*From the archives. This article first appeared in MARITimes 2018 Vol 31. No 2.
The myth of the Angels of Mons is one of the most fascinating legends of the First World War. Named after the Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914, the story varies depending on the teller. Most iterations describe angels arriving to repel the German enemy and win Allied troops their first victory of the war.
On September 29, a month after the battle, a curious article appeared in London’s Evening News. Written by Welsh author Arthur Machen, “The Bowmen” described how a British soldier at Mons, overwhelmed by German artillery and machine guns, recited a motto he had seen on plates at a vegetarian restaurant in London: Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius—“May St. George be a present help to the English.” Doing so, the “Latin scholar” accidentally summoned a ghostly army of 15th-century archers from the Battle of Agincourt, which proceeded to kill the much larger German force with phantom arrows.
“In fact, there were ten thousand dead German soldiers left before that salient of the English army, and consequently there was no Sedan,” he wrote.
“In Germany, a country ruled by scientific principles, the Great General Staff decided that the contemptible English must have employed shells containing an unknown gas of a poisonous nature, as no wounds were discernible on the bodies of the dead German soldiers. But the man who knew what nuts tasted like when they called themselves steak knew also that St. George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.”
Machen initially said his story was inspired by accounts he read of the fighting, but when pressed for sources said was never intended to be read as fact, despite being labelled as nonfiction. Adding to this confusion was the layout of the Evening News itself, which was notorious for mixing fictional stories with news from the front.
As thousands died in France, those back in England were desperate for news of their loved ones or were dealing with the heartbreaking knowledge that their soldier was never coming home. Many turned to spiritualism. It was an added comfort to believe that spirits were comforting or could protect soldiers still alive and fighting.
Rumours and similar accounts increased after the story was published and somewhere along the way the ghosts were replaced with angels. Tales of angels circulated after Zeppelin attacks, or after news that allied ships had been sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic. Some historians have even suggested that British intelligence used the myth to help ease the news of failure at the battle at Neuve Chapelle, France in early 1915. The accounts always claimed that sources could not be revealed for security reasons, or were anonymous.
On the frontlines soldiers rotated in and out of the trenches on a weekly basis, and months could go by without major action. With little to do, soldiers often tried their hands at crafting. Now referred to as Trench Art, the pieces took many form—ashtrays, vases, jewellery and small souvenirs—and were made from scraps of material at hand such as shrapnel, shell and bullet casings and pieces of destroyed buildings. Many of these war souvenirs became talismans for soldiers and as a popular icon of protection, an Angel of Mons was often depicted.
The Museum has an Angel of Mons ring in its collections brought home from the war by Harold Gilbert Lutyens Trimingham.
Made of brownstone, glass, and brass, it is possible the ring was made in the trenches. It is unknown whether Trimingham made the ring himself or purchased it.
While on active service Trimingham was wounded on three separate occasions, in the head, in the leg, and in the wrist. His battalion of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (QWR) served at Ypres in 1915, Bouleaux Wood and Gommecourt (Somme) in 1916, and Arras and Polygon Wood in 1917.
Although Trimingham spent some time on leave due to his injuries, he was on the frontlines often, both as an enlisted man and later as a captain. By 1917, Trimingham was attached to the newly-formed Tank Corps, taking on the crucial role of surveying future battle sites—determining if the terrain could hold the weight of a tank. He fought in the Battle of Arras in April 1917, one of the most successful tank advances of the war. He concluded his military career by commanding an instructors’ programme for tank crews in 1918.
Trimingham’s three brothers, Wentworth, Joseph, and John, also served during the war. Wentworth and Joseph enlisted with the first contingent of the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps (BVRC) and John left for Europe with the second contingent of the Bermuda Militia Artillery. Only two would return to Bermuda: Joe was shot through the heart on September 13, 1915, and Wentworth died of pneumonia in France in January 1918. Over a year later, in June 1919, Harold and John returned safely to Bermuda.
Though the existence of ghosts or angels may be suspect, to some the story of the Angels of Mons gave solace to those who were struggling to cope with the devastating impact of the war and illustrates the lengths people will go to in the name of hope. Trimingham’s Angel of Mons ring is on display in the Bermuda’s Defence Heritage exhibit at Commissioner’s House.