Thursday, 31 March 2011

Visions of Bowmen and Angels: Mons 1914 - A review

Visions of Bowmen and Angels: Mons 1914, by Kevin McClure. A Wild Places Special, 32pp. Self published: St Austell, Cornwall, n.d. [1994].

I have no idea for whom I wrote this, and can find no record of it having been published.

Kevin McClure has compiled and self-published a useful booklet describing visions, mostly but not exclusively of angels and mediaeval bowmen, allegedly seen by soldiers in France during the early stages of the First World War. He mainly confines his efforts to contemporary sources, providing a path through the confusing chronology and variations in the stories.

The striking thing about the original accounts is the paucity of eyewitnesses to the events being described. These are urban legends, told by friends of friends, with a tendency to evaporate upon closer inspection. The SPR launched an investigation, and decided that as they had received no first-hand, but only weak second-hand, testimony which did not support a paranormal interpretation, they were in effect obliged to declare the visions 'not proven'.

McClure concludes that "a combination of tiredness, discomfort and fear, prolonged over an excessive period, can effectively create an ASC [altered state of consciousness] of one type or another." This does beg the question why such visions were seen so early in the war, and not later, when exhaustion, stress, disease, malnutrition and general misery were even more prevalent.

To be in such a situation in 1914 was novel, and perhaps the visions were one way of helping the combatants make sense of their predicament, but as the war dragged on familiarity blunted the emotions and sheer survival became more important than a mystical sense of Englishness. The bigger surprise is not that such entities as St George, King Arthur, Agincourt bowmen, Jesus (aka The Comrade in White) and angels appeared to the weary soldiers, but that they were not followed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.