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Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary at the outbreak of First World War.

On 3rd August 1914, the eve of the First World War, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey proclaimed, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”[1]

This prophetic remark has captured the melancholic spirit of the twentieth century; a century which history will surely remember as being one of War. The ramifications, consequences, devastations, and gratuitous loss of life had never before or since been encountered on such a global scale. Our prayers today lie in the hope life will never be subjected to the systematic and brutal extinguishing as witnessed during the ‘Great War’.

The politics and diplomacies put in place since both the world wars ended, continue to work hard in order to ensure such international conflict can never be repeated. Retrospective analysis of European politics and culture has taught us much about man’s character and mankind’s darkest capabilities, which hopefully means Man will never again be able to create Dante’s rings of hell here on earth

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801, Château de Malmaison, France)

War was declared on the 4th August, 1914. The following day King George V prayed ‘Please God it may soon be over’. But no one at that stage could have anticipated the full horror and scale of the First World War, let alone envisage the second. Gone were the days of dashing army heroes on horseback, such as David depicts in Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801, Château de Malmaison, France). Romantic notions of conquering and empire building were being replaced by paranoiac politics, and when conflict commenced in 1914, romantic notions of war (if such a thing were ever possible) were soon replaced with the realities of trench foot and shell shock; real conditions which were both vastly underestimated and misunderstood consequences of modern warfare. At the commencement of the First World War, Society was essentially ill-equipped practically and socially to manage its own technologies and the ensuing warfare that came with them. Regardless of this, Britain promised the youthful Tommy a quick win, and a return home by Christmas.

Soldier with transfixed gaze, indicative of the previously unencountered shell shock.

Despite the growing secularisation of the early twentieth century, once the war commenced a soldiers main source of hope came via prayer. Religion and private faith quickly became more necessary as Society struggled to maintain its grip on civilisation, and as growing numbers of young soldiers questioned the humanity of humanity. King George V encouraged this public need for faith by calling Britain to a national day of prayer, coincidentally at a time when it looked as if the German advances were likely to result in a terrifying decimation of allied forces at Mons.

Captain Cecil Wightwick Haywood, who was Staff Officer in the 1st Corps Intelligence, British Army Headquarters, reflected upon the dire situation faced by the allies:[2]

The German army, after sweeping all resistance aside, had advanced on a wide front into the heart of Belgium and France. Although the Belgians, French, and British put up a stout defence, it was principally against the British that the heaviest enemy attacks were launched. Our troops, greatly outnumbered, had been fighting continuously for several days, with little or no rest, and our men were almost dropping from fatigue after a prolonged rear-guard action during which we had lost numbers of men and guns. Serious defeat appeared inevitable, especially as we had practically no reserves ready. It was realised that a “Day of Trouble” had arrived, and that God alone could help us. Churches were crowded with the whole of the British nation at prayer.

What is reported to have happened next continues to defy belief and reason; one could say that is evidence enough for it to be disregarded as inaccurate, fanciful, or quite simply impossible. Perhaps shell shock, exhaustion, terror, or the very real threat of defeat played a more significant role in the following report than could be reasonably acknowledged back then. Nonetheless, the events of the Battle of Mons on 23rd August, 1914, were considered by many to be the result of Britain’s day of national prayer. A prayer which many soldiers claimed was answered by the so called ‘Angels of Mons’.

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Angels of Mons Valse, Paul Paree

British forces were severely outnumbered and it seemed, as Haywood suggested, that an allied victory was against the odds. Despite heavy censorship the British public were aware of the situation; in fact, this was the first tangible information the public had, via a premature telegraph from a The Times correspondent, and what was worryingly apparent was the by-now-real fear that the Germans would not be easily defeated. As the threat of British defeat hung heavy in the air, the reality of a long war beckoned.

