The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons”
Arthur Machen’s World War I Story, the Insistent Believers, and His Refutations
Richard J. Bleiler
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015, 244 pages
Book Review published on: February 9, 2018
On 29 September 1914, London newspaper The Evening News included a short story by author and mystic Arthur Machen titled “The Bowmen,” which described how British soldiers at the Battle of Mons, fought in the previous month, were saved from destruction by phantom bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Just as the attacking German forces were descending upon the outnumbered British force, a British soldier called upon Saint George to save them. A long line of shining shapes—like bowmen drawing their bows—fired arrows through the air and killed attacking German soldiers. The German forces were forced to fall back, saving the beleaguered British force. This article caught the attention of several religious and paranormal magazines that contacted Machen to request permission to reprint the story. Machen’s immediate claim that the story was a hoax set off a controversy that lasted decades.
Richard J. Bleiler, author and collections librarian at the University of Connecticut’s Homer D. Babbidge Library, chronicles the history of the Angels of Mons controversy in The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons.” This work includes Machen’s “The Bowmen,” contemporary accounts challenging Machen’s hoax claims, additional alleged sightings, and general acceptance in contemporary British society that a supernatural event had occurred.
One of the more mysterious aspects of Bleiler’s work is the enthusiasm for Machen’s story despite his claims that it was fiction. Numerous articles followed in early spring 1915 that alleged confirmation of Machen’s bowmen, while others introduced new sightings involving angelic beings. Some of the angelic figures identified included Mary and Joan of Arc. Phyllis Campbell, a British nursing volunteer in France, related in a 1915 Occult Review article of wounded British and French soldiers expressing that they had seen angelic apparitions. Machen challenged Campbell’s claim for failing to identify the soldiers, for contradictions about the locality of the vision, because the apparitions did not correspond with the bowmen, and for Campbell’s claim that everyone from Mons to Ypres witnessed the vision despite no official reported sightings. English author and journalist Edward Begbie came to Campbell’s defense and refuted Machen in his book On the Side of Angels. Begbie included numerous accounts of “angel” sightings in his work to strongly defend the reality of the Angels of Mons. Additional works soon followed defending the alleged apparition sightings while proposing that these sightings were an omen for Allied victory in the war.
The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons” forces the reader to explain the unexplainable. How did a story whose author claimed it to be fiction become part of English folklore? Did the British government exploit this story for propaganda and recruiting purposes? The strength of this book is Bleiler’s ability to chronicle events without introducing any explanation to bias understanding of those events. Bleiler’s The Strange of Case of “The Angels of Mons” is a great choice for anyone interested in history or the supernatural.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas