This week saw the annual Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day commemorations where millions stood silent in honour of those fallen heroes of World War I and every war since. Amongst the horrors of war reported over the last century, are many supernatural stories and legends from the battlefield and beyond.
One that springs to mind from my university days is the legend of the Angels of Mons. The Battle of Mons at the start of World War I was particularly nasty for the British Army who were outnumbered by the German Army. It was reported that at the point where it looked like the battle might be lost, the clouds parted and a host of angels accompanied by medieval archers with longbows and St. George himself appeared to spur on the British and lead them to victory. This story was widely reported as fact in the newspapers and gave great hope to those who were left at home worrying about their loved ones.
A strange story indeed. But did it actually happen? It would seem not. The story was actually just that; a story. It was written by a man called Arthur Machen and published in various newspapers and magazines in 1914. The story was based on witness accounts of the Battle of Mons, but the supernatural twist and the reporting of the angel sightings as fact was largely down to people repeating it amongst their family and friends. Returning soldiers claimed that it had happened, and for years the story circulated, driven by fascination and wonder at the thought of Britain being divinely protected at a time of crisis. But sadly there is no evidence to suggest that angels did really appear that day.
War is dark, scary and tragic, so stories of hope such as the Angels of Mons bring hope, especially to those whose relatives were away fighting. During World War I there was huge interest in Spiritualism; that is talking to spirits beyond the grave. In particular, many parents who had lost their (very young) sons in the bloodiest of battles, desperately wanted to talk to them to somehow lessen the pain of their wasted lives. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – who wrote stories about a bloke called Sherlock Holmes – was particularly interested in Spiritualism and stories such as that of the Angel of Mons. He helped to make Spiritualism popular. Why was he so interested? His young son died from injuries after fighting at the Battle of the Somme. He just wanted to speak to him one last time.
If you have anyone from a military background in your family – grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters – ask them, and I’ll bet they’ll know of a spooky legend connected to their battles or barracks.