More than “The Great God Pan,” more than “The White People,” more than anything written in “The Three Imposters,” Machen is best known for a three-page piece of wartime propaganda that perfectly resonated with the British public in a way that would amuse and plague him. World War One was in its first year when Machen penned “The Bowmen” and had it published in “The Evening News” on September 29. It was, he claimed, inspired by a handful of rumors trickling in from the front lines – rumors that a disastrous rout during the British retreat from Mons, Belgium that August had been prevented by divine intervention. Perhaps, as it has been argued, there were some far less fantastical reports of ghostly aid which predated the Machen article, but as far as he was concerned, the story was a piece of fiction based on a handful of half-believed rumors.
The fictitious report was written like journalism, however, and “The Bowmen” became “The Angels of Mons” – a widely published supernatural account (on par with the Loch Ness Monster, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, and the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall: a famous veridical bogey tale). Eventually, conspiracy theorists accused Machen – during his lifetime – of being part of a government coverup to downplay the haunting by claiming it to be fiction, and he was shouted down by angry believers whenever he insisted that the Angels were his own creation. Imbibed with a life of their own, the Angels took off with the public. Machen was most amused by a detail that came out in the reworkings of his story: that the German corpses had been found pierced with arrow wounds. Laughing, he reported that he had considered using this very detail, but thought it to be a tad heavy-handed. The British public disagreed.
The story, written in the manner of an investigative report, is said to have risen up amongst English soldiers during the Great Retreat of 1914 – a humiliating flight of the combined French and British Armies following the brutal August 21 defeat of the French at Charleroi and the less bloody (but no less depressing) routing of the British at Mons. What was hoped to be a short war for national sovereignty against German authoritarianism and imperialism was now either going to be a drawn-out slug fest with millions of casualties over the course of years, or the death of European democracy at the hands of the Prussian war machine.
With the Allies in flight and Paris nearly within range of the German guns, the British rear guard was tasked with protecting the retreat from a refreshed, energized corpse of 300,000 Prussians. Faced with absolute annihilation, they realize that it is their responsibility to save their countries from a humiliating defeat and a future of occupation. The soldiers try to rally their spirits with drinking songs and gallows humor, but the German artillery begins raining down on them, vaporizing their lines and pulverizing their own outnumbered guns.
Already cut down by half, the survivors begin shaking hands and accepting their doom. One man, who had been trained in Latin, recalls an eccentric vegetarian restaurant in London where the plates all feature an image of England’s patron, Saint George, and the motto “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius” (May Saint George be a Present Help to the English). Faced with death, he ironically mutters the vegetarian bistro’s motto as he trains his rifle on the approaching mass of grey-uniformed infantrymen.
Suddenly, he feels what he describes as an electric shock running through him, and hears thunderous voices cheering a shouting battle cries overhead. Looking up, he sees glorious ranks of vaguely shining figures gesturing like archers drawing bows. Their cries of “Harrow! Harrow!” “Array! Array!” “St. George for Merry England!” and “Monseigneur St. George, succor us!” have a distinctly medieval flavor, and as the figures draw their spectral bows and let fly, clouds of arrows arch across the battlefield, decimating the German hosts. Some of the soldiers are reminded that the Battle of Agincourt -- also fought by an outnumbered English army against a superior foe -- was fought in nearby northern France and won by the plucky Welsh archers whose longbows mowed down the enmired enemy knights.
The British soldiers are shocked as they hear the arrows singing in the air and burying themselves in German bodies. The attackers’ ranks break and they are then shot to pieces by their own officers as they refuse to regroup. Ten thousand a leveled by the spectral bowmen before the day is over, and while the German high command theorized that the British had deployed a new kind of poisonous gas (for none of the corpses had a single wound on them), however, the Latin-scholar whose sarcastic prayer summoned the ghosts of the English archers of Agincourt, knew differently.
On a rainy, October day – St. Crispin’s Day – in 1415, an invading English army faced the well-rested, heavily armed repelling forces of the King of France. Led by the ambitious, warlike Henry V, the English divisions were pauperly in comparison: muddy, fatigued, hungry, and outnumbered, primarily consisting of Welsh longbowmen wearing no armor – armed only with swords that were little more than machetes, their beloved yew bows, and quivers of ash-shafted arrows. By comparison, the French army was spearheaded by a massive force of heavy cavalry – exquisitely armored aristocratic knights who represented the cream of France’s nobility. They met at a waterlogged clearing near Calais called Agincourt, where the Welsh bowmen set up their positions to the rear of the few English knights, and took careful aim as the French charged. Thousands of tons of horse, armor, and nobles bore down on the mud-drenched peasants, but when the bowmen let fly, the arrows peppered the cavalry, felling horses, piercing armor, and turning the formation into a muddy tangle. Unhorsed and discoordinated, the knights were easy prey for English foot soldiers – also peasants and yeomen – who finished them off while the struggled to rise from the mud in their armor. Then the English knights advanced and the day went to Henry V and his tattered “band of brothers.”
Agincourt had long been a metaphor for the English fighting spirit when the Battle of Mons was fought. Its name is mentioned alongside the Spanish Armada, Trafalgar, Rourke’s Drift, Dunkirk, and the Battle of Britain: all of which involved a sturdy band of Britons making a resolute resistance against a seemingly unstoppable enemy force. Such was the scientifically-minded German military machine: a juggernaught renowned for trouncing the Austrians, the French, and the Danes in a series of late 19th century wars that led to the Unification of Germany and the expansion of the German colonial empire. Germany was seen as amoral, unprincipled, and unchivalrous, and their early successes in the war terrified the British public just as seriously as they would after the Battle of France in 1939. Machen noted the similarities between the two battles (almost a year before Agincourt’s 500 year anniversary): a bedraggled force of Britons – Englishmen, Welshmen, Scots, and Irish all working together – landing on French soil and squaring up against a militarily superior force on a muddy battlefield, facing hopeless onslaughts, but persevering with the fuel of patriotism and the old fighting spirit. The parallels were obvious to the British public, and they relished “The Bowmen.”
By the time “The Angels of Mons” had taken a life of its own, Machen had begun to realize that perhaps it was better to allow people to believe a fiction that gave them hope and inspiration. Nonetheless, he grumbled: “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.”