During the Great War thousands came to believe that a miracle had happened during the British Army’s first desperate clash with the advancing Germans at Mons in Belgium. In some versions a vision of St George and phantom bowmen halted the Kaiser’s troops, while others claimed angels had thrown a protective curtain around the British, saving them from disaster. The battle of Mons took place on 23 August 1914 and within weeks the ‘angels of Mons’ had entered the realms of legend. By the end of the war it became unpatriotic, even treasonable, to doubt the claims were based on fact.
Gothic horror writer Arthur Machen maintained until his dying day that the Angel of Mons was fiction. Machen believed that his short story, The Bowmen, was the true source of the legend [see panel], pre-dating all other claims that were made from the spring of 1915 onwards. From that time the legend took on a life of its own and even today, versions of the story continue to circulate in folklore and the mass media.
One of the characteristics of ‘urban myths’ is that whenever they are spread, people claim the story is based upon real experience, and in this case to support the story of angelic intervention as being a matter of historical fact. The historian A.J.P. Taylor was so impressed by such ‘evidence’ that he felt confident referring to Mons, in his 1963 history of the First World War, as the only battle where “supernatural intervention was observed, more or less reliably, on the British side.” 1
If recent claims are to be believed, the events at Mons will soon be recreated in a Hollywood feature film. But is this updated version of the legend genuine, or just another example of fiction masquerading as fact?
In March 2001 news of the film was revealed in a story published by the Sunday Times under the headline: “Brando inspired by vision of Mons angel.” The article claimed that director Tony Kaye, working in partnership with Hollywood megastar Marlon Brando, had paid £350,000 for some original black and white film footage purporting to show an image of “an angel.” 2
The footage, it was claimed, had been discovered by accident two years earlier at Bonita’s antique shop in Agincourt Square, Monmouth, South Wales. Danny Sullivan, the Earth Mysteries author and former editor of the Ley Hunter magazine found the old canisters whilst browsing in the shop, and bought the collection for just £15. He also acquired a mass of military memorabilia along with letters documenting the former owner’s extensive correspondence with various mystical societies during the inter-war period. Danny claimed he put the material aside for a year, and it was not until the autumn of 2000, when he began to read the letters, that he realised he had stumbled upon a goldmine.
The papers described the quest undertaken by a West Country soldier, William Doidge, who was born in Monmouth in 1896 and joined the Scots Guard at the outbreak of war in 1914. Doidge fought at the battle of Mons and fell in love with a local woman, Marie, whilst serving with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The letters told how he lost contact with her during the campaign, and after the war he devoted his life to finding the legendary “angel of Mons” which he believed could reunite him with his lost sweetheart.
If this romantic script wasn’t sufficient to attract the interest of a Hollywood director, there was more. As he pieced together the fragments of papers, Danny discovered that Doidge’s quest ended in 1952 when he received a letter from a US army veteran, identified only as Doug. The former GI told an angel story of his own from the time of the D-Day landings, when American and Canadian soldiers were training in the grounds of Woodchester Park in the English Cotswolds. In his letters to Doidge, Doug described his sighting of a “spook” in the grounds of the Gothic mansion the night before a pontoon bridge on a lake collapsed, dragging 20 soldiers to their deaths. After hearing this story, Doidge began a nightly vigil in the grounds of Woodchester hoping this angel of death would return. Among the collection, Danny found a black and white photograph “which clearly incorporates the image of an angel” floating in front of a background of gravestones and tombs. The photo, marked “1950 E. Bennett” was examined by professional photographers who found “no hint of forgery about it.” Did the photograph show the angel of Woodchester, and did William Doidge take it?
A view of Woodchester Park
These finds inspired Danny to set up a website dedicated to spreading the story of the mysterious Doidge, a man who “has a strong claim to the title of the UK’s very own Indiana Jones.” The Angel Homepage made a direct link between the Woodchester phenomena of 1952 and the angel of Mons, and implied that Doidge was one of the anonymous soldiers quoted by Harold Begbie in his 1915 book On the Side of the Angels 3. When the website appeared Danny was inundated with emails from people who believed they were relatives of the Doidge, and others who wanted to describe their own experiences with angels.
