Posts Tagged ‘Mons’

Angles on Mons

February 23, 2014

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘The Angel of Mons’ by R. Crowhurst (UK National Army Museum)

I’ve been catching up on the BBC’s latest First World War documentary series, as the centenary approaches (that fact is not coincidental to my sporadic posting – day job and all). It’s actually pretty good, though I did catch a dodgy claim in the first episode. The redoubtable Mr Paxman, explaining the ‘defeat’ of the Battle of Mons and the famous story of angelic salvation, told us that;

“There was one simple explanation for the Angels of Mons: exhaustion”.

This is indeed a simple and plausible explanation for a bizarre story of angelic apparitions rushing to the aid of British Tommies. But it’s wholly unnecessary. The origins of the story as a piece of fiction turned folklore are well documented. Arthur Machen’s ‘The Bowmen’, written in faux documentary style, was modified to be more Protestant Christian (angels not unquiet dead), and embraced as genuine by Spiritualists, who then went hunting for/fabricated ‘evidence’. The rest is history.

If you’d like the real story, I recommend this article by the excellent David Clarke in the equally great Fortean Times, and, if you can access it, another of his from the journal Folklore. He went on to write a book on the subject. You can also check out this Skeptoid podcast. Another article by Steve MacGregor supports Clarke’s thesis, and focuses on the propaganda and recruitment value to the British government of this kind of story.

It does surprise me in the Age of Google, that no-one researching this series bothered to even read the Wikipedia page on the subject. I suspect, given the description of Mons as a ‘defeat’, that they chose to twist the tale to suit the narrative of exhausted, beaten troops. I don’t think they’ve entirely shed the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme. In fact, as dire as casualties appeared at the time to a naive public, Mons was actually a very successful fighting retreat.

It’s a shame in another way too, because Clarke’s interpretations of the story are far more interesting. He casts the construction of the story as myth-making for the industrial era, and as a psychological coping mechanism for people on the home front to deal with the horror of modern war and mass casualties amongst their loved ones. To this I can perhaps add something to bring things full circle to the many soldiers who survived Mons. There actually is a direct relevance here that doesn’t rely on hallucination. Whether or not there were/are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, as the war progressed and the remaining soldiers of the professional army were joined by civilians, it appears that the number of believers in the supernatural also increased. Every soldier was issued a set of identity disks (later nicknamed ‘dog tags’), to be recovered in the event of their death. On these tags, alongside abbreviations like ‘CE’ for Church of England’ and ‘JEW’ for Jewish, was also stamped ‘SPIRI’, for ‘Spiritualist’. This reflects a booming recruitment period for that faith as people struggled to deal with the loss of sons, fathers, and partners. These soldiers and perhaps non-Spiritualists also, must have brought this civilian tale of an incident that never happened with them to the front, and carried that belief with them into battle. I may not believe it myself, sitting in the comfort of home, surrounded by my loved ones; but I cannot help hoping that it provided them some comfort.

Advertisements

The Angle of Mons

April 3, 2012

I’ve so far refrained from commenting on the ‘Angel of Mons’ story, mostly because this Fortean Times article absolutely nails it, and though I’ve yet to read it, I’m sure the full book on the subject (also by Dr David Clarke) thoroughly pokes its dead husk with a stick.

There is also an earlier and more extensive article by Clarke in Folklore journal, reproduced here, a Skeptoid podcast, and just to give some balance, one of the original sources for the claim of ghostly and/or angelic warriors helping British soldiers at the Battle of Mons is online at archive.org. This includes ‘eyewitness’ testimony all apparently based upon an original work of fiction by author Arthur Machen, and all investigated by Clarke and others over the years. The ‘Angel’ is about as open and shut case as it’s possible to get where eyewitness sources are concerned.

But I recently received a Google alert directing me to this blog, which scoffs at Clarke’s scepticism and asserts that;

The issue in the 21st Century isn’t whether the event actually happened – It is whether such an event Could happen.”

Er, is it? I’m not sure how that follows, but even if angelic apparitions were documented and scientifically verified reality, there would still be reason to believe that this incident never happened. And contrary to another statement from the linked blog post, it isn’t because the ‘Angel’ was really;

“…collective hallucination arising from battle fatigue…”

…as the writer claims others claim. No-one today is seriously suggesting this, least of all Clarke, though he does detail this explanation as part of his research. The author of the blog piece clearly hasn’t properly read the article that he links to, as the consensus explanation for the ‘Angel’ is that it was a fictional story that grew legendary ‘legs’.

The invocation of ‘Ockham’s razor’ is also odd, given that even the most ardent believer must admit that the existence of angels is not scientifically evidenced, nor is it today a mainstream belief in the UK, where this commentator is based. But then, phrases like “paradox ridden fairytale” and “meat grinding existentialism and…no hope materialism” being applied to science gives you an idea of the ‘angle’ the writer is taking here. It’s a licence not only to believe what one likes, which I certainly don’t challenge, but to claim it as falsifiable truth.

Well, sorry chum, but it doesn’t work that way. As for;

“why therefore go to all the trouble to dismiss and destroy the Mons story which is a manifestation of human spiritual hope amongst the dark meat grinder of holocausts such as a world war ?”

You said it yourself. Mythmaking under the pressures of one of the most horrific conflicts humanity has ever known is a fascinating and important area of study, whether or not you believe that the events described actually happened. But at the same time, a proper investigation into such stories will almost certainly have to tackle the question “did it really happen”? Some of us feel that it’s important to separate fact from fiction for the same reason that fictional literature, movies and video games are enjoyable and rewarding, but it wouldn’t be healthy to live our lives as though the events described in them were real – as appealing as that idea might sometimes be.

PS Yes, it’s a lame title. Deal with it.