Dr Johnson: The Angel of Mons

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 Skeptoid.com.  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 miraculous 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 when they were living.

Archers became angels with an article of supposed battlefield remembrances some months later, 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.

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 is a minority of worldwide belief (to cite just two groups, Roman Catholics are 16.8% and Protestants are 6.1% [2009 estimates]).

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

Photo credit: Lichfield District Council

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Related links:

  • “Angels of Mons,” Wikipedia.
  • Brian Dunning, “The Angel of Mons,” Skeptoid, 1/20/09.