Legends intoxicate the home front
It is Sunday 23 August 1914. It is the ninth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.
The Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes and Lorraine rages on.
Japan declares war on Germany.
In the Wallonic town of Dinant 621 citizens, some of whom children, are executed to revenge the alleged firing at German soldiers.
Numerous incunables and historic books go up in flames when the Germans set fire to the university library of the Flemish town of Leuven.
French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre has to admit with gnashing teeth to his Minister of War that defence rather than attack should be the motto now.
The Germans capture Sedan, the French town where emperor Napoleon III found his Waterloo in 1870.
The Russians suffer their first major defeat at Tannenberg.
The old general Joseph Gallieni takes on the defence of Paris.
The Austrians are driven back across the Serbian border, but succeed in advancing in Poland.
At sea the British win a victory on the Germans in the Battle of Heligoland, the first naval battle of the war.
The British expeditionary army recovers after the Battle of Mons, where they were divinely helped, at least according to Arthur Machen.
It has rained all night. The battlefield, an open passage between two stretches of wood, is a mud plain. The two armies are waiting. Then the English, who are a considerable minority, take the lead. They loose off a volley of arrows. The provoked French knights storm ahead on their horses. Weighed down by their heavy suits of armour they are defeated by the lightfooted English whose arrows are fired relentlessly. The French are massacred.
No, this is not the First World War. This is the Hundred Years’ War, 25 October 1415, the Battle of Agincourt. The English long bows triumphed over the French who had gone to battle so bravely or foolhardily. Five centuries later in a much greater war this unbridled desire to attack appeared to be in the genes of the French soldier.
In 1914 we also meet the heroic English bowmen again. This time it is not the French but the Germans who are showered by their arrows. Agincourt is now Mons, Bergen in Flemish. Saint George, patron saint of England, has sent the bowmen of Agincourt. ‘Saint George! Saint George!’, the English soldiers called out, while dug in behind the Mons canal. And then they saw them clearly, a long row of figures surrounded by light. Men drawing their bows. Arrows, singing and stinging, accompanied by cries from the throats of the bowmen, flying in clouds to the German hordes.
That is how it must have happened according to the newspapers. Well over a month after the Battle of Mons, Arthur Machen publishes a ‘truthful’ account of the first battle the English have had to fight in the Great War. Machen has a preference for the supernatural and the obscure. He has grown up in Wales, where Celts and Romans created a haze of myths across the scenery. Already in 1890 he published the short story The Great God Pan, which bestseller writer Stephen King years later called ‘perhaps the best horror story in the English language’.
He manages to make his miraculous report of the British-German confrontation at Mons as plausible as possible. Military censorship permitted him to tell the story, Machen states. It is the story of a small English troop of soldiers that has succeeded in resisting a German superior power of heavy artillery. They had abandoned all hope. Machen writes: ‘There comes a moment in a storm at sea 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 trenches.’
And then came a blessing from above in the form of archers, Machen continues. The Germans did not expect this. They suspected that the English had grenades containing an unknown poisongas, as no injuries were found on the bodies of the tens of thousands of Germans that were killed.
Machen published his history of the bowmen in The Evening News, one of Alfred Harmsworth’s newspapers. As Lord Northcliffe Harmsworth was to be a pioneer of British propaganda during the war. Machen, who was the son of an Anglican preacher, also dipped his pen for victory in inflammatory ink.
As ‘The Angels of Mons’ Machen’s story has lodged in British heritage. The author himself was greatly surprised by this. Already in 1915 he observed that war proved to be a ‘fruitful mother of legends’. When his short story, together with five equally fantastic tales was turned into a book, he apologized in the preface for his little story that had filled a 43-centimeter-column on page three of the paper.
After reading the catastrophic newpaper articles about the retreat of the British, Machen had dreamed up the story of the bowmen, primarily to put his mind at rest.
After that he could not get the genie of the bowmen back into the bottle. Not only in occult circles, but also in churches the story had started to lead a life of its own. The bowmen had sublimated into angels without Machen’s doing. A Lancashire Fusillier had confirmed it to a nurse: ‘It’s true, sister. We all saw it.’
