This collection came as part of the giant (in terms of megabytes) ebook The Works of Arthur Machen from Delphi Classics.
I came to it as part of a research for an article on fantastic fiction dealing with World War One and written by authors who were adults during the war.
As usual, the plan is to more thoroughly examine these stories later in my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.
Review: The Angel of Mons aka The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, Arthur Machen, 1915.
When you talk about fantastic fiction and the First World War, Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” is the ur-story.
It may be the most known work of primary fiction to come out of that war. The only other contender I can think of is, mostly because of its title and the movie adaptations, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. But how many know its story or have read it?
You may never have read a word of Machen and know this story: retreating British soldiers in the early days of World War One are protected from pursuing Germans by an angelic army appearing in the sky.
I think I first came across the story as a grade schooler reading a Twilight Zone comic book digest. (And, if that isn’t true, it will be a “fact” in the future thanks to the wonders of search engines.)
Except that’s not Machen’s story. That’s the folklore it created.
In his introduction, a bemused, annoyed, and, yes, kind of proud Machen talks about how his story became a legend.
In his story, British soldiers, the “Eighty Thousand”, occupy a key salient under attack by the Germans. They expect to die. One, musing on a picture of St. George he saw in a London restaurant, thinks of St. George’s motto “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius — May St. George be a present help to the English”.
Next think you know, the din of battle lessens and bowmen from the Battle of Agincourt appear in the sky and kill the advancing Germans.
Note, bowmen — not angels. (Machen, a Welshman notes that, to be historically accurate, the bowmen of that battle should have spoke Welsh and not French.) In modified versions of the legend, arrows are found in the bodies of the dead Germans. Machen says he considered that for his story — and rejected it as too over the top.
Machen spends a lot of the introduction — written, based on internal evidence, about June 1915 — debunking the Angel of Mons stories and how none of them can be documented to have existed before his story was published on September 24, 1914. It’s not, says Machen, that he’s a disbeliever in the supernatural. He just sees no evidence for the truth of the Angel stories.
It is this introduction that Forbes Phillips was responding to in War and the Weird, Phillips, of course, being a believer in the Angel of Mons.
The other three stories in the collection are nothing special as Machen works or supernatural fiction in general. They do have the merit of being short and not stretching their premises into tedium.
German beastliness in Belgium and the consolation of a heavenly reward for self-sacrifice on the battlefield are the themes of “The Soldiers’ Rest”, a story conceived in August 1914 and preferred by Machen over “The Bowmen”.
More German barbarism is at the center of “The Monstrance”, specifically, in its explicit use of Christian symbols, the notion that Germans are a menace to not only civilization but that religion as well.
Next to “The Bowmen”, “The Dazzling Light” is the most interesting. It hearkens back to the medieval tradition of dream stories as in Langland’s Piers the Plowman. Lieutenant Smith falls asleep on holiday on the coast of Wales on August 16, 1914. His peculiar vision is “of men in various types of armour, carrying maces and metal balls about their waists and with crossbows” on the battlefields in France.
It is, of course, not a real prediction by Machen via Smith but a retrodiction of the peculiar medieval aspect trench warfare took on through troops’ clubs, knives, grenades (those metal balls), grenade throwers (those crossbows) and even, in some cases, metal armor.
The collection ends with a wistful, short essay: “The Bowmen and Other Noble Ghosts”. Machen laments that stories of the war are all that is written now and how he no longer writes about Greece.
Actually, the book doesn’t entirely end there. In a postscript, responding to Miss Phyllis Campbell’s article “The Angelic Leaders” in the magazine The Occult Review, Machen takes one more swipe at believers in the Angel of Mons legend.