“…the threatening sky, the restless symmetrical movements…the whole scene reminded me in some strange way of Milton’s description of the legions of dark angels practising for giant warfare with St Michael on the plains of Hell…”
Captain Arthur Osborn of the 4th Dragoon Guards, Cavalry Division, B.E.F. describing the Retreat from Mons
The Bowmen was a short story produced by writer and journalist Arthur Machen within weeks of the declaration of the First World War. Published by the London Evening News on 29 September 1914, Machen could never have imagined that his words would become the source material for “the first urban myth” of the 20th century.
Machen’s story appeared to describe a wonder that had occurred during the battle of Mons, in Belgium, on 23 August, 1914. A group of British soldiers who were outnumbered, cut off and surrounded by the advancing German army, called upon their patron saint, St George, for help. In a flash, “a long line of shapes, with a shining about them” – the ghosts of fallen archers from Agincourt – appeared beyond the trenches. They drew longbows and showered the attacking Germans with deadly arrows, killing thousands of the gray-coated infantrymen without leaving a mark on their bodies. This intervention turned the tide of the battle and allowed the British force to retreat.
Machen’s inspiration came from newspaper accounts of the retreat from Mons. Heavily censored by the War Office, they portrayed a beleaguered British force making a ‘miraculous’ escape from the battlefield. The intention was to shock a complacent nation, and encourage new recruits to join up. Machen recalled seeing the newspaper billboards announcing the bad news, and that morning took his thoughts to church where the story of The Bowmen occurred to him:
“….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…So I saw our men with a shining about them…”
The Bowmen was just one of a series of patriotic, uplifting stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines that summoned divine assistance against the German foe. Heroic figures from British mythology such as King Arthur and St George, who was famously invoked by King Henry V on the field of Agincourt, were called upon to turn the tide of a victory that was far from certain. If the Germans were really devils, as they had been portrayed by the Allied propaganda machine, then it was only logical that angels would be fighting the evil horde alongside the British army. Within this context, Machen’s story neatly captured the latent appetite for signs and wonders in the midst of a war that was characterised by industrialism and materialism.
Within days of the appearance of The Bowmen, the editor of the Evening News began to receive letters from readers asking for the identity of the soldiers who witnessed the miracle on the battlefield. Requests also came from the editors of the spiritualist magazines that were popular during the Great War. They wanted to republish Machen’s story, and asked for the authorities upon which he had drawn. “I could not give my authorities,” Machen responded, “because I had none, the tale being pure invention.”
Six months passed after Machen produced his romantic fantasy before reports of visions were published as “fact.” Within a week of St George’s Day, 23 April 1915, new variants of Machen’s story appeared in Light and The Occult Review and these were quickly reprinted by the national newspapers. The earliest on record came from an anonymous “military officer” who called at the offices of Light with a second-hand account of a battlefield vision. “It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British,” he claimed. “Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy.”
Those who had lost loved ones in the slaughter were comforted by these tales, and the ‘angels’ provided an ideal conduit for a renewed outpouring of faith and patriotism. Clergymen used the story in Sunday sermons as a moral booster, replacing the ‘bowmen’ with angels. Machen believed the link between the two versions was his use of the word “shining”. He wrote: “..in the popular view shining and benevolent supernatural beings are angels and nothing else…and so, I believe, the Bowmen of my story have become the Angels of Mons.”
The defining moment came with the story of Miss Marrable, the daughter of a clergyman, who claimed she had first hand evidence from two army officers. They had seen “a troop of angels” appear between the British and the German lines at a crucial point in the retreat from Mons, leading the enemy cavalry to stampede in terror. Her story was enthusiastically taken up as the proof that would confound the skeptics. When Marrable was eventually traced and questioned it was found that she had been misquoted and had no idea who the officers were, if they even existed. This revelation was ignored by those promoting the claims. In subsequent reprintings of the story, her denial was ignored and her name removed. From this point onwards, the boundary between literary invention and real ‘experience’ became increasingly blurred.
Rallied against Machen in 1915 were the believers in ‘divine intervention.’ The patriotic author Harold Begbie hastily published On the Side of the Angels, that was subtitled ‘an answer to Arthur Machen.’ Begbie argued that Machen had exploited a true story for his own commercial ends, or that he had been inspired by a telepathic vision from the brain of a dying soldier at Mons. His book presented the ‘eyewitness’ accounts of soldiers that he claimed proved Machen was wrong, but his argument was shattered when a key testimony, given under oath by a soldier from the Cheshire regiment, was revealed as a hoax.
Begbie also relied upon the dubious evidence of a nurse, Phyllis Campbell, who claimed to have cared for wounded and dying soldiers who had seen the angels. But as Machen pointed out, none of the witnesses could be identified by name:
“Someone (unknown) has met a nurse (unnamed) who has talked to a soldier (anonymous) who has seen angels. But THAT is not evidence.”
Machen used his position as a leader writer for the Evening News to challenge Begbie and Campbell, demanding they produce the names of the soldiers who had made these statements before they could be accepted as evidence. Unable to answer, Campbell claimed there was a Government conspiracy to hide the truth. The soldiers who had seen the angels could not be named, she claimed, because of a cover-up. Those who had witnessed wonders on the battlefield were forbidden by the British Army to discuss what they had seen, but Campbell promised that
“the evidence exists…and when the war is over and the embargo of silence is removed, Mr Machen will be overwhelmed with corroborative evidence.”
Copyright David Clarke 2011