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Dr Johnson: The Angel of Mons

Did you see the 1971 Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks starring Angela Lansbury? Set in World War II, the Germans invade a peaceful British town, but a ghostly and invulnerable battalion of animated suits of armor from the local museum fights off this modern force.

This wasn’t just an active imagination on the part of the screenwriters. No, this came from history.

It was August of 1914, near Mons in Belgium. The German army was making its sweep into France in the opening stages of World War I. Heavily outnumbered units of the British Expeditionary Force came under vastly superior German fire, and their destruction seemed assured. But in perhaps the strangest tale in modern warfare, the British were saved at the last moment by an inexplicable heavenly presence: a brigade of warrior angels appeared and wrought destruction upon the Germans, handing the day and the victory to the British.

This is an excerpt from Skeptoid.com. The episode goes on to expose the myth, noting that the origin of the supernatural part comes the short story “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, published five weeks after the battle. Machen was inspired by the Battle of Agincourt, the miraculous and overwhelming English victory that took place almost exactly 500 years before the Battle of Mons. He imagined the ghosts of those English and Welsh archers using their fabled longbows to annihilate the Germans like they had done to the French cavalry when they were living.

Archers became angels with an article of supposed battlefield remembrances some months later, and the angelic story was solidified by several books years later. The story inspired Mary Norton, author of the two books from which Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks was adapted.

Granted, the horde of angels was never part of any official account of the battle, and even within the British public during the war this was probably a minority belief. But similarly, the historical resurrection of Jesus was never part of any modern consensus view of history, and Christianity is a minority of worldwide belief (to cite just two groups, Roman Catholics are 16.8% and Protestants are 6.1% [2009 estimates]).

If some combination of outright fiction, selective memory, and wishful thinking can make it into the history of our well-educated modern era, shouldn’t this natural explanation win out over the supernatural Jesus story?

Photo credit: Lichfield District Council

Related posts:

Related links:

  • “Angels of Mons,” Wikipedia.
  • Brian Dunning, “The Angel of Mons,” Skeptoid, 1/20/09.
About Bob Seidensticker
  • Orbital Teapot

    Hi Bob,

    I think you already talked about that story, either in this blog or in the forum. The newbies will not notice it, though.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      This is an elaboration of a post I made at apologetics.com. Good catch.

  • Rick Townsend

    So many assertions. So little interest in rebutting them all. So let me pick just one. Or maybe two.

    The number of adherents to Christianity, according to one source, is estimated at 2.28 billion, as of the writing of that article about 33% of the world’s population. How does this compare to atheism? They represented around 137 million (less than 2%), dwarfed by such respected belief systems as Chinese folk religionists at 454 million. Even if you lump agnostics (659 million) and unaffiliated (118 million) with atheists, (which certainly not all of them are anyway) you have only 914 million, or about 13%. Still not enough. Sorry, you’re still the minority and not the consensus. Darn the luck.

    Now, your blog post derisively dismissed Christianity because of such small numbers as you found to be represented by Catholics and Protestants. I don’t believe for a minute that truth is a consensus issue (the Hegelian dialectic approach is instructive and also false here). But you do accept consensus. So where does that leave you as an atheist and your “consensus makes truth” position?

    But let’s not leave without addressing your parting shot of clear thinking about Christianity for your current blog post, “…the historical resurrection of Jesus was never part of any modern consensus view of history.” Really? Have you demonstrated that? Did I miss it somewhere? You trotted out a wishful thinking timeline that purports to demonstrate an evolution of the narrative of Jesus in another post, but you didn’t demonstrate this to be conclusive. So… Just state it, then use it here as if it were true? Not so fast. Evidence is significantly different from stating a fairy tale.

    You need more than this sort of fast and loose playing with facts to displace centuries of solid scholarship and historic research by experts in the field.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Sorry, you’re still the minority and not the consensus.

      And, as was my point, so are you. Darn the luck.

      I don’t believe for a minute that truth is a consensus issue …

      Agreed.

      But you do accept consensus.

      I insist on accepting the consensus view on scientific issues (where there is a consensus).

      So where does that leave you as an atheist and your “consensus makes truth” position?

      I’m sure my position isn’t all that puzzling. [Scientific] consensus is our best provisional approximation at the truth. As for “consensus makes truth,” you’ll have to argue that point with whoever makes it, ’cause it’s not me.

      Haven’t I made that clear many times already?

      Have you demonstrated that?

      No. I didn’t think I had to. Is that a surprising claim?

      You need more than this sort of fast and loose playing with facts to displace centuries of solid scholarship and historic research by experts in the field.

      Then show me the solid scholarship behind the claim that the resurrection of Jesus is the historical consensus. I’ve missed it.

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