My look at Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen” concludes with a review of a book detailing how Machen’s fiction became a modern myth.
Review: The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, David Clarke, 2004.
On September 29, 1914, Arthur Machen presented a bit of “indifferent piping” to the world, his story “The Bowmen”.
Twenty years later he found himself still talking about that piece of fiction, arguing that there was “not one word of truth in it”.
Machen’s story had become legend, one of the great legends of the twentieth century, claimed as true in history books and an official Belgium guidebook and from the pulpit. An army of angels saved the British Expeditionary Force from annihilation by the German Army at the Battle of Mons in August 1914. The Germans were slowed (though more by the retreating BEF than at the battle itself), the Schlieffen Plan stalled, and the French and British achieved one of the pivotal victories of world history at the First Battle of the Marne.
Clarke lays out a clear, well-written chronological account on how Machen’s fiction became a legend of hope and conciliation, a story that stayed in the minds of the British military until the early days of the Cold War.
Clarke starts by tracking the idea of divine intervention in battle, especially miraculous forms in the sky, in European culture: stories from the Old Testament, the Maccabee Rebellion, Republican Rome, the English Civil War, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1744, and right up to the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.
On Sunday, August 23, 1914, the British Army met the Germans at Mons. Outnumbered three to one, the BEF defended a salient. During that day, it lost about 1,500 men. The German Army suffered at least 5,000 casualties.
The British then started out on the Great Retreat, a long, hot, sleepless march while pursued by the German. It went from August 24th through the 25th.
On Sunday, August 30th, word of the battle finally reached the British public.
Arthur Machen woke up that day to see this headline in the Weekly Dispatch:
THE TRUTH FROM THE BRITISH ARMY – Tidal Wave of German Troops – Need for the Country to Grasp the Danger – British Wall of Steel Remains Unbroken – Infantry’s ‘Withering Fire’.
“The Bowmen” was not the first story Machen was inspired to write by the war. Initially, he started on “The Dazzling Light” but didn’t finish it until 1915. He did write “The Ceaseless Bugle Call”, regarded by some as a trial run for “The Bowmen”, and it was published on September 17, 1914. Clarke calls it a story. It’s not. I got a copy and read it. It’s a journalist essay though he’s right that it shares elements with “The Bowmen”: medieval figures and reference to St. George specifically.
Machen’s story is not of angels appearing in the sky to protect the BEF from the Germans. It is bowmen, evoked by a prayer to St. George, from the Battle of Agincourt that rain arrows down on the Germans.
Interested in the Middle Ages, it is understandable Machen would think of St. George. He was born in the Welsh town of Caerleon. Legends going back to the eight century AD said St. George visited there.
Mons also had a St. George connection. It was said to be the place where St. George slew the dragon. Perhaps, as the German army advanced that Sunday, the locals prayed to him.
And Welsh bowmen would have been on Machen’s mind because August 26th was the anniversary of the Battle of Crecy, a battle they provided crucial and non-spectral aid in.
Also the Machen whose byline appeared in the newspaper on September 29th was not thought of as a writer of significant weird fiction. Most of his greatest work was written in the 1890s, and the revival of his reputation was in the future. This Machen had been a journalist since 1910.
And “The Bowmen” was presented in a journalistic voice, the details explicitly omitted because of “the Censorship”. Nor was the story labelled as fiction though another story in the same newspaper was.
Britain was a land rife with rumors at the beginning of the war: German spy rings, phantom German fleets and zeppelins, underground German bases in England, and, my favorite, the rumor of trains packed with Russian troops, “snow still on their boots”, heading for the Western Front.
The last was specifically mocked on September 15th by Machen. Writing in a newspaper about it, he foreshadowed what he would later find with the proponents of the Angel of Mons:
You met a man who knew a man who had seen the Russians, and this should have aroused our suspicions. … You mustn’t tell us what the soldier said. It isn’t evidence.
Machen would take up the theme of a Britain haunted by rumors about the war in his later novel The Terror.
It didn’t take long for the evolution from fiction to “fact” to occur. People were already asking Machen in October 1914 whether his story was based on anything true. His reply was always the same. He’d made it up. And, as Machen would lay out in 1915 in his The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War, there was not a shred of evidence for people claiming to see the Angel of Mons before his story was published.
