Arthur Machen Claims Short Story ‘The Bowmen’ Inspired the Angels Legend
The writer Arthur Machen claimed to have invented the greatest supernatural mystery of the First World War: the Angels of Mons. The problem was, nobody believed him.
When World War I broke out, Welshman Arthur Machen was living in London and earning a living as a journalist. Remembered today as a first-class horror writer – Stephen King called Machen’s 1890 story The Great God Pan ‘maybe the best [horror story] in the English language’ – Machen had been forced by circumstances to take up a fulltime job with the Evening News in 1910 – a job he held until 1921.
The Battle of Mons
He later recalled the intense vision he had of the outnumbered and outgunned British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting for their lives at the Battle of Mons as he read about the soldiers’ plight in the Sunday newspapers. It was this that moved him to write the short story ‘The Bowmen’.
The battle of Mons, which saw the first entry of the British Army into the world war, stirred the emotions deeper than any subsequent action. – H.C. O’Neill, The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War (London: William Heinemann, 1922), p. 33.
The Battle of Mons was the first major engagement between the British and German Armies in the First World War. The Germans were advancing rapidly through Belgium and the BEF deployed on the left flank of the French around the mining town of Mons. The BEF was composed of around 80,000 to 100,000 men, facing an enemy many times that size.
The BEF deployed over a twenty-mile front along the Conde Canal. The canal formed a natural line of defence, but as it looped north around the town of Mons it formed an exposed salient. The British commanders knew that they would not be able to hold such a position for long against a committed attack.
The British troops in the Salient had orders to make “a stubborn resistance”; the Middlesex and the Royal Fusiliers, therefore, defended themselves with tenacity. – Brig. Sir James Edmonds, Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914 (London:Macmillan, 1937), p. 77.
A Supernatural Intervention
‘The Bowmen’ tells the story of a British soldier who invokes St George’s aid at a critical moment in the Battle of Mons and is astonished to have his prayers answered. England’s patron saint rallies the ghosts of the bowmen who fought at Agincourt and they loose their spectral arrows upon the Germans. The German advance is halted and the BEF escapes to fight another day.
The Germans had advanced confidently in massed formation, only to be savagely repulsed. They well might have imaged there was something supernatural about the British defence:
The Germans imagined that they were everywhere opposed by machine guns only, not realizing the intensity of British rapid fire. – Edmonds, Military Operations, p. 80.
Machen had no idea the impact his story would have when it was printed in the Evening News for 29 September 1914. People immediately began asking him whether it was true and where he had heard it. Despite insisting on having invented the whole thing, the story took on a life of its own.
Ralph Shirley, the Editor of the Occult Review, wrote his own book about the case – The Angel Warriors at Mons – in which he described the effect:
It was about this time (September 29, 1914, to be precise) that a circumstantial narrative which might have been intended to be taken either as fact or fiction appeared in the columns of the Evening News under the title of The Bowmen. […] Many readers took this charmingly-written tale as a statement of fact, but a letter addressed to the author, Mr. Machen, by the present writer, elicited the response that the narrative had no foundation outside the writer’s vivid fancy. Soon, however, correspondence began to reach the papers from various quarters giving records more or less circumstantial of appearances of phantom warriors who, it was confidently averred, had actually come to the rescue of the defeated armies at this critical moment. These correspondents would have none of Mr. Machen’s statement that his story was pure romance.
And so the legend of angels saving the British Army at Mons was born. Machen described the effect himself, with some dismay:
And so soon as the legend got the title “The Angels of Mons” it became impossible to avoid it. It permeated the Press: it would not be neglected ; it appeared in the most unlikely quarters in TRUTH and TOWN TOPICS, THE NEW CHURCH WEEKLY (Swedenborgian) and JOHN BULL. – Machen, The Angels of Mons (London: Simpkin & Co., 1915), pp. 19-20.
One of the reasons few people believed Machen when he said that he had invented the Angels of Mons was that his story of St George and ghostly bowmen matched few, if any, of the tales being told.
More Supernatural Stories from World War I
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