The Curious Tale of the Angel of Mons

The Curious Tale of the Angel of Mons November 21, 2014

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 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 stunning 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 centuries earlier in the same part of Europe.

Some months later, archers became angels in an article of supposed battlefield remembrances, 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.

Parallel with the gospel story

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 has always been a minority of worldwide belief (according to 2010 estimates, Roman Catholics are 16.85% and Protestants are 6.15%).

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

Is Islam such a weak religion
that it cannot tolerate a book written against it?
Not my Islam!
— father of 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner,
Malala Yousafzai

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 7/25/12.)

Photo credit:Lichfield District Council

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  • Well if you want to look at a simliar example of how myth can grow, look at George Washington.
    George Washington has tons of missatributed quotes, made up stories and facts about him that have entered the popular imagination and discourse even though we know them to be false.
    Like the story of him chopping down the cherry tree. That was invented in a biography written about Washington 10 years after his death by a guy who was intentionally collecting folklore style tales about Washington and didn’t bother with confirming whether they actually happened or not. But it’s such a fun and compelling story people just believed it and it entered into the myth of Washington such that people still often believe it today and the story persists despite being roundly disproven.
    George Washington was a famous man. He was the first president of the United States and was well known by many people and much of the countries eyes were on him, and he lived and died not even 300 years ago. Yet within 10 years of his death we already have the truth of his life being bent out of shape.

  • Pofarmer

    This is common in the Christian community. I should have saved the post where a,U.S. faith healer is credited with all kinds of miracles including giving sight to twins born without eyes. It’s easy to sell something people want to buy.

  • avalon
  • Michael Neville

    The Battle of Mons was successful for both sides. The British were outnumbered by about 3:1 but managed to withstand the German 1st Army for 48 hours, inflict more casualties on the Germans and then retire in good order. The BEF achieved its main strategic objective, which was to prevent the French Fifth Army from being outflanked. The battle was an important moral victory for the British; as their first battle on the continent since the Crimean War it was a matter of great uncertainty as to how they would perform. In the event, the British soldiers came away from the battle with a clear sense that they had got the upper hand during the fighting at Mons. The Germans recognized that they had been dealt a sharp blow by an army they had considered inconsequential.

    For the Germans the Battle of Mons was a tactical repulse and a strategic success. The 1st Army was delayed by the British and suffered many casualties but crossed the barrier of the Mons–Condé Canal and began its advance into France. The Germans drove the BEF and French armies before them almost to Paris until stopped at the Battle of the Marne.