It has happened before that while I'm focused on some research topic but read something seemingly unrelated, that unanticipated connections serendipitously appear between the two. In this case it was while reading a collection of short stories by Arthur Machen, an influential writer of supernatural horror who wrote his greatest, and most disturbing, works in the 1890s.1 Many drew upon his Welsh heritage (he was born in and grew up near Caerleon; though I kept an eye out during my visit for his blue plaque I managed to miss it), particularly Celtic myths about the Little People which he used to create far, far darker things than most of the fairies fluttering around contemporary fantastic literature. Those were the stories I remember most from reading Machen as a teenager, and they do not disappoint now.
But this time around I was more intrigued by Machen's writing from the First World War, when he was a journalist for the Evening News, part of Lord Northcliffe's empire. Of these, 'The bowmen' (first published in September 1914) has gained some notoriety as the inspiration for the Angel of Mons which supposedly saved the BEF from disaster in its first major battle of the war. Machen story has not angels, but phantom bowmen from Agincourt lending their firepower to the British line as it repels a German attack (another story in this collection, 'The soldiers' rest', also evokes a supernatural link between the Tommy and his medieval predecessors). It was clearly meant to be read as fiction, but seems to have inspired the belief that something like it had actually happened during the retreat from Mons. Machen always denied that 'The bowmen' was anything other than fiction and tried quite publicly to refute the myths/rumours/urban legends his story had generated, but in the end the Angel wasn't going anywhere: people — at least, some people — wanted to believe in it.2
However, it wasn't 'The bowmen' which piqued my interest, nor the Angel of Mons, except indirectly. Rather it was the way he used his experience to explore the role of rumour and myth in wartime. 'Out of the earth', a short story published in November 1915, begins by explicitly referring to his creation of 'The bowmen' and hence the Angel, which was made possible by his choice of his own identity, Arthur Machen, journalist, for the narrator. The narrative of 'The terror', actually a short novel which was serialised as 'The great terror' in the Evening News in October 1916, revolves in large part around rumour, in this case rumours concerning a series of bizarre deaths taking place across the nation which, so it is hinted, are connected with both the shells crisis and the delay in launching the great offensive.
Oddly, given his experiences with the Angel of Mons, early on in 'The terror' Machen comes close to saying that rumour is no longer as powerful a force as it once was, thanks to the power of the press as well as wartime censorship. In the story, censorship intervenes to prevent any mention by the press of the deaths and thereby stops the spread of rumour as well:
Before the war, one would have thought otherwise; one would have said that, censor or no censor, the fact of the murder at X or the fact of the bank robbery at Y would certainly become known; if not through the Press, at all events through rumour and the passage of the news from mouth to mouth. And this would be true — of England three hundred years ago, and of savage tribelands of to-day. But we have grown of late to such a reverence for the printed word and such a reliance on it, that the old faculty of disseminating news by word of mouth has become atrophied.3
And such rumours as do spread owe their success to being passed on by newspapers:
I may have seemed to say that the old office of rumour no longer exists; I shall be reminded of the strange legend of 'the Russians' and the mythology of the 'Angels of Mons.' But let me point out, in the first place, that both these absurdities depended on the papers for their wide dissemination. If there had been no newspapers or magazines Russians and Angels would have made but a brief, vague appearance of the most shadowy kind — a few would have heard of them, fewer still would have believed in them, they would have been gossiped about for a bare week or two, and so they would have vanished away.4
He goes on to suggest that the fact that the Angels and the Russians (soldiers who had supposedly landed in Scotland 'with snow on their boots' and sped by train, at night, blinds drawn, down to the Channel to reinforce France) had been discredited 'was fatal to the credit of any stray mutterings that may have got abroad'.5
