“The De Gamelyn Traditions“, R. Thurston Hopkins, 1916.
Those who eagerly read fiction when young sometimes have to learn that life does not imitate art.
That is the problem of this story’s protagonist, Tim Gamelyn.
The Viktor of the “old book” Viktor the Valiant is Tim’s hero. Unlike Viktor, Tim has an unheroic nickname, “Carrots”, on account of his red hair. His efforts to imitate Viktor fail. His soccer debut is unremarkable. His attempt to stop another boy from abusing a dog is not only unsuccessful but uncalled for.
Tim begins to think Viktor is “a bit of a prig—also a fraud.” The book is traded in for two oranges and a slingshot.
Two years go by. Tim gets better in sports, runs afoul of the school’s headmaster, and, though never destined to become a great soldier or sailor, becomes a lively enough part of Thetford Grammar School that, when he leaves, the place seems “flat and spiritless”.
But there is another tradition, another set of stories, another code of conduct he does not abandon.
Tim is the son of Old Sergeant Gamelyn of whom it is said, “what old Gamelyn didn’t know about soldiering weren’t worth knowin'”. The Gamelyns have been soldiers for centuries.
Tim has read the “forgotten drill and manual exercises, the uncomfortable and graceless manœuvres of the rigid but redoubtable men who fought at Waterloo”. He’s seen the “pictures in colour of warriors in three-cornered hats, high stocks and powdered wigs” He knows “by heart the quaint words of command in which Wellington’s men were told to charge a musket with powder and ball”.
So, it’s not surprising that in August 1914, Tim answers the call to duty.
And it is there, when the reality of the Great War meets the memories and practices of history, that the story gets interesting and shows the reality that the armies of Europe had to adjust to.
The modern rifle would not allow men to march into battle with colours flying and bands playing: the old brave way was impossible in the face of machine guns. The pomp and pageantry of battle had departed and there was nothing left but for the attacking party to crawl in a most inelegant fashion upon the ground.
“Down!” cried the sergeant-instructor to poor Tim, who started his lessons in field training with some vague idea about marching on the foe with “head and eyes erect” and with “pace unfaltering and slow.” “When you get out to Flanders you will have to get right down on your belly if you want to live a little longer than ten minutes. Extend to five-six-ten paces and get as close to old mother earth as possible and hide your bloomin’ selves!”
“Hide yourselves!” thought Tim. “Not thus is it written in my father’s book of drill! It plainly said therein that the duty of a soldier was to learn how to die, not to hide from death.”
Eventually Tim and his company make it to the “long dull plains of Northern Europe” and see battle.
Oddly, trenches are not mentioned when Tim makes his acquaintance with 20th century warfare.
From the right came a curious gasping choke, and looking, he saw the man next to him throw up his arms and pitch forward on his face. Suddenly he became aware of a peculiar wailing above him, as if the air itself was in torture. Again a long line of fire flashed out ahead of him and again came the wailing sound. A Boche machine-gun loosed a few belts of cartridges in the spasmodic style of her kind. There was no mistake about it this time—massed infantry were sweeping the plain with rifle fire, and the quick-firers were feeling for an opening.
Another man was hit—close to Tim. He squealed like a girl; and a fellow near turned a dirty white, stumbled, with a clatter fell in a fainting fit. Tardily the men advanced, and any acute observer would have seen they had little heart in the business. Some hung behind almost unconsciously, and had to be hurried up by the sergeants. The bullets became more thick. A man started to blubber behind. “Gawd ‘ave mercy! I … I can’t stand it! I won’t go on!” he whined. It turned out to be a sergeant, who had broken down too. He’d had little rest, poor chap, through shepherding his company … and now he had knocked under. The company swayed and hesitated. Some of them faced round. It was touch and go. “Steady there! Steady! Come on, men;” said Stansfield, the little company lieutenant, as the men wavered on the grey edge of collapse. “Steady that company; what in hell’s the matter with ’em. Keep your men up and going, Sir!” shouted a captain rushing over. But the company had gone all to pieces. The fire of battle had departed from them, and it flung itself on the ground. And soon the whole battalion was taking cover in the same way. A captain called on Tim’s company to advance. Two men obeyed and one of them was Tim. But the enemy’s fire redoubled and the other man was shot, and so Tim at once took cover again. The saying of his sergeant-instructor in England came to his mind, that a man must lie down and hide if he wished to live, and he felt quite justified in hugging the earth.
It is then that Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” enters the picture or at least its central image.
Tim sees a man appear before him, his expression “lofty and noble”. The man chides him, mocks him for not upholding the De Gamelyn traditions. The figure taps his “shoulder with a barbed shaft trimmed with grey goose feather”. He also hands Tim the Sword of Life and Death.
Wielding the fiery sword, Tim rallies the company. The shade of Nigel De Gamelyn summons “the armies of the unconquered dead”.
The company is triumphant, but Tim dies from a bayonet wound possibly that “barbed shaft” Nigel taps him with. (I don’t think we are to think Nigel kills Tim, just that he is present at Tim’s death.)
The Sword of Life and Death is revealed to be just a rusty old sword hundreds of years old. But the flaming sword is a real miracle and observed by many. It is Hopkins continuing the tradition of Machen’s story and fictionalizing the miraculous stories Forbes Phillips mentions in the introduction to the volume this story first appeared in, War and the Weird.
World War One Content
- Living Memory: Yes.
- On-Stage War: Yes.
- Belligerent Area: Yes.
- Home Front: Yes.
- Veteran: Yes — probably.
More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.