Fascinating as was Gary Stocker’s letter [FT423:61], quoting an unattributed passage from Aidan Chambers’s Great British Ghosts where, in 1914, a British soldier saw not angels but protective horsemen, the indefatigable David Clarke has already noted this in his excellent 2004 book The Angel of Mons. Clarke cites the same passage, with this introduction:
“Among the columns of British troops moving towards the Marne was ‘a distinguished LieutenantColonel’. In a letter published by the London Evening News in September 1915, he described how his division came into action at dawn and fought until dusk, under constant shelling from German artillery until the order came to withdraw from Le Cateau.”
It was following this that the ‘phantom’ horsemen were seen. A note on this letter states more specifically that it appeared in the Evening News on 14 September 1915. Clarke also mentions that as General Sordet’s French cavalry corps were moving towards Le Cateau to support the British at this time, it is possible this was what the correspondent and his companions saw.
However, Clarke also cites a similar but rather more prosaic account:
“Later in 1915 [11 August] Lance Corporal A. Johnstone, of the Royal Engineers, wrote to the London Evening News to describe more phantom horsemen seen during the retreat that were distinctly hallucinatory rather than real. He said:
“We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and, after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour’s rest in between, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry all formed up in squadrons – fine, big men, on massive chargers. I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying “Thank God! We are not far off Paris now. Look at that French cavalry!” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through them! Quite a simple illusion, yet at the time we actually picked out the lines of man and horse as plainly as possible, and almost imagined we heard the champing of the horses’ bits! When I tell you that hardened soldiers who had been through many a campaign were marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts of nonsense in sheer delirium, you can well believe we were in a fit state to take a row of beanstalks for all the saints in the calendar.’” Gail-Nina Anderson
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne & Wear
The first reference I saw to WWI spectral horsemen was in Kevin McClure’s booklet Visions of Bowmen and Angels (Wild Places Special, 1994).
It has to be said that large numbers of soldiers on the exhausting retreat from Mons ‘saw’ all sorts of things and affected their comrades. John F Lucy described this in his memoir There’s a Devil in the Drum:
“Some, as I have said, did not know if they were waking or dreaming and they mixed up fact and fancy. This resulted one day in the whole company believing that we were all entraining within an hour. It afterwards transpired that this was all due to the vapourings of a dreamy corporal attached to battalion headquarters whose persistent phantom was a column of armoured trains.” And there are similar stories in Frank Richards’s classic memoir Old Soldiers Never Die.
David Clarke published a book on the Angels of Mons (Wiley 2004), and there’s also James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War (Sutton 2002). FT has published several articles on the subject, of course.
My twopence worth is to agree with Arthur Machen that someone misunderstood and misquoted his story ‘The Bowmen’, which appeared in the Evening News (29 Sept 1914). It was probably a parson, and as a preacher myself I know you don’t always quote the sources of your anecdotes, or perhaps get them right. The story went viral in 1915, and no one has ever found any verifiable source for ‘angels’ before March that year.