Clarke looks at three accounts of visions at Mons to see if there is any evidence of angels in the sky. One mentions a “large white light”, but it also goes on to say “it certainly was not angels”. Another talks of a “long line of white forms”. A third mentions
the figure of a woman in a queer poke bonnet and bright blue skirt, who repeatedly got in the line of fire.
None are contemporaneous to the event or lack the names of specific people and places.
Clarke traces how a fiction of divine intervention and bowmen in the sky became the “truth” of angels.
On the retreat from Mons, men did see angels. (Besides mistakenly characterizing “The Ceaseless Bugle Call” as a story, the other minor flaw in Clarke’s book is his summary of the battle. He doesn’t give a specific timeframe for the battle. Was it just August 23rd or is the two day retreat also included? Other accounts of the battle I’ve read seem to consider it occurring only on the 23rd.) They saw a lot of things as they hallucinated from thirst, stress, and sleeplessness: bright lights, troops moving beside the road they marched down, imaginary arches over that road or sheets of water on either side of it, or phantom villages. Private Frank Richards, in his 1964 memoir Old Soldiers Never Die, noted
We retired all night with fixed bayonets, many sleeping as they marching along. If any angels were seen on the Retirement, as the newspaper accounts said they were, they were seen that night.
Visions of ministering angels and women in the sky and Machen’s story and the need for conciliation and the religiosity of the time morphed Machen’s story. His claim it was all fiction, that there was no evidence for angelic intervention – and he was a man who was ready to believe in miracles — was met with hostility.
Two major opponents to Machen’s skepticism emerged.
One was Phyllis Campbell, a nurse who claimed to have specific and contemporaneous evidence for the Angel. At best, she was a drama-seeking and self-deluded young woman of the type Vera Brittain mentions in her memoir Testament of Youth. At worst, she was a liar. She never did present the evidence she claimed.
The other was Harold Begbie who would write, in retort to Machen, On the Side of the Angels. But all the evidence he presented lacked the necessary contemporary documentation or specificity. Eventually, he ended up arguing that Machen only thought he had invented the story. He really had psychically received the truth from the Battle of Mons and used it in his story.
The story enjoyed life after the war. One man in 1930 claimed there had been a vision at Mons – and it was projected on the sky by German airplanes, a propaganda effort gone bad when the British mistook a figure intended to be a Madonna blessing the Germans to be St. George. (The French supposedly thought it was Joan of Arc.) The story was probably inspired by our old friend “Death Ray Matthews” projecting movies into the sky. In fact, on Christmas Day 1930, he projected angels above Hampstead Heath.
But there was always one straw the believers could cling to. There was one contemporaneous account of the Angels, dated and from a named source.
Brigadier-General John Charteris quoted, in his 1931 memoir At GHQ, an account of serving on General Haig’s staff as Chief Intelligence Officer, a letter of his:
. . . the story of the ‘Angel of Mons’ going strong through the II Corps of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.
Dated September 5, 1914, it met the requirements of existing before Machen’s story.
The trouble is Charteris admitted in the same book that he kept no formal diaries for that time, that his memoirs were revised based on his recollections. Though a fervent letter writer to his wife and others, no letters written and dated by him exist in his papers at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives at King’s University in London for the time between September 5, 1914 and February 11, 1915.
There is reason to believe that Charteris may have had a keen interest in Machen’s story as a propaganda tool. There is some evidence to believe that Charteris, in his intelligence role, helped spread morale boosting rumors like those Russians with the snow-covered boots and the Angel of Mons. Charteris did admit, after the war, to concocting the infamous Cadaver Factory rumor which had Germans recycling dead bodies for munitions and animal feed.
In a highly readable form with a fairly comprehensive index and with some photos, Clarke shows the importance of going back to the primary documents when researching tales of the strange and Fortean.
An indispensable book for those interested in the Angel of Mons legend and the strange mutation that overtook Machen’s story.
If you don’t want to read the whole book, you can check out Clarke’s writing about the Angel of Mons on his blog.
More reviews of World War One related titles are indexed at the World War One page.