The Western Front, 28 August, 1914
With the German Army rolling up the British line all across the front, elements of the British Expeditionary Force found themselves trapped among the minefields in the Belgian industrial heartland of Mons. This was not the stagnant trench warfare of the later years of the conflict: in the early months of the war the armies were free flowing and far more reliant upon manoeuvre. The war was being fought like a Napoleonic campaign, which would have dire consequences in the slaughterhouse battles to come.
A British rearguard, consisting of a raggle-taggle cross section of various regiments, found themselves hemmed in and unable to move or receive support among a series of slagheaps in the central Mons district. The Germans, seeing their predicament, fell upon them. Thousands of grey uniformed German Heavy Infantry advanced in wave after wave, while the British beat them off with volleys of rifle fire and savage hand-to-hand skirmishes. However, beset by cavalry attacks on both flanks and slowly being obliterated by massed German artillery, it would only be a matter of time before the stout British defence capitulated or simply ceased to exist. Amid the cries of comrades, the boom of artillery shells and the endless German attacks, a British infantryman suddenly remembered a motto he had once seen enamelled onto a plate in a London restaurant, and yelled desperately: Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius - 'May St George be present to help the English'.
Immediately, the German infantry assault faltered, and then stopped altogether. The highly-trained German cavalry horses refused to charge, and began to panic and wheel, dragging their thrown riders behind them as they bolted. Gaps in the British line were suddenly made good by what appeared to be thousands of phantom longbowmen, who fired volley after volley of arrows into the Germans as they fled back towards their own lines. German High Command, mystified at reports of soldiers struck dowm with no apparent signs of physical injury, concluded that a gas attack had taken place and ordered a full retreat. The British had been saved. As the German forces withdrew, a white spectral figure on an enormous charger was seen to gallop across the battlefield: it was St George, at the head of an army of ghostly English troops, risen from the ancient battlefields to save their modern counterparts.
So What Actually Happened?
It is difficult to imagine a situation more stressful for a human being than an early 20th Century battlefield. The British were being obliterated. At home the news was not well-received: far from being the elaborate European safari that had been promised in the recruiting stations, the war, although not yet at the full extent of its wasteful futility, had yielded high casualties and a string of defeats for the Allied armies. Both the British army in the field and their families at home needed some kind of morale boost.
By an astonishing coincidence, a Welsh writer named Arthur Machen had a short story - The Bowmen - published in the London Evening News around the time of the fighting among the Mons coalfields. In this charming story, written in a mock-journalist style, a number of ghostly archers march to save a modern British army facing annihilation. It would appear that elements of this story were taken to the front by British troops bolstering the front line, where they were embellished and adapted, and in this process became accepted fact.
However, this did not account for several key points: what made the German horses bolt, why were there several documented cases from German infantrymen swearing the sudden closing of gaps in the British line, and why were so many of their number killed without blemish? Why did both sides report the presence of several figures dear to the hearts of the Allies, from St George to the Virgin Mary to Joan of Arc?
Many investigators explain most of the German reaction away as simply untrue. They had failed to crush a supine British force, and were probably as eager to blame supernatural intervention as the British were eager to embrace it. This is rather too simplistic, and not a little harsh.
On the afternoon of the battle, there was a layer of thick low lying cloud, above which the Sun was shining brightly. Also, there was a heavy mist rolling across the battlefield, mingling with such shafts of sunlight as could break through the cloud cover, creating a somewhat ethereal atmosphere. There has much speculation that the freak combination of light and shade projected huge, distorted figures of British troops onto the mist, causing the German cavalry to break and cementing the legend. This theory is generally accepted - such occurrences are not uncommon.
While no official record exists of gas being used by the British against the Germans at Mons, it is quite possible that small, isolated releases of mustard gas may have been used by individual British officers in the field without authorisation, as a means to turn back the German onslaught. The miracle story would serve to protect those officers who had acted without orders.
In the final analysis, it is probably safe to say that the Miracle of Mons happened because the people involved and connected to it willed it to happen. Whatever really took place that day - be it fabrication, hallucination, environmental phenomenon, or a combination of all three - the real value of the story was in the boost it gave to the troops and general public ahead of the horrors to come at Ypres, Passchendale and the Somme. Most importantly of all, it gave the ordinary Tommy a sense that, even amid the industrial butchery of the First World War, perhaps he was being watched over and cared for, after all.