The fact is that the readers were yearning for news from the boys overseas, but the War Office under the command of Lord Kitchener stemmed the tide of this. According to Philip Gibbs, one of the few official war correspondents at the front, the liars experienced golden days under those circumstances. He had to pay the price of heavy censorship.
Where the facts are blurred an intense need arises for metaphysical comfort in the extensive no man’s land between truth and lies. Émile Fayolle, French general, was not exactly free of this either. ‘I am convinced that God will save France again,’ he said, adding his doubts in one subclause: ‘But He will have to take immediate action.’
The British expeditionary army consisted of men with experience at the front. Professional soldiers. Especially in the Boer War fifteen years earlier they had learned how to resist an attack of the infantry. When they were ordered to defend the canal at Mons, they immediately started to take cover. The terrain offered every opportunity. Each building, wall and heap of cinders was used by the English.
In 1964 the BBC produced the 26-part documentary ‘The Great War’. In part four an English Mons veteran said: ‘Quite suddenly, out of the blue, we saw cavalry coming towards us. They came out on our right flank. I said: good gracious, it’s Germans.’ The British had Lee-Enfield repeating rifles which could fire fifteen rounds a minute. The German Mauser rifle produced less. At the end of the day 1,600 British were killed against possibly 5,000 Germans. The surviving German novelist Walter Bloem expressed the tragedy as follows: ‘Our first battle is a heavy, an unheard-of heavy defeat, and against the English, the English we laughed at.’
That sounded too fatalistic. The British had delayed the German advance to Paris by one day. Their retreat became a humiliating experience. Sir John French felt cheated by the French general Charles Lanrezac who was forced to beat a hasty retreat, also to the annoyance of his superior Joseph Joffre.
Eleven days earlier the BEF, short for British Expeditionary Force, had landed near Le Havre, Boulogne and Rouen. It was clear to the minister of War, colonial war hero Lord Kitchener, that this professional army should form the centre of a much bigger military force, composed of volunteers. On a poster he pointed his piercing look and forefinger to the nation. The message was ‘Lord Kitchener wants you’.
However, for the time being The Old Contemptibles will have to manage on their own. This nickname is said to have been given to the men of the expeditionary force by no less a person than Wilhelm II himself. In the first month of the war the German emperor, so the story goes, had given his men the order to make short work of the ‘contemptible little’ army of the English.
Sir John French was in supreme command of the BEF. He did not have any idea what was expected of his army, but soon realized that an offensive was out of the question. The French Fifth Army, the one on the far left, was under high pressure on the banks of the river Sambre. General Lanrezac badly needed French’s men on his own left side.
It was corporal Edward Thomas who fired the first British shot on the Western front when on reconnaissance. He did so on behalf of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards near the town of Soignies, Zinnik to the Flemish, on 22 August 1914. Thomas, himself a drummer in his regiment, was not sure if this had been fatal for a German cuirassier on horseback. Later during the war Thomas distinguished himself by removing the shoes of a number of dead German soldiers in a trench and crawling back to his own ranks with these. Thomas was to survive the war, which was certainly not the case with all members of the BEF. Before Thomas had fired the first British shot, one of his comrades had been killed when on patrol. That first British casualty was John Parr.
The Battle of Mons of August 1914 was a relatively small confrontation within the Battle of the Frontiers. To the British it was the opening performance of their war. But in 1918 Mons would also mark the end of the war to the British. On 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, George Ellison was killed there as the last British soldier. He lies buried in Mons opposite John Parr.
A column with a plaque saying First Shot Memorial at Mons is a reminder of the starting shot of corporal Thomas. The restaurant across the street bears a commemorative plaque in honour of the Canadian 117th Battalion which stopped here on the last day of the war. So Mons, which was controlled by the Germans from 1914 till 1918, can be considered as the alpha and omega of the Great War.
Unlike many other writers and journalists Arthur Machen did not fight in the Great War himself. He was past fifty when the First World War broke out. He also lived to see the Second World War from beginning to end. Arthur Machen died in 1947 at the age of 84. His bowmen, that became angels, were of enormous propagandist value to the British. It gave the homefront the feeling that they were not on their own. In this way Machen intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the war effort, with a story which was too good not to be true.
Next week: Alexander von Kluck
Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)