Academic journal article Folklore

Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War. (Research Article)

Academic journal article Folklore

Rumours of Angels: A Legend of the First World War. (Research Article)

Article excerpt

Abstract

The present paper examines the origin and socio-historical context of the Angels of Mons, a belief-legend that was a source of inspiration for British civilians and troops serving on the Western Front during the war of 1914-8. I trace the source of the legend to a fictional story that was in itself inspired by traditions of supernatural intervention in battle that were of great antiquity. During 1915 two versions, one based upon fiction and the other created from the cauldron of rumour and popular belief, became combined and transformed during oral transmission into a belief-legend that continues to survive in English folklore. My conclusion is that the Angel of Mons can only be interpreted within the context of what Fussell describes as "a world of reinvigorated myth" that appeared in the midst of a war characterised by industrialism and materialism (Fussell 1975, 115).

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It's true, Sister. We all saw it. First there was a sort of a yellow mist like, sort of risin' before the Germans as they came to the top of the hill, come on like a solid wall they did--springing out of the earth just solid, no end to 'em. I just gave up. No use fighting the whole German race, thinks I; it's all up with us. The next minute comes this funny cloud of light, and when it clears off there's a tall man with yellow hair in golden armour, on a white horse, holding his sword up, and his mouth open as if he was saying, "Come on boys! I'll put the kybosh on the devils." ... The minute I saw it, I knew we were going to win. It fair bucked me up--yes, sister, thank you. I'm as comfortable as can be (Lancashire Fusilier describes the Battle of Mons to nurse Phyllis Campbell; "The Angels of Mons." London Evening News [31 July 1915], 7).

... It was strong evidence, as I say. Or, rather, it would have been strong evidence but for one circumstance--there was not one word of truth in it. Or, in the stronger phrase of Wemmick, these stories were lies: "Every one of 'em lies, sir" (Machen 1938, 87).

Background

During the decade that preceded the outbreak of the First World War, British society was awash with rumours and fears that were directed outwards towards perceived external aggressors. From 1909 claims of widespread German espionage and phantom Zeppelin airships hovering above the English coastline were circulated by newspapers (Clarke 1999, 39-64). The fear of invasion by foreign hordes was magnified following Britain's entry into the war against Germany in August 1914. Within weeks of the departure to France of the British Expeditionary Force a rumour was spread, largely by newspapers, which claimed that convoys of trains containing a vast Russian army had been seen, travelling under great secrecy from the Scottish ports through England en route to join the Allied effort on the Western front. Belief in the reality of the "Russian myth" persisted until September, when it was denied by the official Press Bureau (Watson and Oldroyd 1995, 193).

In other cases, rumours that appealed to long-established beliefs and traditions would become legends and their influence persisted long after the armistice. In the case of the Angels of Mons, a popular belief developed that a miracle had occurred at a crucial stage in the battle, with the outcome that the British Army was preserved from destruction. This twentieth-century belief emerged from a background of religious and martial traditions that had their ultimate origins in the Middle Ages. St George, who it was claimed had appeared to lead troops fighting at Mons, was traditionally regarded as the patron of English fighting men. In earlier centuries, St George had been invoked during the Crusades and on the field of Agincourt (Hole 1965, 24). As the rumours spread, claims were made that French soldiers had seen a vision of Joan of Arc and St Michael, while Russian infantry had been rallied by their own national hero, General Skobeleff (Shirley 1915, 10). …

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