It was apparently as a direct result of the website that Danny was introduced to Tony Kaye, the British film producer who works from Los Angeles. On seeing the footage, Kaye was so enthusiastic he offered Danny “half a million dollars for both film and papers saying the angel film would form the centrepiece of a major Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando.” It was this endorsement by a big name that gave the story a touch of credibility. At least it was sufficient for the Sunday Times to take the bait.
This article was soon followed up by The Sun who, in a double-page spread, published what it called “the ghostly ‘angel’ image on Danny’s film, which has now been sent off to Hollywood to be checked out by experts.” Tony Kaye was quoted as saying: “I want to include Doidge’s footage of the apparition at the heart of the movie...it will be a spine-tingling moment. This is the nearest we have on film to proof of an angel.” 4
Events took an even stranger turn when Danny returned to Bonita’s in search of additional clues. He was disappointed to discover that any additional material had long disappeared. But four days after The Sun published the angel photo, musician John Reynolds posted a message on Danny’s Angel Web log. It read: “You may be interested to know that some time ago, on a trip to Monmouth, I was wandering around an antique shop and bought an old trunk which contained a whole load of weird stuff – wax cylinders, film canisters, papers & diaries. Could this be the same shop…maybe even the trunk you have been looking for? Your angel photograph is very similar to the most amazing images I found on the film, which I have since painstakingly restored.” 5
Reynolds claimed the images had “a profound influence” on his musical compositions. Strangely enough, the picture that subsequently appeared on the cover of his group Ghostland’s album Interview with the Angel was almost identical to the ‘still photo’ Danny Sullivan claimed to have found amongst Doidge’s papers 6. This final ‘coincidence’ had all the hallmarks of a clever publicity stunt. Ghostland were promoted by Burkowski PR, a company with links to Tony Kaye, the director who purchased the ‘angels’ footage from Danny Sullivan. Mark Burkowski, coincidentally, lives in the same small Gloucestershire town as Danny, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the two men are friends!
But what of William Doidge and ‘Doug’ the mysterious character which The Sun assured its readers Marlon Brando was keen to play in the forthcoming film? Did he exist, or was the Indiana Jones-like quest to find the angel as fictional as Machen’s The Bowmen? As is the case in other successful media hoaxes, the clues that should have exposed the facts were always out there, waiting for someone to piece them together. According to Danny “at no time did any one seriously question the credibility of the story. It was simply accepted…as far as the press were concerned I doubt whether the truth of the matter was ever an issue.” 7
The ‘truth’ was exposed in 2002 during a Radio 4 documentary The Making of an Urban Myth, commissioned by BBC Wales and produced by Martin Kurzik. Originally the programme planned to discuss Arthur Machen’s role in creating the original myth. But when reporter Chris Morris followed up the Sunday Times article he was intrigued to find the story apparently confirmed, by both the owner of the antique shop and the PR consultant, Mark Burkowski. As Morris was determined to see the footage, Burkowski suggested he went to see his friend Danny Sullivan. It is not clear whether he knew Danny was about to reveal the whole saga was a publicity stunt, but that is what happened. Doidge’s angel, Danny admitted, was concocted to promote a book he had self-published in 1992 on the occult history of Woodchester Mansion. Due to wrangles with the trustees, copies of the book remained stacked in his garage, unsold. Over a drink in his local pub, Danny and his PR executive friend decided that one way to revive interest in the book was to create a story about a soldier who filmed an angel in the grounds of Woodchester.
By a stroke of genius, this yarn was given historical credibility by the link with the earlier myth of the angel of Mons. Danny told the BBC he suspected the journalists never believed the film actually showed an angel “but I think what swayed it was the fact that the story was made to stand up by a third party coming in and saying that they had paid me a lot of money for this film, and that was Tony Kaye. And that meant the Marlon Brando connection, the Hollywood connection, big money connection and rags-to-riches, good luck story, you know...ordinary bloke finds half a million pound film in junk shop for fifteen quid.”
A flabbergasted Chris Morris then asked if William Doidge really existed, and the following exchange took place:
Danny Sullivan: No he was a complete invention.
Chris Morris: William Doidge doesn’t exist? What about the film?
