The Great War
The Bowmen of Mons
by Arthur Machen
IT WAS DURING the Retreat of the Eighty Thousand, and
the authority of the Censorship is sufficient excuse for not being more
explicit. But it was on the most awful day of that awful time, on the
day when ruin and disaster came so near that their shadow fell over
London far away; and, without any certain news, the hearts of men failed
within them and grew faint; as if the agony of the army in the
battlefield had entered into their souls.
On this dreadful day, then, when three hundred thousand men in arms with
all their artillery swelled like a flood against the little English
company, there was one point above all other points in our battle line
that was for a time in awful danger, not merely of defeat, but of utter
annihilation. With the permission of the Censorship and of the military
expert, this corner may, perhaps, be described as a salient, and if this
angle were crushed and broken, then the English force as a whole would
be shattered, the Allied left would be turned, and Sedan would
All the morning the German guns had thundered and shrieked against this
corner, and against the thousand or so of men who held it. The men joked
at the shells, and found funny names for them, and had bets about them,
and greeted them with scraps of music-hall songs. But the shells came on
and burst, and tore good Englishmen limb from limb, and tore brother
from brother, and as the heat of the day increased so did the fury of
that terrific cannonade. There was no help, it seemed. The English
artillery was good, but there was not nearly enough of it; it was being
steadily battered into scrap iron.
There comes a moment in a storm at sea when people say to one another,
"It is at its worst; it can blow no harder," and then there is a blast
ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British
There were no stouter hearts in the whole world than the hearts of these
men; but even they were appalled as this seven-times-heated hell of the
German cannonade fell upon them and overwhelmed them and destroyed them.
And at this very moment they saw from their trenches that a tremendous
host was moving against their lines. Five hundred of the thousand
remained, and as far as they could see the German infantry was pressing
on against them, column upon column, a grey world of men, ten thousand
of them, as it appeared afterwards.
There was no hope at all. They shook hands, some of them. One man
improvised a new version of the battlesong, "Good-bye, good-bye to
Tipperary," ending with "And we shan't get there". And they all went on
firing steadily. The officers pointed out that such an opportunity for
high-class, fancy shooting might never occur again; the Germans dropped
line after line; the Tipperary humorist asked, "What price Sidney
Street?" And the few machine guns did their best. But everybody knew it
was of no use. The dead grey bodies lay in companies and battalions, as
others came on and on and on, and they swarmed and stirred and advanced
from beyond and beyond.
"World without end. Amen," said one of the British soldiers with some
irrelevance as he took aim and fired. And then he remembered-he says he
cannot think why or wherefore - a queer vegetarian restaurant in London
where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of
lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak. On all the plates in this
restaurant there was printed a figure of St. George in blue, with the
motto, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius - May St. George be a present help
to the English. This soldier happened to know Latin and other useless
things, and now, as he fired at his man in the grey advancing mass - 300
yards away - he uttered the pious vegetarian motto. He went on firing to
the end, and at last Bill on his right had to clout him cheerfully over
the head to make him stop, pointing out as he did so that the King's
ammunition cost money and was not lightly to be wasted in drilling funny
patterns into dead Germans.
For as the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he felt something
between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar
of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it,
he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal
crying, "Array, array, array!"
His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as ice within him, as
it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered to his summons. He
heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: "St. George! St. George!"
"Ha! messire; ha! sweet Saint, grant us good deliverance!"
"St. George for merry England!"
"Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St. George, succour us."
"Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow and a strong bow."
"Heaven's Knight, aid us!"
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the
trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like
men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew
singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.
The other men in the trench were firing all the while.They had no hope;
but they aimed just as if they had been shooting at Bisley. Suddenly one
of them lifted up his voice in the plainest English, "Gawd help us!" he
bellowed to the man next to him, "but we're blooming marvels! Look at
those grey ... gentlemen, look at them! D'ye see them? They're not going
down in dozens, nor in 'undreds; it's thousands, it is. Look! look!
there's a regiment gone while I'm talking to ye."
