By a happy accident—such things happen extraordinarily often to me—I discovered this book today: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War by Welsh author Arthur Machen. I’d been searching for images of mediæval archers, the sort who had fought the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and succeeded in defeating the French, despite their insufficient numbers. Estimates of the inequity between the two sides, the English and French in what became the decisive battle in the Hundred Years War, range from 2:1 to 5:1, though recent research has favored the former. I hoped to find an image to use for the weather vane atop the Fennimore county courthouse.
Machen’s book has little to do directly with the battle that had taken place near the French village of Azincourt six centuries ago. Rather, it had been written in the earliest days of the Great War, World War I, in the days immediately following one of the first skirmishes of the British Expeditionary Force near the city of Mons on 22-23 August 1914. I’ve not had the chance to read Machen’s story, but there is the story of his story, which proves to be even more interesting.
Britain had entered the war thinking the defeat of Germany would be accomplished in short order. But the Battle of Mons brought them up short and forced a reassessment. Machen had written a work of fiction for the Evening News. Published without notice that it was fiction, Machen’s story was taken for truth and spread widely, despite his efforts to correct the misunderstanding. The legend he had inadvertently set in motion was this: That the qualified British victory at Mons had occurred only through the invocation of Saint George, who came to Britain’s rescue with a row of phantom archers from the Battle of Agincourt who tipped the balance in Britain’s favor.
Arthur Machen accidentally achieved what I have always hoped for my own vision of Agincourt, Iowa. Perhaps it may yet happen.
Then, again, perhaps not.