Danny Sullivan: There’s never been any film [laugher]. People wanted to see the film. The Big Breakfast wanted to see the film. So I said I don’t actually have it, it’s being restored, which it would have had to have been, and that was acceptable. 8
Given these facts, it will be no surprise that attempts to trace ‘the real William Doidge’ in military archives came up against a brick wall. According to Danny, his website helped to demonstrate what he calls “the strength of public belief or wanna-belief in the angel myth.” He told me: “Many people offered suggestions as to the identity of William Doidge and I came very close to finding a man who never existed outside the imagination. I had to abandon the inquiry to avoid upsetting some genuine people.” 9
The Doidge saga is a perfect example of a hoax that took on a reality of its own. Interviewed by the BBC, junkshop owner John Read Smith said he remembered an occasion when Danny visited Agincourt Square and purchased several reels of film. “Among the films was a canister with a number of letters securely attached to it, and written on them was the word angel,” he said. But when quizzed about this claim, Danny replied: “No I have never bought anything from Bonitas at all. I mean I have been in there several times but I have never actually bought anything.” 10
Some who heard the Radio 4 programme reacted angrily, feeling it made them look foolish or gullible because they had accepted a story – published in a highbrow Sunday newspaper – must be true. In doing so, they missed a delicious irony that should have been glaringly apparent. The story was fiction, and was in turn based upon a fictional story by Arthur Machen made “real” for thousands by virtue of its promotion by the mass media during the Great War.
Like Machen’s fable, Doidge’s angel refuses to die. Despite the very public ‘exposure’ some continue to believe the story contains a kernel of truth. Soon after the programme aired, John Read Smith was quoted by the Gloucestershire Echo as warning that Danny Sullivan “could be pulling a double bluff and there might be a new chapter to be written on the legend.” 11 While rumours about a big budget movie continue to circulate, Danny is philosophical about where the story will go next.
Shortly before his death, Arthur Machen came to accept that it was impossible to distance himself from the myth he had created. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the angel of Mons outlived its creator. In his book, The Bowmen and other Legends of the War, re-published by popular demand, he expressed amazement that the story had taken on a life of its own: “It began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit…the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to monstrous size.” 12
"...then there is the story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong through the 2nd Corps, of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks in these strenuous times."
This paragraph – apparently taken from a letter sent by Brigadier-General John Charteris to his wife in England on 5 September 1914 – is the earliest documentary reference to the angel of Mons. If genuine, it predates The Bowmen by 14 days, and destroys Machen’s claim that his piece of fiction was the single and only source for the legend. But how authentic is the entry, and is Charteris, whose expertise lay in the shadowy fields of intelligence and counter-intelligence, a reliable source?
The account appears in At GHQ, a book published in 1931 that was assembled from an enormous collection of letters dating from1914-18. Charteris was a compulsive writer, and produced more than 1200 separate letters describing his experiences during the campaign, sometimes several in one day. These were gathered by his wife Noel after the war and edited into the form in which they appear in the book. As such they cannot be claimed as original or untouched.
So did Charteris really have advance knowledge of stories circulating amongst the BEF during the retreat from Mons, as his book implies? Or did he recycle rumours that appeared months later?
At the outbreak of the war Charteris travelled to France with the intelligence branch of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He soon became a trusted and close friend of General Douglas Haig who promoted him to Chief Intelligence Officer at GHQ. In the early weeks of the war, he watched as the British Army retreated from Mons to the Marne and wrote detailed and eloquent accounts of the battles and their aftermath.
The absence of accurate news encouraged those left behind in England to believe false stories and rumours, and these were spread back to the Front in letters from loved ones. The British Press censor took action to quash those that were felt to be harmful, but others were quietly encouraged by the War Office’s nascent intelligence branch for use in the propaganda war against Germany. Although the Germans had superiority in numbers and strategy, they could not have anticipated the Allies’ command of publicity and the use of lies to portray the Kaiser’s army as godless devils. Military historian James Hayward has demonstrated how certain useful rumours were spread to confuse the German High Command. In September 1914 a story that thousands of Russian troops ‘with snow on their boots’ had secretly travelled through England was fed to the spy Carl Lody. His information led the Germans to detach two divisions from the Battle of the Marne to guard the Belgian coast against the phantom Cossacks, a decision which some believe altered the course of the war.