Machen is probably right to say print was king, but I think he's exaggerating to suggest that rumour now needed the press to propagate. It certainly helped, and definitely could set the shape of rumour; but as we've seen in Australia later in the war rumour could operate despite censorship. And while he may have used his authoritative, 'objective' voice to proclaim that the death of rumour, this is belied by scenes later in 'The terror'. The following quotes are from a single conversation, between a Welsh doctor named Lewis and his brother-in-law Merritt, but relate to more than one rumour going about in Midlingham, an important (fictional) centre of munitions production in the Midlands which is one of the places afflicted by the mysterious deaths:
At Midlingham [said Merritt] everybody has the feeling that we're up against something awful and we don't know what; it's that that makes people inclined to whisper. There's terror in the air [...] There's a queer story going about, when the door's shut and the curtain's drawn, that is, as to a place right out in the country over the other side of Midlingham; on the opposite side to Dunwich [...] People say that the Germans have landed, and that they are hiding in underground places all over the country.6
This last rumour is the one which has gripped Midlingham's imagination, and no wonder:
Lewis gasped for a moment, silent in contemplation of the magnificence of rumour. The Germans already landed, hiding underground, striking by night, secretly, terribly, at the power of England! Here was a conception which made the myth of 'The Russians' a paltry fable; before which the Legend of Mons was an ineffectual thing.7
Again, it is clear that rumour is operating quite happily here, press or no press:
'And people really believe that a number of Germans have somehow got over to England and have hid themselves underground?'
'People say they've got a new kind of poison-gas. Some think that they dig underground places and make the gas there, and lead it by secret pipes into the shops; others say that they throw gas bombs into the factories. It must be worse than anything they've used in France, from what the authorities say.'[...]
'And so you believe in the German theory?'
'If I do, it's because one must believe in something. Some say they've seen the gas. I heard that a man living in Dunwich saw it one night like a black cloud with sparks of fire in it floating over the tops of the trees by Dunwich Common.'8
The theory receives apparent confirmation by the introduction of an apparently blameless Swedish professor named Huvelius, who Lewis hears about from Merritt, who in turn 'received it from some magnate of the Midlands, who had travelled in Germany'.9
And so on. I think it's pretty clear by now that either Machen didn't mean what he said about rumour being dead, or else he'd forgotten what he'd written at the start of the story. That's possible with a serialised novel like this, I suppose; but then again Machen was no le Queux (who half-way through Spies of the Kaiser forgot which character was the hero and which his sidekick). On the other hand, he probably could have been, had he wanted:
So he told the story of how Huvelius had sold his plan to the Germans; a plan for filling England with German soldiers. Land was to be bought in certain suitable and well-considered places, Englishmen were to be bought as the apparent owners of such land, and secret excavations were to be made, till the country was literally undermined. A subterranean Germany, in fact, was to be dug under selected districts of England; there were to be great caverns, underground cities, well drained, well ventilated, supplied with water, and in these places vast stores both of food and of munitions were to be accumulated, year after year, till 'the Day' dawned. And then, warned in time, the secret garrison would leave shops, hotels, offices, villas, and vanish underground, ready to begin their work of bleeding England at the heart.10
This segues (not very quickly, I'll admit) into the other interesting aspect of 'The terror': the content of the rumours and theories which try to the strange events which are the story's subject. These theories, of course, depend upon the ingenuity and malice of the German enemy:
It would be just like the Huns, everybody agreed, to think out such a devilish scheme as this; and they always thought out their schemes beforehand. They hoped to seize Paris in a few weeks, but when they were beaten on the Marne they had their trenches on the Aisne ready to fall back on: it had all been prepared years before the war. And so, no doubt, they had devised this terrible plan against England in case they could not beat us in open fight: there were people ready, very likely, all over the country, who were prepared to murder and destroy everywhere as soon as they got the word. In this way the Germans intended to sow terror throughout England and fill our hearts with panic and dismay, hoping so to weaken their enemy at home that he would lose all heart over the war abroad. It was the Zeppelin notion, in another form; they were committing these horrible and mysterious outrages thinking that we should be frightened out of our wits.
