To mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Mons, the first major action for the British in the First World War, Meic Stephens explains how people came to believe that the reality of war was as strange as fiction.
The curious incident of ‘the Angels of Mons’ is not easily explained. In fact, although many believed the story to be a true account, it didn’t happen. But in the fraught atmosphere of war-time, jingoistic London in late 1914 it was very difficult to prove that the whole thing was fiction. Even the writer whose work had caused the misunderstanding in the first place was not believed when, as the author of a short story that had given rise to the popular misconception, he pointed out that it was the product of his fertile imagination. The great British public wanted to believe that the story was based on historical truth: to doubt it was somehow unpatriotic.
Arthur Machen (Arthur Jones; 1863-1947) was a Welsh prose-writer and literary journalist whose stories of the occult and supernatural, such as The Great God Pan (1894), had struck a chord with the reading public and brought him a reputation as a prose-writer of distinction. The story in question was ‘The Bowmen’, which had appeared in The London Evening News, for which he worked, on 29 September 1914. The idea had occurred to him while reading in his Sunday newspaper, The Weekly Dispatch, about the retreat from Mons in the previous August. On his way to church, he began thinking of the young soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force who even then were thronging up the streets of Heaven and mingling with the heroes of old: ‘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.’ He also had in mind the Welsh archers whose part in the battle of Agincourt had secured a victory for Henry V against the French in 1415. Machen had used this historical fact in a fictional account of how, at the battle of Mons, the archers’ ghosts, led by St George, had come to the aid of a British company by firing their arrows against the German positions. They were described as ‘a long line of shapes, with a shining about them’, and their arrows were said to kill without leaving visible wounds. It was this last touch that helped to fix the story in the popular imagination.
‘The Bowmen’ had appeared in print at a moment when people were looking for a miracle after the rout by the German Imperial Armies at Charleroi and Mons. Not only did journals such as The Occult Review fasten on it, but within a week it had been taken up by parish magazines all over the country. Correspondence flowed into the offices of The Evening News from those who claimed to have seen the Angels or met those who had done so. What’s more, people came forward to say they had friends and relatives who had seen the Angels with their own eyes: clearly, the story brought consolation and gave hope to people in need of them after the disasters that had befallen the Army. The defeat was the first indication the British public had that defeating Germany was not going to be as easy as some had thought.
Published as a booklet in August 1915 and then included in an expanded version in Machen’s book The Bowmen and other legends of the war soon afterwards, the story had sold more than a hundred thousand copies by the end of 1915 and its author, for the first time in his life, a famous writer. But the story’s reception caused Machen great distress, for what he had written as palpable fiction had been credited as incontrovertible fact. He was even rebuked in the popular press and by religious bodies for claiming the story was entirely his. His rueful comment was, ‘If I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit.’ He made very little money from the story. Even so, he was lured thereafter into repeating ever weaker versions of the same theme. If Arthur Machen’s name means anything a hundred years later, it awakens the memory of this one remarkable story and the controversy it caused.