Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(2) The Angel of Mons postcard


Perhaps the most enduring legend of the Great War was that of the "Angel of Mons." The legend first appeared in a short story titled The Bowmen, by Arthur Machen, which appeared in the London Evening News on 29th September 1914. Coincidentally, the 29th was also the feast day of St Michael and All Angels.

ww1 postcard “THE ANGELS OF MONS”


The card on the left, “THE ANGELS OF MONS” was from the painting by W.H. Margetson. It was published by ‘A. Vivian Mansell & Co., Fine Art Publishers, London’ and was ‘No, 1017.’    



The story starts on Sunday 30th August after Machen had read in his morning newspaper about the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) from Mons. "…I have not forgotten the impression that made on my mind. I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and terror… and in the middle of the burning was the British Army." He also said that the inspiration for the story came to him in church, "as the blue incense floated above the gospel book on the desk between the tapers."

In the story, St. George, with an army of medieval English bowmen, appeared in the sky and annihilated the Germans with ghostly arrows at a critical moment during the retreat and saved the B.E.F. Machen later said that he felt he could have told the story better and added, "If I failed in the art of letters I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit."

The Bowmen appeared at a time when people were looking for a miracle and perhaps because it appeared in a newspaper, the story seemed to have some credibility. Whatever the reason, many people in Britain were ready to believe that heavenly intervention saved the B.E.F. from total defeat.

As the story gained more coverage, the bowmen turned into angels. Arthur Waghorn asked his readers in The War Budget "Are the angels on our side in this great struggle for liberty and honour? For many readers the sky has become as full of visions as the sea of salt."

Indeed, it had; public demand for information describing spectral visions and apparitions during the British retreat ensured a steady supply of publications on the subject. For example, Harold Begbie, a popular writer at the time, wrote On the side of the Angels, a sermon by G.P. Kerry entitled Guardian Angels was then produced in print, and the Theosophical Publishing Society produced Angels, Saints and Bowmen of Mons by I.E Taylor. Periodicals like The Occult Review and Light then took up the story, followed by numerous parish magazines throughout the country.


With such widespread coverage, it was perhaps inevitable that more people should come forward to announce that they too had friends or relatives who were soldiers and who had "seen the Angels of Mons with their own eyes."

It seems that the idea of ‘God on our side’, gave many people consolation and hope for the future. Despite his protests that the tale was purely a figment of his imagination, Machen said "Great numbers of people made up their minds that the story was true from beginning to end." His original article in the Evening News, which had started the whole thing off, was published in an expanded version in a booklet and within a year, 1,000,000 copies had been sold.

Was the tale pure fiction? Of course… and yet…  the eminent military historian the late John Terraine said, that as early as 5th September 1914, Brigadier-General John Charteris recorded in a letter that the story of the Angels of Mons was "going strong through the 2nd Corps…how the angel of the lord on the traditional white horse and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress." This was three weeks before Machen’s story of The Bowmen appeared in print.


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