MONS, BELGIUM: Earlier last week the hearts and souls of our nation reflected upon the senseless acts of terrorism that took the lives of 3,000 innocent people on the morning of 9/11/01 some 18 years ago. Elsewhere, in Mons, Belgium, just 9 days before America wept, there were tanks rolling along the cobblestone streets leading into the center of town.
It’s a local tradition that takes place annually in Mons. The event is to commemorate the liberation of the city from the grip of Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical quest for Nazi domination.
But the story goes beyond what happened that day. It includes the fictional story of the battle that led to the creation of the Angel of Mons. And one of World War II’s most enduring stories.
Freedom for Belgium – 1944
This year, however, September 2 was more special than usual for Belgium. This year marks the 75th anniversary of that glorious day in 1944 when Belgians were once again free. In tribute, tanks roll into Mons each year as a way of saying thank you to American soldiers and their allies.
To keep the flame of independence alive by letting the world know that they have not, and will not, ever forget the sacrifices made on their behalf in the mid-20th century.
While many people have never heard of Mons, the city became the focus of a popular World War I legend, that, like all good folklore, continues to grow more than a century later.
It happened in late August 1914 when the first major engagement of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War occurred at the Battle of Mons.
Advancing German forces were thrown back by the heavily outnumbered British troops. The British did suffer heavy casualties. Beeing outflanked, they were forced into rapid retreat the next day. The retreat and the battle were rapidly seen by the British public as being a key moment in the war.
Inspired by accounts he had read of the fighting at Mons, Welsh author and journalist Arthur Machen published a fictional short story entitled “The Bowmen” for the London newspaper the Evening News on September 29, 1914.
Though Machen’s story was pure fiction, it was not labeled as such when it was published. Because he had written several legitimate war stories previously for the paper, many readers took it to be a true account.
Further complicating the problem was the fact that Machen frequently wrote in the first-person in order to create the illusion of being an eye-witness. A technique which further added credibility to his imaginary tale at Mons.
Much like Orson Welles with his Halloween radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938), Machen did not mean to create a hoax. But the fuse is lit.
In “The Bowmen” Machen’s soldier saw “a long line of shapes, with a shining about them.” Writing in the Occult Review, A.P. Sinnett, stated that “those who could see said they saw ‘a row of shining beings’ between the two armies. Which led Machen to suggest that the bowmen of his story had become the “Angels of Mons.”
The Angel of Mons
Before long, variations of the story began to appear as authentic histories, including one account describing corpses of two German soldiers with arrow wounds that had been found on a battlefield.
In April 1915, an account in the British Spiritualist magazine told of a mysterious force that had miraculously intervened to help the British during the decisive moment of the battle. This quickly resulted in a flurry of similar stories and the spread of wild rumors, the most popular version of which grew to describe the saviors of the British soldiers as angelic warriors.
By May, a full-blown controversy erupts, with the angels being proof of divine providence on the side of the Allies. The story repeating in sermons across Britain before spreading to newspaper reports throughout the world.
In an effort to end the gossip, Machen republished his fable in August in book form, with a long preface detailing that the rumors had begun with his original story.
Unexpectedly, the book became a bestseller, resulting in a large series of other publications claiming to provide evidence of the Angels’ existence.
Fake News 1944
The sudden spread of misinformation in the spring of 1915 is difficult to explain. Mostly as it was six months after the events and Machen’s story was published. The most detailed, and popular, examination of the Mons story comes from David Clarke which suggests the men may have been part of a covert attempt by military intelligence to spread morale- boosting propaganda and disinformation.
With the sinking of the Lusitania, Zeppelin attacks and failure to achieve a breakthrough on the Western Front, it was a difficult period of doubt and low morale for the troops. Thus, the timing would make military sense.
Some of the stories went so far as to claim that sources could not be revealed for security reasons.
The most detailed study of the event suggests that Machen’s story provided the genesis for the vast majority of the tales.
Stories that clearly boost morale on the home front, as popular enthusiasm had been eroding since 1915. In that regard, the Angels of Mons were every bit as real as people believed them to be.
The liberation of Mons, Belgium
Three decades later, the angels returned in the form of tanks and soldiers to liberate Mons and Belgium once and for all. In tribute the tanks now return every September, just as Bob Hope used to do in war zones each Christmas.
As Hope might have said to the citizens of Mons, “Tanks for the memories.”
Americans would do well to observe the message learned from Mons, for just as they “have not forgotten”, on 9/11 each year, neither should we.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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