I don’t know how many of us here would say we believe in angels. I suspect not too many. It might surprise you to know that might well, through the course of human history, make us unusual. At least in those lands with the common root in the religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force, the professional army, went to war and saw their first action in the battle of Mons. For all the optimism and propaganda, the reality was evident: Britain had lost its first real engagement, and the first casualties mounted. It was going to be a long war, and a bloody one. The idea of a rush of early recruits, fearing that the war would be over by Christmas is, in fact, a myth. Instead, it was in the aftermath of Mons and the realisation that it would very much not be over by Christmas, that the great wave of young men joining up began. All over the country those young men, their families and their communities were having to come face to face with the idea of the flower of the nation’s youth going to war.
It was then that a writer of popular fiction and short stories by the name of Arthur Machen put pen to paper, and wrote a short story called The Bowmen, which appeared in the London Evening News. In the heat of the battle of Mons, when all was lost, from the very far mists of time had appeared the ghostly form of bowmen, the bowmen who had fought heroically with Henry V at Agincourt, and the glorious and victorious stout yeomen of England now came to the aid of the men of Mons. It was never a great work of literature, but it had something. It might in part be its style, written as if reportage, and it was not in the weekly fiction slot. It might simply be it resonated with a nation in the dark hour that was coming. Within a short while it was reprinted, and retold in church magazines, provincial journals and oral storytelling.
Precisely how it turned from fiction into legend is unclear. But, by 1915 it had become then story of the Angel of Mons, of how British soldiers had been guided, protected and saved by angels, even by an angel. Machen himself started receiving letters, asking for his sources for the story; when he replied that it was pure fiction, he was simply not believed. For some, the Angel of Mons was now fact.
Apparitions and war have often come hand in hand. When the First Crusade was outside the walls of Jerusalem, in the very moment of battle, some swore they saw their dead leader, Adhemar of Puy, leading them into battle; others swore blind they saw St George on the hillside. In the August and September of 1914 a legend grew of a Russian army, sailing from Archangel in the Arctic to the coast of Scotland, then marching through England to the new western front. Men had been seen with Russian snow still on their boots, farmers claimed to have seen the Russian horde amassed on their land.
The First World War saw the mass of ordinary men placed in uniform, coming face to face with modern war. It did the same to societies; some, like Britain, came face to face with its like for the first time. It was that war that saw soldiers diagnosed with what came to be known as shell shock. It’s certainly true that psychologists have long known that psychological and physical stress, as well as hunger and extreme tiredness, can make men hallucinate. Is it too far to wonder if something similar was going on here, but across a whole people?
Or was it something simpler? It is an old canard that one consequence of the First World War was that people began to question the religion they were raised in. Certainly, some did. Some were questioning it long before. For many, however, the consolations of faith, of the spiritual, were needed as never before.
For whom? The men at the front for sure. Many of them had a strong faith, others some faith, some suddenly discovered it. Many army chaplains became great figures in the war. Perhaps the most famous was the Rev Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who established Toc H, or Talbot House, just behind the lines at Ypres, in the Belgian town of Poperinge. Toc H serves as a meeting place, concert hall and chapel. The gateway to hell famously tells us ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter.’ Clayton posted on the entrance to Toc H:
All rank abandon, ye who enter here.
But even as it was opened in 1915, Talbot House was already an act of remembrance. It was named after Lt Gilbert Talbot, the brother of a fellow padre, killed in 1915.
As early as the battle of Mons, soldiers themselves were having to come to terms with the deaths of comrades. So were governments. The British government then made a brave, indeed noble decision. When the common bowmen of Agincourt fell, as some assuredly did, in 1415, they were buried in mass unmarked graves. The same applied to the common soldiers of Waterloo, in 1815. The officers, meanwhile, were gathered up and taken hoe at their families’ expense, to grand funerals and great memorials in churches up and down their homeland.
Wellington called his common soldiers ‘the scum of the earth’; he meant it too. In the world of the Great War, the professional soldiers of the BEF in 1914, or the reservists of 1915, or the civilians in uniform who fought at the Somme in 1916 were proud, noble patriots. The nation, like their government, had to come to terms with their deaths, and the dead. Thus it was the decision was made that the dead would be buried where they fell, and honoured there in cemeteries redolent of peace, memorial, sacrifice and honour; buried in what are now Commonwealth War Graves
Today, on Armistice Day itself, we commemorate the fallen, those remembered on our school war memorial. Men like Captain Arthur Thompson, leading his company of the 1st Tyneside Irish across La Boiselle, cut down with hundreds like him, now ate rest buried in Ovilliers cemetery nearby with so many of his men. Or the Pritchard brothers, both of whom died on a fateful 26th April 1918. Or Captain Pelham West, wounded at the Somme, killed in the Third Ypres in 1917, buried at Tyne Cot. Is it too fanciful to imagine that the Pritchards, who fought and died at Ypres, or Captain West ever ended up in Poperinge, at Toc H, perhaps reading a book, or taking the solace of Holy Communion from Tubby Clayton himself?
Two men remembered here at school, would never have known the solace of Talbot House. They, like Lt Talbot himself, were dead by the time Toc H was open for business. On the 26th April 1915 George and Howard Hunter were killed in an attack at St Julien, near Ypres. A couple of weeks ago 66 of is stood where they are commemorated, at the Menin Gate itself, in Ypres.
They have no known grave. They are, in Kipling’s words:
A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR
KNOWN UNTO GOD
THEIR NAME LIVETH FOREVERMORE
Like endless thousands, the parents and children and brothers and sisters of the 980,000 men of Britain and her empire that fell in the Great War, the Hunter family were left to face their grief, to make some kind of sense of their boys’ sacrifice. We did so as a nation then, just as we still do today, by honouring their memory, whether with a poppy memorial at the Tower of London, or a ceremony of remembrance today. They came to terms with collective memorial, such as the two minutes silence on Armistice day, or the collective memorials that are to be found all over these islands, such as our school war memorial. Those honoured here with the words of Horace that we in the 21st century find so hard to take at its face value:
DULCE ET DECORUM EST, PRO PATRIA MORI
What then of St George, what then of Angels? Stood now, in our school hall is another war memorial, to the fallen of the second world war, in the form of an angel. When the Hunter family came to make their own memorial, they chose their local church, the church of St Nicholas in Gosforth. It is there still, a stain glass window. George and Howard were Northumberland Fusiliers. The patron saint of the Northumberland Fusiliers is St George. The very St George the men in Machen’s story heard the ghostly bowmen saluting:
Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius
(May St. George be a present help to the English)
In the stained glass window that commemorates George and Howard, St George stands, his shield and sword raised in battle, in glory, as if an angel watching over them. The plaque reads:
They were lovely and pleasant in their lives
And in death are not divided.
We will remember them.