"Shut it!" the other soldier bellowed, taking aim, "what are ye gassing
But he gulped with astonishment even as he spoke, for, indeed, the grey
men were falling by the thousands. The English could hear the guttural
scream of the German officers, the crackle of their revolvers as they
shot the reluctant; and still line after line crashed to the earth.
All the while the Latin-bred soldier heard the cry: "Harow! Harow!
Monseigneur, dear saint, quick to our aid! St. George help us!"
"High Chevalier, defend us!"
The singing arrows fled so swift and thick that they darkened the air;
the heathen horde melted from before them.
"More machine guns!" Bill yelled to Tom.
"Don't hear them," Tom yelled back. "But, thank God, anyway; they've got
it in the neck."
In fact, there were ten thousand dead German soldiers left before that
salient of the English army, and consequently there was no Sedan. In
Germany, a country ruled by scientific principles, the Great General
Staff decided that the contemptible English must have employed shells
containing an unknown gas of a poisonous nature, as no wounds were
discernible on the bodies of the dead German soldiers. But the man who
knew what nuts tasted like when they called themselves steak knew also
that St. George had brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.
The author writes...
I HAVE been asked to write an introduction to the
story of THE BOWMEN, on its publication in book form. And I hesitate.
This affair of THE BOWMEN has been such an odd one from first to last,
so many queer complications have entered into it, there have been so
many and so divers currents and cross-currents of rumour and speculation
concerning it, that I honestly do not know where to begin. I propose,
then, to solve the difficulty by apologising for beginning at all.
For, usually and fitly, the presence of an introduction is held to imply
that there is something of consequence and importance to be introduced.
If, for example, a man has made an anthology of great poetry, he may
well write an introduction justifying his principle of selection,
pointing out here and there, as the spirit moves him, high beauties and
supreme excellencies, discoursing of the magnates and lords and princes
of literature, whom he is merely serving as groom of the chamber.
Introductions, that is, belong to the masterpieces and classics of the
world, to the great and ancient and accepted things; and I am here
introducing a short, small story of my own which appeared in THE EVENING
NEWS about ten months ago (September 1914).
I appreciate the absurdity, nay, the enormity of the position in all its
grossness. And my excuse for these pages must be this: that though the
story itself is nothing, it has yet had such odd and unforeseen
consequences and adventures that the tale of them may possess some
interest. And then, again, there are certain psychological morals to be
drawn from the whole matter of the tale and its sequel of rumours and
discussions that are not, I think, devoid of consequence; and so to
begin at the beginning.
This was in last August, to be more precise, on the last Sunday of last
August. There were terrible things to be read on that hot Sunday morning
between meat and mass. It was in THE WEEKLY DISPATCH that I saw the
awful account of the retreat from Mons. I no longer recollect the
details; but I have not forgotten the impression that was then on my
mind, I seemed to see a furnace of torment and death and agony and
terror seven times heated, and in the midst of the burning was the
British Army. In the midst of the flame, consumed by it and yet aureoled
in it, scattered like ashes and yet triumphant, martyred and for ever
glorious. So I saw our men with a shining about them, so I took these
thoughts with me to church, and, I am sorry to say, was making up a
story in my head while the deacon was singing the Gospel.
This was not the tale of THE BOWMEN. It was the first sketch, as it
were, of THE SOLDIERS' REST. I only wish I had been able to write it as
I conceived it. The tale as it stands is, I think, a far better piece of
craft than THE BOWMEN, but the tale that came to me as the blue incense
floated above the Gospel Book on the desk between the tapers: that
indeed was a noble story--like all the stories that never get written. I
conceived the dead men coming up through the flames and in the flames,
and being welcomed in the Eternal Tavern with songs and flowing cups and
everlasting mirth. But every man is the child of his age, however much
he may hate it; and our popular religion has long determined that
jollity is wicked. As far as I can make out modern Protestantism
believes that Heaven is something like Evensong in an English cathedral,
the service by Stainer and the Dean preaching. For those opposed to
dogma of any kind--even the mildest--I suppose it is held that a Course
of Ethical Lectures will be arranged.
