But above all the book must stand or fall on the credibility of its central theme – that of the appearance during the crucial point of battle of the Angel of Mons, and of the secret order, The Brotherhood of God and Monseigneur Saint Georges. Around this vision, and this mystical order, Metz weaves his story. And it is a tribute to his skill that he engages our belief, or wish to believe, in the miraculous moment that inspired and saved the BEF. Metz begins by quoting Harold Begbie who wrote in On the Side of the Angels (1915) – Long after the war is over, and the facts of it have been recorded in histories, one of the most widely known events will be the appearance of St. George and angel-warriors fighting in defence of the British (at) Mons.
The event may have originated in a short story by Arthur Machen (‘The Bowmen’) in the London Evening News but Metz makes of the vision something more – something real that connect Mons and Britain, their joint patron saint, St George. And he skirts round the actual genesis of the Angel by an ingenious plot involving the satanist Aleister Crowley, Yeats, G.B.Shaw and Machan.
At its crux perhaps is what a central character Captain Henri Lambert of the Belgian army points out to Dease and Godley: ‘There is eternal warfare between the forces of good and evil for the hearts of men, for souls. Satan never rests [but] each time the good Saint George came to our salvation. Prayer, penitence, blood, and death. Each time he redeemed us…know that tomorrow you and your squads will be initiated…St. George chose you.’
Towards the end of the book an angel appears in battle and has to be fought… there is mysticism here, and symbolism, and a spiritual thread but I would not wish to reveal the plot or assume to preach as to its meaning, which readers will deduce for themselves. Quibbles concerning minor solecisms (like ‘Sir’ Winston Churchill before he was knighted and some rather precise language for the normally foul-mouthed and inarticulate Tommy) this is a wholly different book on 1914 than the plethora of historical debates recently published, and one which will appeal to anyone with a mystical mien, or an open mind.
Metz has recognized that soldiers in desperate situations will clutch at any straw or semblance of hope that might deliver them from the imminence of death. It might be the arrival of Russians with snow on their boots, it might be the Seventh Cavalry, or it might be the Angel of Mons. There are no atheists in foxholes. And for Metz, as for the soldier in his foxhole (to use a phrase from a later war), the semblance of a thing is as real as the thing itself.