Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Shriek and Thunder of War: Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen”

Early this morning, as chilly wraiths of fog haunted the hills outside my window, I read the final spooky selections in Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger. As I said earlier at the blog, it is one of the best anthologies of supernatural stories I’ve ever read, impeccably edited and vibrantly alive in its impact (unlike most of its sheet-draped characters).

The next-to-last story in the book is “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, which first appeared in The (London) Evening News on September 29, 1914. While it’s a little less “ghostly” than its companions in this book, it is nonetheless a short, vivid reading experience, plunging the reader right into the horrors of World War One—specifically, what became known as the Great Retreat from Mons, the long withdrawal to the River Marne in August and September 1914 by the British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth Army after their defeat by the Germany army during the battles of Charleroi and Mons in August of that year.

Machen (who also penned The Great God Pan) wrote his short story soon after, dashing it out quickly in pseudo-journalism fashion which some later claimed read like war propaganda. To the author’s surprise, “The Bowmen” took on a life of its own and led to some surprising results for Machen, which you can read about elsewhere.

I was unaware of any this backstory to the story when I read it this morning—and frankly, it matters little to me. What impressed me was how Machen described the battle scene in all its gory, gritty detail. As we approach Veterans Day and our thoughts turn once again to members of the military—in rote, semi-annual fashion (see also: Memorial Day)—I thought it would be good to remind ourselves that war was, is, and will always be, HELL.

Here’s your daily dose of combat, courtesy of Arthur Machen:

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 trenches.

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 battle-song, “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 Georgius—“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.

Buy Ghost Stories to read the rest of “The Bowmen” (and all the other great selections contained therein).

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