Well, I have long maintained that on the whole the average church,
considered as a house of preaching, is a much more poisonous place than
the average tavern; still, as I say, one's age masters one, and clouds
and bewilders the intelligence, and the real story of THE BOWMEN, with
its "sonus epulantium in Šterno convivio", was ruined at the moment of
its birth, and it was some time later that the actual story got written.
And in the meantime the plot of THE BOWMEN occurred to me. Now it has
been murmured and hinted and suggested and whispered in all sorts of
quarters that before I wrote the tale I had heard something. The most
decorative of these legends is also the most precise: "I know for a fact
that the whole thing was given him in typescript by a lady-in-waiting."
This was not the case; and all vaguer reports to the effect that I had
heard some rumours or hints of rumours are equally void of any trace of
Again I apologise for entering so pompously into the
minutiŠ of my bit of a story, as if it were the lost poems of Sappho;
but it appears that the subject interests the public, and I comply with
my instructions. I take it, then, that the origins of THE BOWMEN were
composite. First of all, all ages and nations have cherished the thought
that spiritual hosts may come to the help of earthly arms, that gods and
heroes and saints have descended from their high immortal places to
fight for their worshippers and clients. Then Kipling's story of the
ghostly Indian regiment got in my head and got mixed with the
mediŠvalism that is always there; and so THE BOWMEN was written. I was
heartily disappointed with it, I remember, and thought it--as I still
think it--an indifferent piece of work. However, I have tried to write
for these thirty-five long years, and if I have not become practised in
letters, I am at least a past master in the Lodge of Disappointment.
Such as it was, THE BOWMEN appeared in THE EVENING NEWS of September
Now the journalist does not, as a rule, dwell much on the prospect of
fame; and if he be an evening journalist, his anticipations of
immortality are bounded by twelve o'clock at night at the latest; and it
may well be that those insects which begin to live in the morning and
are dead by sunset deem themselves immortal. Having written my story,
having groaned and growled over it and printed it, I certainly never
thought to hear another word of it. My colleague THE LONDONER praised it
warmly to my face, as his kindly fashion is; entering, very properly, a
technical caveat as to the language of the battle-cries of the bowmen.
"Why should English archers use French terms?" he said. I replied that
the only reason was this--that a "Monseigneur" here and there struck me
as picturesque; and I reminded him that, as a matter of cold historical
fact, most of the archers of Agincourt were mercenaries from Gwent, my
native country, who would appeal to Mihangel and to saints not known to
the Saxons--Teilo, Iltyd, Dewi, Cadwaladyr Vendigeid. And I thought that
that was the first and last discussion of THE BOWMEN. But in a few days
from its publication the editor of THE OCCULT REVIEW wrote to me. He
wanted to know whether the story had any foundation in fact. I told him
that it had no foundation in fact of any kind or sort; I forget whether
I added that it had no foundation in rumour but I should think not,
since to the best of my belief there were no rumours of heavenly
interposition in existence at that time. Certainly I had heard of none.
Soon afterwards the editor of LIGHT wrote asking a like question, and I
made him a like reply. It seemed to me that I had stifled any BOWMEN
mythos in the hour of its birth.
A month or two later, I received several requests from editors of parish
magazines to reprint the story. I--or, rather, my editor--readily gave
permission; and then, after another month or two, the conductor of one
of these magazines wrote to me, saying that the February issue
containing the story had been sold out, while there was still a great
demand for it. Would I allow them to reprint THE BOWMEN as a pamphlet,
and would I write a short preface giving the exact authorities for the
story? I replied that they might reprint in pamphlet form with all my
heart, but that I could not give my authorities, since I had none, the
tale being pure invention. The priest wrote again, suggesting--to my
amazement--that I must be mistaken, that the main "facts" of THE BOWMEN
must be true, that my share in the matter must surely have been confined
to the elaboration and decoration of a veridical history. It seemed that
my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this
particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it
began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had
succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should
think, some time in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set
rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it
is now swollen to a monstrous size.