It all seemed plausible enough; Germany had by this time perpetrated so many horrors and had so excelled in devilish ingenuities that no abomination seemed too abominable to be probable, or too ingeniously wicked to be beyond the tortuous malice of the Hun. But then came the questions as to who the agents of this terrible design were, as to where they lived, as to how they contrived to move unseen from field to field, from lane to lane. All sorts of fantastic attempts were made to answer these questions; but it was felt that they remained unanswered. Some suggested that the murderers landed from submarines, or flew from hiding places on the West Coast of Ireland, coming and going by night; but there were seen to be flagrant impossibilities in both these suggestions.11
Other suggestions made in connection with the mystery along the same lines include signals from enemy agents:
He held (and still holds, for all I know), that the flashes of light which he saw coming from Penyrhaul, the farmhouse on the height, had some connection with the disaster to the Mary Ann. When it was ascertained that a family were spending their summer at the farm, and that the governess was a German, though a long naturalized German, Merritt could not see that there was anything left to argue about, though there might be many details to discover. But, in my opinion, all this was a mere mare's nest; the flashes of brilliant light were caused, no doubt, by the sun lighting up one window of the farmhouse after the other.12
And submarines and raiders:
'So far as I can see,' he added, 'there's nothing to prevent a submarine from standing out there by Ynys Sant and landing half a dozen men in a collapsible boat in any of these little coves. And pretty fools we should look, shouldn't we, with our throats cut on the sands; or carried back to Germany in the submarine?' He tipped the coast-watcher half-a-crown.
'That's right, lad,' he said, 'you give us the tip.'
Now here was a strange thing. The north-countryman had his thoughts on elusive submarines and German raiders [...]13
And a form of death ray:
Well; my belief is that the Germans have made an extraordinary discovery. I have called it the Z Ray. You know that the æther is merely an hypothesis; we have to suppose that it's there to account for the passage of the Marconi current from one place to another. Now, suppose that there is a psychic æther as well as a material æther, suppose that it is possible to direct irresistible impulses across this medium, suppose that these impulses are towards murder or suicide; then I think that you have an explanation of the terrible series of events that have been happening in Meirion for the last few weeks. And it is quite clear to my mind that the horses and the other creatures have been exposed to this Z Ray, and that it has produced on them the effect of terror, with ferocity as the result of terror.14
And… even a mystery aircraft:
The doctor listened intently. It was not an illusion, the sound was not in his own head, as he had suspected for a moment; but for the life of him he could not make out whence it came or what it was. He gazed down into the night over the terraces of his garden, now sweet with the scent of the flowers of the night; tried to peer over the tree-tops across the sea towards the Dragon's Head. It struck him suddenly that this strange fluttering vibration of the air might be the noise of a distant aeroplane or airship; there was not the usual droning hum, but this sound might be caused by a new type of engine. A new type of engine? Possibly it was an enemy airship; their range, it had been said, was getting longer; and Lewis was just going to call Remnant's attention to the sound, to its possible cause, and to the possible danger that might be hovering over them, when he saw something that caught his breath and his heart with wild amazement and a touch of terror.15
Given Machen's realist mode of writing these sorts of ideas had to be plausible to his readers as the sort of rumours which were floating around wartime Britain. And, apart (probably) from the subterranean army and the Z Rays, they were just the sort of rumours which were floating around wartime Britain and, for that matter, wartime Australia too.16 So Machen turns out to be an insightful, if also unreliable, guide to my current area of research.
- Arthur Machen, The White People and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin Books, 2011).
- David Clarke, The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2005).
- Machen, The White People and Other Weird Stories, 274.
- Ibid., 274-5. On the Russians, see James Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2002), chapter 2.
- Machen, The White People, 305, 306, 307.
- Ibid., 307.
- Ibid., 307-8.
- Ibid., 311.
- Ibid., 291-2.
- Ibid., 320.
- Ibid., 325.
- Ibid., 298.
- Ibid., 299.
- Clarke, The Angel of Mons; chapter 3; Hayward, Myths and Legends of the First World War, chapter 1.
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