In 1925 Charteris was to claim these allegations were incorrect and absurd "as propaganda was in no way under GHQ France." But as Chief Intelligence Officer, his network of spies and agents were in a key position to plant and spread rumours, as he himself admitted in a speech given in New York that year. As a result the GHQ rumour mill became one of the earliest ‘black propaganda’ campaigns of 20th century warfare. Charteris’ murky role in spreading a story which has become known as "the master hoax" and "the most notorious atrocity myth" of the First World War is a case in point. This was the allegation that the Germans had established a ghoulish "corpse rendering plant" where the bodies of their dead were taken in great secrecy to be boiled down and recycled into fats and glycerine for use in munitions, soap and animal feed. The story originated in the mis-translation of the German word Kadaver that referred to animal, rather than human, corpses.
Stories about the ‘Kadaver factory’ were first heard in London during 1915 alongside the Russians, the angel of Mons and the crucifixion of a Canadian soldier by the Germans. Credit for its authorship has been traced to a section of British intelligence who were largely successful in their plan to portray the Germans as uncivilised devils. The ‘corpse factory’ was seemingly invented to discredit the enemy in the eyes of potential allies, such as the Chinese, who revered their ancestors. The myth proved so durable that it was resurrected in 1917, when detailed accounts from witnesses who had visited the horrible factory appeared in an English-language newspaper, the North China Post. The story was subsequently reprinted in newspapers across Europe and North America. Whilst officially, the British Ministry of Information declined to circulate the allegations, secretly it was preparing specially-translated ‘Corpse Factory’ pamphlets translated into four languages.
The Corpse Factory myth was not exposed until 1925, when Charteris, then a Tory MP, gave a lecture tour in the United States. According to the New York Times, during a speech at a private dinner function he allegedly claimed credit for its invention. Charteris described how one day he had received two photographs, one labelled ‘cadaver’ showing a train taking dead horses from the front to be made into fertiliser, the other showing dead Germans being taken for burial. The New York Times alleged that: "General Charteris had the caption telling of ‘cadaver’ transposed to the picture showing the German dead, and had the photograph sent to a Chinese newspaper in Shanghai."
Furthermore, the retired officer described how a member of his staff then forged the diary of a German soldier which described his transfer from the front to work in the corpse factory, "and of his horror at finding that he was to assist there in boiling down his brother soldiers...[whereupon] he obtained a transfer [back] to the front and was killed." A plan was hatched to plant the diary in the clothing of a dead soldier and have it discovered by a friendly war correspondent. Charteris then stepped in and decided the deception had gone far enough. He was concerned that any error discovered in the diary could expose the story and "such a result would have imperilled all the British propaganda"
These revelations caused a storm of protest across the world and on his return to England Charteris was summoned to the War Office to explain his extraordinary statement. Afterwards he issued a complete denial of everything he was reported to have said, and blamed journalists for misquoting him. "GHQ France," he told The London Times, "only came in when a fictitious diary supporting the Kadaver story was submitted, but when this diary was discovered to be fictitious, it was at once rejected." He did not explain why it was that he had told an American newsman, prior to his return to England, that he had no intention of challenging the news reports of his speech, because any errors "were only of minor importance."
In the original story, Charteris had claimed the corpse factory as "the only time during the war when he actually dodged the truth." If that was the ‘truth’, then did British Intelligence alsoplay a role in spreading the rumours surrounding the angel of Mons? Even in the midst of a ferocious war, such a tactic would hardly tax the resources of a banana republic, let alone those of the British Army. It was, after all, the visit by a mysterious and unnamed "military officer" to a spiritualist magazine in April 1915 that had rekindled interest in Machen’s story. That date coincided with the bad news from the front. With the failure of Haig’s forces to break the German army at the first battle of Ypres and the first use of poison gas all adding to the air of gloom and despair, what better way of raising the nation’s spirits than a story claiming angels had intervened to save British soldiers from the Hun?
During the past century many dedicated researchers have tried in vain to pursue the accounts of those who claimed to have fought at Mons and seen the angels. All gave up in despair, and as a researcher for the Imperial War Museum concluded: "...to pursue the supporting stories to source is to make a journey into a fog." A fog made up, it seems, of myth, propaganda and plain lies.