouraged by Charteris and the Intelligence Corps? To assess this possibility we have to consider why Britain might have seen value in promoting the story of the Angel in March/April 1915. At this time the first Zeppelin raids on the British mainland had begun, terrifying civilians. The German submarine blockade of Britain had started, raising fears of starvation. The indecisive battle of Neuve Chapelle had produced high casualties but few gains. The initial flood of volunteers to join the British army was lessening. Most of all, war weariness was taking hold as the public began to realise that this horrific and destructive war was set to last much longer than anyone had expected. If a piece of propaganda could help to lift the morale of the British people at this difficult time, could persuade them of the divine rightness of their cause and encourage enlistment, it would certainly be of interest to military intelligence.
This would help to explain the crudely falsified letters about the Angel in Charteris book. Having been roundly condemned for his revelations about the Kadaver Factory in 1925, Charteris wasn’t going to risk the same thing happening if it was thought that he was also responsible for the Angel of Mons as a piece of British propaganda. The two letters in At GHQ which mention the Angel are intended to reinforce the idea that this was a real event, but errors in timing make it certain that these were not written when claimed and it’s much more likely that they were created and inserted later. There is no reason for Charteris to do this unless he has a vested interest in supporting the idea that the Angel was a real event and therefore deflecting any suspicion that he may have been involved in its creation. There are two further circumstantial clues that support the suspicion of Charteris’ direct involvement in spreading the story of the Angel of Mons.
The Reverend C. M. Chavasse served as a chaplain with the BEF in France and Belgium. On his return to England in October 1915, he gave a sermon in which he referred to the story of the Angel of Mons. He said 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…”
We know that Charteris was a Brigadier General with the BEF at the time that Reverend Chavasse was in France. Finally, the publication in the April 24th edition of Light magazine of one of the first articles about the Angel of Mons was prompted by a visit to their London offices by an unnamed “military officer” who gave them the story. The article noted that the officer;
“… explained that, whether Mr Machen’s story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons.”
This was completely untrue – we know from letters and other records that in April 1915 there was no discussion of any “curious phenomenon” at Mons, so we may wonder what prompted this officer to make such a claim to one of the few publications who might be expected to run such a story? These two instances of a senior military officer helping to spread the story of the Angel are simply those of which we happen to know – there were almost certainly many more instances which have never been recorded. Of course, we can’t be certain that Charteris was the officer involved, but if we combine these circumstantial clues with the otherwise inexplicable falsification of letters referring to the Angel in Charteris’ book and his possible involvement in originating the Kadaver Factory story, then I think it is reasonable to surmise that he may also have been involved in originating the Angel of Mons myth in April 1915 as a piece of morale-boosting propaganda at a time when the war had become unpopular. Presumably this was done in the same way that the Kadaver Factory story was started, with unattributable stories being given “off the record” to selected journalists (in just the way that the original Angel story was given to Light magazine). The biggest mystery here is that, once the story started to grow, there seemed to be no shortage of seemingly sincere and honest “eye-witnesses” willing to step forward to attest to the truth of something that had never happened.
Field Marshal Haig with Staff officers, 1918
There is no good evidence to support the view that anything supernatural happened during the retreat from Mons. The conventional explanation is that The Bowmen had a role in the later creation of the myth of the Angel, but if it did, it seems very odd that this did not begin until more than six months after the story was published. I think it is much more likely that Machen’s story simply provided an idea that Charteris and the Intelligence Corps developed, planted in the press and then nurtured by dropping hints to selected people at appropriate moments. They were then able to stand back and watch as the story grew, spread and was embellished as it was re-told. If this is true, the Angel of Mons Mystery is worthy of note not just as a mystery and an interesting piece of social history, but also as a masterly and enduring early example of disinformation and psychological warfare.
The Bowmen and other legends of the war. The anthology published in 1915 which includes the story which is claimed by some to have started the Angel of Mons myth. Available for free download from Project Gutenberg.
The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, 2005 by David Clark. Book providing a detailed investigation into the Angel of Mons and other legends of World War One.
The case of the elusive Angel of Mons. Website taking a detailed look at the events of August 1914 and examining the case for and against a supernatural event.