The Battle of Mons is said to have been an intense and raging one, with the British troops subjected to severe and torturous artillery. Although the allies were meeting gun-fire with gun-fire, there was a dis-ease about their chances of victory, and they set about making a defensive barricade in their attempt to slow the enemy advance.[3]

Haywood reported, via the testimony of those soldiers who fought that day, that a sudden silence overcame the battlefield. [4] British soldiers described four or five ‘angels’ who reportedly came between themselves and the Germans.[5] The angels were described as being much larger than men (they were said to be approximately seven foot tall, which seems a not uncommon height for those who claim to have seen angels to state).[6] The description of the angelic beings was one of size and strength, but most interestingly, one of light. Described as being white robed, the figures were said to glow as they seemingly floated in the space they suddenly subsumed; that of the battle space between the British and the German soldiers, who advanced threateningly toward them. The angels turned their faces toward the Germans, with their arms outstretched, perhaps in prayer, or perhaps with the knowledge of divine authority on their side. Upon witnessing these angelic figures, the Germans reportedly fell into disarray, and against all reason and belief, they dispersed. Importantly this divine revelation was witnessed by both sides, for example, a German soldier is said to have pointed to the sky saying ‘Angels, angels, they have stopped us’.[7] Two years later, in 1916, two British officers reflected upon the incident and wrote how ‘the German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded’. It is a powerful tale: that in the middle of a battle which the Germans were set to easily claim as victors, the soldiers turned and effectively surrendered, due, it is said, to the Angels of Mons.

Whilst the notion of an angelic presence on a battlefield could be considered a benevolent or comforting one, it could equally be considered as an entirely invented story. It has long been suggested that Arthur Machen, an aspiring writer, made the story up and although he decried that suggestion it continued to follow him throughout his career. [8] It has also been suggested that the story was mere propaganda. What we can say is that the ‘story’ served as a deeply uplifting religious boost at a time when Britain, and Europe, were becoming aware that the war they were committed to was one which ripped open all previous ideas of civility and human compassion.

I would not be so bold as to make a claim about the validity of this story either way, particularly when many of the eye witness accounts are so consistent. What is clear, is that in the increasingly secular time we live in, the desire to rationalise and explain away any such reports of the divine or the supernatural often results in a reframing of such reports as ‘legends’, frequently as an example of hysteria. In these times of ours, the insistence upon rationalism is far greater than that of the immaterial.  The result of such rational treatment means that there is less likelihood of unravelling any evidence of real angelic experiences in amongst the legend or the hysteria (whether by soldiers, civilians, or the press). What I do know, is that whether an angelic presence was real or imagined during the Battle of Mons is ultimately inconsequential, for the perceived bolstering effect of the angels was very real to those who believed it. I imagine that when one is in the midst of Dante’s Inferno, one is grateful and receptive to any divine filled being who cares to offer a protective hand; real or imagined.

 Crowhurst, The Angels of Mons (1920, National Army Museum).

[1] An incidental point: Grey’s 1925 memoirs record this now famous statement, however, there has been some debate about its origin. .

[2] Note that the Captain in question is often misquoted as being Hayward, not Haywood. I am grateful to Judy MacPherson for verifying the name Haywood on http://www.ancestry.com.

Quotes from Haywood’s reports can be found in various places, e.g. http://www.ensignmessage.com/archives/monsangel.html

[3] The Battle of Mons is said to be responsible for the commencement of Trench warfare

[4] Haywood was not an eyewitness at the Battle of Mons as he was serving in Africa during 1914, where he received two medals; the first medal was awarded for service whilst in the East African Mounted Rifles, Intelligence Corps, and the second for service whilst in the East Africa Somali Scouts, East African Intelligence Department. Haywood did not return to Britain until 1916, and only claims to have been in Bethune in 1918. (Once again I am grateful to Judy MacPherson for discovering this information on www.ancestry.com).

Haywood claimed to have had an angelic sighting in 1918 whilst serving at Bethune. His account can be found here. http://main.clmitchell.net/main-prayer195/answered199/item/198-the-white-cavalry.html

[5] As many as one hundred soldiers reported consisted versions of this angelic sighting.

[6] See Hope Price, Angels True Stories of How they Touch Our Lives (London: MacMillan, 1994) for numerous examples of height and size of angel sightings.

[7] Ibid., p. 94

[6] Arthur Machen published The Bowmen on 29th September, 1914 which is so similar in content and theme to the soldier’s reports of the Angels at Mons, that it has contributed to a debate about the origin and validity of the eyewitness accounts; were they real or were they a hoax? Machen himself felt the reports of the angels at Mons were just a fanciful hoax, one which he was not willing to be part of. It is worth noting that other angelic reports were recorded prior to Machen’s short story being published.

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