It was at about this period that variants of my tale began to be told as
authentic histories. At first, these tales betrayed their relation to
their original. In several of them the vegetarian restaurant appeared,
and St. George was the chief character. In one case an officer--name and
address missing--said that there was a portrait of St. George in a
certain London restaurant, and that a figure, just like the portrait,
appeared to him on the battlefield, and was invoked by him, with the
happiest results. Another variant--this, I think, never got into
print--told how dead Prussians had been found on the battlefield with
arrow wounds in their bodies. This notion amused me, as I had imagined a
scene, when I was thinking out the story, in which a German general was
to appear before the Kaiser to explain his failure to annihilate the
"All-Highest,"the general was to say,"it is true, it is impossible to
deny it. The men were killed by arrows; the shafts were found in their
bodies by the burying parties."
I rejected the idea as over-precipitous even for a mere fantasy. I was
therefore entertained when I found that what I had refused as too
fantastical for fantasy was accepted in certain occult circles as hard
Other versions of the story appeared in which a cloud interposed between
the attacking Germans and the defending British. In some examples the
cloud served to conceal our men from the advancing enemy; in others, it
disclosed shining shapes which frightened the horses of the pursuing
German cavalry. St. George, it will he noted, has disappeared--he
persisted some time longer in certain Roman Catholic variants--and there
are no more bowmen, no more arrows. But so far angels are not mentioned;
yet they are ready to appear, and I think that I have detected the
machine which brought them into the story.
In THE BOWMEN my imagined soldier saw "a long line of shapes, with a
shining about them." And Mr. A.P. Sinnett, writing in the May issue of
THE OCCULT REVIEW, reporting what he had heard, states that "those who
could see said they saw 'a row of shining beings' between the two
armies." Now I conjecture that the word "shining" is the link between my
tale and the derivative from it. In the popular view shining and
benevolent supernatural beings are angels, and so, I believe, the Bowmen
of my story have become "the Angels of Mons." In this shape they have
been received with respect and credence everywhere, or almost
And here, I conjecture, we have the key to the large popularity of the
delusion--as I think it. We have long ceased in England to take much
interest in saints, and in the recent revival of the cultus of St.
George, the saint is little more than a patriotic figurehead. And the
appeal to the saints to succour us is certainly not a common English
practice; it is held Popish by most of our countrymen. But angels, with
certain reservations, have retained their popularity, and so, when it
was settled that the English army in its dire peril was delivered by
angelic aid, the way was clear for general belief, and for the
enthusiasms of the religion of the man in the street. 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. The editor of THE CHURCH TIMES has
exercised a wise reserve: he awaits that evidence which so far is
lacking; but in one issue of the paper I noted that the story furnished
a text for a sermon, the subject of a letter, and the matter for an
article. People send me cuttings from provincial papers containing hot
controversy as to the exact nature of the appearances; the "Office
Window" of THE DAILY CHRONICLE suggests scientific explanations of the
hallucination; the PALL MALL in a note about St. James says he is of the
brotherhood of the Bowmen of Mons--this reversion to the bowmen from the
angels being possibly due to the strong statements that I have made on
the matter. The pulpits both of the Church and of Non-conformity have
been busy: Bishop Welldon, Dean Hensley Henson (a disbeliever), Bishop
Taylor Smith (the Chaplain-General), and many other clergy have occupied
themselves with the matter. Dr. Horton preached about the "angels" at
Manchester; Sir Joseph Compton Rickett (President of the National
Federation of Free Church Councils) stated that the soldiers at the
front had seen visions and dreamed dreams, and had given testimony of
powers and principalities fighting for them or against them. Letters
come from all the ends of the earth to the Editor of THE EVENING NEWS
with theories, beliefs, explanations, suggestions. It is all somewhat
wonderful; one can say that the whole affair is a psychological
phenomenon of considerable interest, fairly comparable with the great
Russian delusion of last August and September.
