Picture Postcards from the Great War

The story behind a Great War postcard - Tony Allen

(3) The Flechette

Perhaps the following card and the description of the picture thereon may give some insight as to why some British soldiers at Mons believed Arthur Machen’s tale The Bowmen to be fact.  E. Le Deley, Paris, published the card, which was printed in black and white. The captions are in French and English. The English version reads, "AERIAL WAR – A shower of arrows, Gunners of a German battery decimated by our aeros."


cavalry decimated by flechettes
image of a flechette

French aviators dropped the arrows or Flechettes which when released on an unsuspecting soldier could piece his body from head to foot. What did a flechette look like? Well, a photograph appeared in The War Illustrated on 23rd January 1915, with a description of one.

"They are pieces of steel rod about six inches long, sharpened at one end like a pencil, and with the four and a half inches or so at the other end machined out so that the whole thing has the section of a cross...which is, of course, very much lighter than the front end, and so acts just as a feather of an arrow."

The steel arrows were packed in boxes of 500 and placed over a hole in the floor of the aircraft. When over the target the flechettes were released in a stream, simply by pulling a string! When they hit the ground, the arrows covered an area of about fifty yards by ten yards.

In 1915, Mr. C. G. Grey the editor of The Aeroplane commented, "A friend of mine was at the military aerodrome at St. Cyr some little time ago, when some of these arrows were being tested, with an unfortunate cow as the enemy, about three arrows struck the cow, and went clean through her into the ground, after which the cow died quite suddenly.’

According to The War Illustrated, the Royal Flying Corps refused to use flechettes against the Germans because, "Our aviators think arrow-dropping dirty work…because the enemy cannot hear the things coming, and because they make such nasty wounds. Also it was not possible to drop them with sufficient accuracy." The paper then conceded, "nevertheless against cavalry or infantry in any thing like close formation they certainly are effective, as the French have proved."

The editor of The Aeroplane also told his readers about a "German surgical paper", which had devoted a long article about the effect of the flechette on troops. The report said. "If one hits a man on the head it will go straight through his helmet into his brain." However, just as fatal was a hit on the shoulder by one of the steel arrows. The report continued, "it will probably glance off the shoulder blade and go straight through the lungs, and get mixed up with other parts of the anatomy."

One German soldier, who had been on the receiving end of a steel arrow attack said, "that if there was any arrow-dropping going on it was actually safer to be flat on the ground, because although one covers a greater area the area the arrow which does hit home will have less chance of going through several organs."

In early 1915, Mr Grey said that in view of the uncertainly of hitting a man with the much larger missile, the bomb, it was hardly likely that the flechette will prove a weapon of "any serious consequence in the war." As the conflict progressed, little more was heard of the flechette. However, its use was recorded on a postcard by an artist’s impression. 

Did the French drop flechettes on German troops in August 1914? There were reports that during the retreat from Mons British soldiers had seen "dead Prussians wounded by arrows…on the battlefield." If the stories were believed, they would certainly have added credence to Machen’s tale of The Bowmen and the subsequent story of The Angels of Mons.



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