THE BOWMEN (1914)
by Arthur Machen
It was during the retreat of the Eighty Thousand, and the
authority of the Censorship is sufficient excuse for not being more
explicit. But it was on the most awful day of that awful time, on the
day when ruin and disaster came so near that their shadow fell over
London far away; and, without any certain news, the hearts of men
failed within them and grew faint; as if the agony of the army in the
battlefield had entered into their souls.
On this dreadful day, then, when three hundred
thousand men in arms with all their artillery swelled like a flood
against the little English company, there was one point above all other
points in our battle line that was for a time in awful danger, not
merely of defeat, but of utter annihilation. With the permission of the
Censorship and the military expert, this corner may, perhaps, be
described as salient, and if this angle were crushed and broken, then
the English force as a whole would have been shattered, the Allied left
would be turned, and Sedan would inevitably follow.
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
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
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.
For as the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he
felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through
his body. The roar of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle
murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout
louder than a thunder-peal crying, "Array, array, array!"
His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as
ice within him, as it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered
to his summons. He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting:
"St. George! St. George!"
"Ha! messire; ha! sweet Saint, grant us good
"St. George for merry England!"
"Harrow! Harrow! Monseigneur St. George,
"Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow
and a strong bow."
"Heaven's Knight, aid us!"
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before
him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about
them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout,
their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards
the German hosts.
* * * *
The other men in the trench were firing all the
while. They had no hope; but they aimed just as if they had been
shooting at Bisley.
Suddenly one of them lifted up his voice in the
"Gawd help us!" he bellowed to the man
net to him, "but we're blooming marvels! Look at those grey ...
gentlemen, look at them! D'ye see them? They're not going down in
dozens, nor in 'undreds; it's thousands, it is. Look! look! there's a
regiment gone while I'm talking to ye."
"Shut it!" the other soldier bellowed,
taking aim, "what are ye gassing about?"
But he gulped with astonishment even as he spoke,
for, indeed, the grey men were falling by the thousands. The English
could hear the guttural scream of the German officers, the crackle of
their revolvers as they shot the reluctant; and still line after line
crashed to the earth.
* * * *
All the while the Latin-bred soldier heard the cry:
"Harrow! Harrow! Monseigneur, dear saint,
quick to our aid! St. George help us!"
"High Chevalier, defend us!"
The singing arrows fled so swift and thick that they
darkened the air; the heathen horde melted from before them.
* * * *
"More machine guns!" Bill yelled to Tom.
"Don't hear them," Tom yelled back.
"But, thank God, anyway; they've got it in the neck."
In fact there were ten thousand dead German
soldiers left before that salient of the English army, and consequently
there was no Sedan. In Germany, a country ruled by scientific
principals, the Great General Staff decided that the contemptible
English must have employed shells containing an unknown gas of a
poisonous nature, as no wounds were discernible on the bodies of the
dead German soldiers. But the man who knew what nuts tasted like
when they called themselves steak knew also that St. George had
brought his Agincourt Bowmen to help the English.