Now it is possible that some persons, judging by the tone of these
remarks of mine, may gather the impression that I am a profound
disbeliever in the possibility of any intervention of the super-physical
order in the affairs of the physical order. They will be mistaken if
they make this inference; they will be mistaken if they suppose that I
think miracles in Judaea credible but miracles in France or Flanders
incredible. I hold no such absurdities. But I confess, very frankly,
that I credit none of the "Angels of Mons" legends, partly because I
see, or think I see, their derivation from my own idle fiction, but
chiefly because I have, so far, not received one jot or tittle of
evidence that should dispose me to belief. It is idle, indeed, and
foolish enough for a man to say: "I am sure that story is a lie, because
the supernatural element enters into it;" here, indeed, we have the
maggot writhing in the midst of corrupted offal denying the existence of
the sun. But if this fellow be a fool--as he is--equally foolish is he
who says, "If the tale has anything of the supernatural it is true, and
the less evidence the better;" and I am afraid this tends to be the
attitude of many who call themselves occultists. I hope that I shall
never get to that frame of mind. So I say, not that super-normal
interventions are impossible, not that they have not happened during
this war--I know nothing as to that point, one way or the other--but
that there is not one atom of evidence (so far) to support the current
stories of the angels of Mons. For, be it remarked, these stories are
specific stories. They rest on the second, third, fourth, fifth hand
stories told by "a soldier," by "an officer," by "a Catholic
correspondent," by "a nurse," by any number of anonymous people. Indeed,
names have been mentioned. A lady's name has been drawn, most
unwarrantably as it appears to me, into the discussion, and I have no
doubt that this lady has been subject to a good deal of pestering and
annoyance. She has written to the Editor of THE EVENING NEWS denying all
knowledge of the supposed miracle. The Psychical Research Society's
expert confesses that no real evidence has been proffered to her Society
on the matter. And then, to my amazement, she accepts as fact the
proposition that some men on the battlefield have been "hallucinated,"
and proceeds to give the theory of sensory hallucination. She forgets
that, by her own showing, there is no reason to suppose that anybody has
been hallucinated at all. Someone (unknown) has met a nurse (unnamed)
who has talked to a soldier (anonymous) who has seen angels. But THAT is
not evidence; and not even Sam Weller at his gayest would have dared to
offer it as such in the Court of Common Pleas. So far, then, nothing
remotely approaching proof has been offered as to any supernatural
intervention during the Retreat from Mons. Proof may come; if so, it
will be interesting and more than interesting.
But, taking the affair as it stands at present, how is it that a nation
plunged in materialism of the grossest kind has accepted idle rumours
and gossip of the supernatural as certain truth? The answer is contained
in the question: it is precisely because our whole atmosphere is
materialist that we are ready to credit anything--save the truth.
Separate a man from good drink, he will swallow methylated spirit with
joy. Man is created to be inebriated; to be "nobly wild, not mad."
Suffer the Cocoa Prophets and their company to seduce him in body and
spirit, and he will get himself stuff that will make him ignobly wild
and mad indeed. It took hard, practical men of affairs, business men,
advanced thinkers, Freethinkers, to believe in Madame Blavatsky and
Mahatmas and the famous message from the Golden Shore: "Judge's plan is
right; follow him and STICK."
And the main responsibility for this dismal state of affairs undoubtedly
lies on the shoulders of the majority of the clergy of the Church of
England. Christianity, as Mr. W.L. Courtney has so admirably pointed
out, is a great Mystery Religion; it is the Mystery Religion. Its
priests are called to an awful and tremendous hierurgy; its pontiffs are
to be the pathfinders, the bridge-makers between the world of sense and
the world of spirit. And, in fact, they pass their time in preaching,
not the eternal mysteries, but a twopenny morality, in changing the Wine
of Angels and the Bread of Heaven into gingerbeer and mixed biscuits: a
sorry transubstantiation, a sad alchemy, as it seems to me.
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