The commemorative service at Mons during the summer reminded me of an interesting tale from WW1 that I came across researching the work in progress. As ever, much of the research has hit the cutting room floor in the final telling - however tempting it is to shoehorn in a fantastic bit of history, if it doesn't serve the story, you have to let it go.
On August 23rd 1914 the British Forces were confronted and outnumbered by enemy troops at Mons. The 'Victory by Christmas' looked set to turn into a protracted nightmare. In the heat of the battle - so the legend goes - a soldier called upon St George for help.
The accounts of angelic and divine intervention at Mons came from several sources. Arthur Machen's 'The Bowmen' is one of the most well known. Printed six months after the event, and conveniently 'unable to reveal sources for security reasons' it was at once military propaganda and a morale boost for the troops and public. Machen described the visions as 'English angels with longbows'.
Another account surfaced in a parish sermon, and reached the newspapers. From William Doidge of the Scots Guard, to Brigadier General John Charteris who wrote to his wife on 5th September 1914 of an 'angel of the Lord on a white horse and with a flaming sword', the accounts came from sources across the spectrum of the British forces.
The retreat of the 80,000 from Mons to the Marne saw them caught up in a nightmarish battle of shrieking, thundering guns and shells that tore men limb from limb. In the midst of this furnace of torment, the idea that someone cried 'May St George be a present help to the English' has more than a whiff of propaganda about it. And yet. There are many different accounts of a line of angelic shapes beyond the British line, a cloud of arrows descending on the enemy, and of slain men found with arrow wounds. Or of individual warriors with 'a shining about them', and of three vast angelic figures hovering over enemy lines protecting the British. It was enough to turn one 'old contemptible' I read about from a hard drinker to a teetotal pillar of the community.
Then there was a group of Coldstream Guards, the last to retreat from the Battle of Mons, cut off and lost in the Mormal forest. They had dug in for a valiant last stand, when a tall slim angel apparently beckoned them towards an open field, and a hidden sunken road where they were able to effect their escape from the enemy swarming towards them.
Angelic intervention, or mass hallucination? Whatever the truth, the story of the Angels of Mons helped morale and saw British troops through the hell to come at Loos, the Somme and Passchendaele. It would be interesting to know how many of the HGs have come across tales of supernatural intervention researching their historical periods?