The Battle of Mons was the first major battle fought by the British in World War I, and for many, it was the first foretaste of the horrors to come. The Germans, confident in their numerical superiority, sought to overcome British lines.
They had good reason for this confidence. The soldiers were largely surrounded and heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the advancing troops. But the British somehow escaped the death trap and escaped.
Rumors of this miraculous and impossible escape began even before the fleeing troops returned to their camps. Reports surfaced that the soldiers had seen angels who had come from heaven to guide them, and that they had been saved by what became known as the “Angels of Mons”.
How did these soldiers manage to be saved no matter what? And what did they see on the battlefield?
The inevitable trap
The British declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, and quickly moved the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) into position. The BEFs were much smaller than the other armies and consisted mostly of experienced soldiers.
Mons, located in the south of Belgium, was a key town on the Allied line, and 80,000 BEF fighters reached it on August 22. Unbeknownst to them, however, they found themselves facing a key flashpoint of the German attack, an attempt to breach the defensive lines and come out on the flank, ending the war quickly.
Thus the British forces faced an entire German army with twice as much artillery and three times as much cavalry, and four corps against two British corps. The French, fighting a tense battle at Charleroi, could offer the British no help: the BEF were left to themselves
On the morning of August 23, the German attack began with artillery fire. Although the German advance slowed, and many more Germans were killed during the assault than the British, the British position had become precarious by noon.
The British, fighting furiously, retreated before the German advance, and the maneuvers continued into the night. The Germans suffered heavy losses but continued to advance inexorably and, on August 26, overcame the British reserve positions. They pursued the retreating troops for another two weeks before the British finally pulled ahead.
“Angels of Mons”
The British escape from the huge army seemed almost unbelievable, and rumors swirled in the camp that the soldiers had received miraculous help. At first, it was said that the British soldiers had been helped by archers, echoing the famous archers at Agincourt.
Soon, however, stories began to be told of angels who descended from heaven to save the British and repel the German advance. People believed that the angels had stopped the Germans in their tracks to allow the British soldiers to retreat, since there seemed to be no earthly explanation for the British escape.
Rumors soon began to circulate that the soldiers were being aided by some kind of creature. Whether this was a rumor or a reality, the British government and the Anglican Church began to use it to motivate the soldiers to continue fighting.
Descriptions of the “Angels of Mons” varied. In addition to archers and celestial beings, some told of seeing a strange cloud rushing at the enemy troops.
Legend has it that this ghostly host was summoned by the prayers of the people of Mons and descended from the sky to stop the enemy from approaching the British troops. Some soldiers even said that the Germans soared and roared at the army of angels.
So did an angelic host help the British soldiers as they fled before the German advance, and did St. George himself descend from heaven to save them?
Many believers were convinced of the reality of the angels at Mons. Many who returned after the war also confirmed that they themselves had seen it all – divine intervention during that battle.