The Weekly Machen
Armored tanks, like other infamous “innovations,” made their debut in the The Great War with British tanks hitting the ground for the massive and bloody Somme offensive in September 1916. In the following article, Machen strikes a decidedly somber and elegiac tone. Failing to see comedy in the unnatural forms of the hulking machines, he detects an elemental and monstrous purpose in their unwanted appearance in God’s creation. This article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone and Sweester.
Thanks to Adam Trionfo for transcribing this article.
Tanks As They Really Are
July 20, 1917
When, a year ago, the first tales of the Tanks came to England, we read and wondered at the strange stories correspondents told of these new instruments of war. So far as I remember, the writers laid emphasis on the essential comic quality of the Tank; they described it as a monstrous and bloated toad creeping doggedly over all obstacles, nosing and snuffing its way along, rousing even men in the agony of battle to irresistible mirth.
Eventually we had pictures of the Tanks, and I, at all events, wondered what the War Correspondents were about. The Tank did not strike me as a bit like a toad, bloated or otherwise. It didn’t remind me of any sort of animal. I couldn’t see anything in the least funny about it.
Here, no doubt, was an extraordinary piece of mechanism, a most successful and ingenious and happy contrivance of war; but as for being what the players call a “comedy merchant,” well, I could as soon laugh at a Tank as at a Steam Dredger or an improvised Reaper and Binder.
Now, having been to the Canadian War Photographs Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries, I think I begin to understand more about the Tank. The newspaper photographs were, perhaps, on too small a scale to give one a just notion of the beast, or, perhaps, the photographers depicted the Tank in his Sunday best, the habit in which many people used to like being taken. And, like those people, the Tank of the photographs looked eminently respectable, shiny, and capable; but not interesting.
It is in the great photographs at the Grafton Galleries that one sees Tanks as they really are. Still, I do not find them funny, they are grotesque, no doubt, as a crocodile is grotesque, but they are rather devouring and terrible.
Here, in the Canadian Exhibition, you see them lumbering up before you over the terrible and broken battle ground. They come up from darkness into light, as the sea monsters in the Kipling story came up from the depths to the surface of the seas. Then nature was convulsed, and so, looking at these huge, shapeless things crawling up the crater sides, it is easy to imagine that here also the deep places have been riven and the rocks rent and the hidden caverns that are in the hollow of the earth have been laid open.
The monsters that inhabited the bottom of the world in darkness are rising into the sunlight! You see the slime from which they have arisen dripping from them, the slime of their abhorred retreats. Here is one “Resting”; it lies motionless on a steep bank; it is, indeed, like some huge saurian of the primæval ooze revisiting this world after being buried for æons deep beneath the rocks, after having been moulded into the heart of the ancient hills. There is a wickedness upon the earth greater than any that the age of the monsters knew; and so the monsters have returned to be the ministers of vengeance.
Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out.
Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron.
The arrow cannot make him fear, slingstones are turned with him into stubble.
There are two pictures which we should all look at with peculiar attention. One is called “Arras: ‘there, but for the grace of God, goes’—London!” The other is a photograph of “Arras Cathedral: the Ruined Interior.”
“Arras: ‘there, but for the grace of God, goes’—London!”
The first shows heaps of rubbish, great piles of stones thrown down in the very craziness of confusion, houses that seem to tremble and shake and to be in the act to fall even as one looks at them, walls hanging in the air, roofs that are but skeletons of despoiled beams and rafters, high towers pouring down into a stony torrent. The photograph of the cathedral displays the ruin of the choir and the high altar: the architecture is not at all unlike that of St. Paul’s Cathedral. We had only to be faithful to the Barnacles a little longer and we, too, should soon have seen sights like these, even at our doors. Our fated steps were drawing very near to that lodging in Bleeding Heart Yard that the prophet Dickens foretold sixty years ago.
A Photo of the Arras Cathedral
Picture after picture arrests and compels one to gaze at it. There are the great clouds of the shell-bursts high in the air, the unutterable eruption and vomiting of the earth in the place where a shell has struck it; there is the strangest effect in “British Shell Fires German Ammunition Dump.” The ammunition, apparently, was hidden behind a line of barns and farm buildings, and above these roofs there seem to swell the boughs and foliage of an unearthly tree. It looks like a tree, indeed, but a tree as seen by a mad artist; it is the bellying smoke of the exploding shells.
There is a village somewhere in France so ruined and confounded and blotted off the face of the earth that it became necessary to write up the name of what had been there as a guidance to the troops on the march. Their route ran through this place that had been; there must be a sign to assure them that they were keeping on the right track.
And this is how it was done. Alone above the dust that had been a village the Road rises untouched, unharmed. The Christ is lifted high above the desolation and at the foot of the Cross they have written the name of the place that was.
The name of that place is
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3 thoughts on “Tanks As They Really Are”
Here’s an article about tanks and a little-known connection with J. R. R. Tolkien’s earliest fantastic writings. He and Machen were on the same page.
A striking imaginative transition from first photographs – ” It didn’t remind me of any sort of animal” – to those of the Exhibition: “like some huge saurian of the primæval ooze”. Interestingly, Richard Haigh, M.C., Captain in the Tank Corps, begins his book, Life in a Tank (June 1918)*:
To the uninitiated – as were we in those days when we returned to the Somme, too late to see the tanks make their first dramatic entrance – the name conjures up a picture of an iron monster, breathing fire and exhaling bullets and shells, hurling itself against the enemy, unassailable by man and impervious to the most deadly engines of war; sublime, indeed, in its expression of indomitable power and resolution.
Sadly, I have not yet read Little Dorrit and so cannot follow the reference to being “faithful to the Barnacles”, but the Wikipedia “Bleeding Heart Yard” article has a vivid quotation from chapter 12: “It was inhabited by poor people, who set up their rest among its faded glories, as Arabs of the desert pitch their tents among the fallen stones of the Pyramids”.
*Scanned in the Internet Archive and transcribed at Project Gutenberg.
Thanks for the great comments from you both. It enriches the page.