Whenever I have an idle moment (and most of my moments do tend to fall into that category) I like to play my favourite game of Climate Only Connect. For example, seeking the connection last night between the First Word War and climate change, I very quickly found an article promoting the idea that the First World War was a global calamity that everyone saw coming but no one seemed sufficiently motivated to prevent – just like climate change, blah-de-blah-de-blah. However, the problem with Climate Only Connect is that whilst it is a good way of unearthing some entertaining nonsense it is also a rather too easy game to play. The answer to the question ‘can I find a connection?’ is always ‘yes’. So then I thought of a better challenge. Rather than find someone else’s tenuous connection between the First World War and climate change, could I come up with something of my own? Is there a connection to dream up that I could plonk onto an unsuspecting internet for other players to happen upon? This, my dear readers, is what I came up with. Hope you enjoy it.

The Bowmen

Back in August 1914, the British public had just received the first inkling that the godless Hun wasn’t going to be driving home for Christmas with his tail between his legs. In fact, the British army’s first encounter with the enemy, at the Battle of Mons, had resulted in a heroic but decidedly unpropitious failure. So an enterprising Welsh author going by the name of Arthur Machen decided that the time was right to provide a little boost to morale by reminding everyone that God was British and could be relied upon to intervene when it really mattered. He did this by publishing a short story in a September edition of The Evening News, titled ‘The Bowmen’. It was stirring stuff, as it told the tale of how at the moment the battle turned against the heavily outnumbered British (this much is true) an angelic army of bowmen – erstwhile veterans of the Battle of Agincourt – stepped forward to hold the advancing Germans at bay with a fusillade of supernatural arrows (this much may not be so true).

Knowing that the story was too far-fetched to be taken literally, Machen thought it safe to employ a writing technique referred to as ‘false document’, i.e. he wrote his fairy tale in the style of a dispatch from the war front. What could possibly go wrong?

It wasn’t long before Machen found out. After receiving several requests from readers looking for the evidence and sources behind the ‘account’, he started to wonder. Against Machen’s expectations, the story had proven as believable as it was inspiring. Machen was keen to respond with assurances that there was no truth behind his tale – he had just made it up. However, he was also his own worst enemy, since he graciously conceded to have the same story reprinted in a number of parish magazines. When one parish priest informed Machen that he would also be reproducing the story in a pamphlet, and requested further information on sources so that the story’s authenticity could be confirmed in the pamphlet’s introduction, Machen realized that things were now going too far. He wrote later:

“It seemed that my light fiction had been accepted by the congregation of this particular church as the solidest of facts; and it was then that it began to dawn on me that if I had failed in the art of letters, I had succeeded, unwittingly, in the art of deceit. This happened, I should think, sometime in April, and the snowball of rumour that was then set rolling has been rolling ever since, growing bigger and bigger, till it is now swollen to a monstrous size.”

You can see where I’m going with this.

The snowball from Hell

In fact, when Machen spoke of rumour and monstrosity, he was not exaggerating. One after another, soldiers started reporting back from the trenches, attesting to the reality of the ‘Angels of Mons’. It is true to say that stories of divine intervention on the battlefield were nothing new and that when it came to Mons there were variations in the evidence presented, but most of the Mons ‘witnesses’ had clearly been influenced by Machen’s story. There were even those who had carefully noted the strange preponderance of arrow wounds in the corpses of the German dead. Other embellishments took note of the guest appearance of Joan of Arc, who was no doubt employing the maxim, ‘any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine’. Yes, we had burnt her at the stake for wearing trousers, but she must surely have recognised that we did it for her own good.

In April 1915, the British Spiritualist magazine waded in with its own account of miraculous intervention at Mons, after which the flurry of accounts started to look very much like the flurry of angelic arrows that they purported to confirm. Sermons across Britain, and newspapers across the world, were by then firmly establishing the truth of the matter. It seemed that only one person now remained unconvinced – Arthur Machen.

Arthur, to his credit, persisted in his efforts to dispel the rumour he had accidentally started. However, even he had to give up when accusations of treason started coming his way. Every God fearing, patriotic Tommy of the trenches understood the Truth that lay behind the story; not many understood the backstabbing denialism of this Welsh geezer from the South Valleys. Eventually, Machen took a leaf out of Falstaff’s book and made discretion the better part of his valour.

That is not to say that Arthur’s strange refusal to accept the veracity of his own fairy tale was the only example of scepticism. An investigation into the battlefield incident was held by the Society for Psychical Research, but even with their predisposition for believing most things supernormal, they couldn’t find any direct evidence to corroborate the story. When placed on oath, there were many who had colleagues who had witnessed the whole thing but few who were prepared to say that they had seen it with their own eyes. The historical reconstruction was just too reliant upon proxy data. Reluctantly, they declared the matter unproven, but that hardly mattered. By the end of 1915, the debate had been declared over and British society had got what it wanted. After the war, Brigadier-General John Charteris was able to confirm in his memoirs a vision of the:

“Angel of the Lord, clad in white raiment bearing a flaming sword, appearing before the German forces at the Mons battle forbidding their advance.”

Only now, after the imperative for that belief has waned over the years, does this testimony begin to reek of desperate self-deception.

Modern times – old ways

If this article demonstrates anything (beyond the fact that I have too much time on my hands) it is that any socially approved narrative that speaks to a greater Truth has to be treated with the utmost care. The Angels of Mons is a classic example of culturally driven entrenchment, in which rationality is bypassed in the service of establishing a truth that both underpins the culture and holds the outgroup at arm’s length. As such, it could have been taken from the top drawer of Andy West’s cabinet of infamous cultural narratives. The remarkable thing from a modern day perspective is the extent to which such irrationality prevailed, so much so that even the author of the storyline was unable to recant without becoming an enemy of the ‘truth’. But even in our modernity can we be so complacent? Today’s battleground regarding the narrative of impending climatic doom is ostensibly an epistemological battle fought with a scientific armoury. But it is also an ideological dispute that has been running ever since the Enlightenment’s notion of human perfectibility was challenged by environmentalists who saw man’s control of nature as being nothing more than a Promethean tragedy to be averted at all costs. It is in such circumstances, with so much at stake, that a culturally driven narrative is at its most potent. It is therefore the circumstance in which the victorious Truth should nevertheless be subjected to the most careful scrutiny. We have come a long way since the days when the public would readily digest tales of angels on a battlefield, but the human propensity for accepting any testimony that furthers the zeitgeist is as strong as ever. We would do well to tread with caution, and that goes as much for the narrative of climate catastrophe as it does for any other.

23 Comments

  1. So an enterprising Welsh author going by the name of Arthur Machen decided that the time was right to provide a little boost to morale by reminding everyone that God was British and could be relied upon to intervene when it really mattered.

    The mutant variant of scepticism and denialism expressed in this article is truly shocking. Let me bring things to a head before more damage is done. Are you really meaning to cast doubt, Mr Ridgway, on the fact that God is British?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Richard,

    Thanks, Richard. There is a limit to the extent that a spellchecker can correct clumsiness. So much for AI.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. >”Are you really meaning to cast doubt, Mr Ridgway, on the fact that God is British?”

    In point of fact, God is English, but I think this may have been a little rich for a poor boyo from The Valleys to accept.

    By the way, what happened to my honorary doctorate from Cliscep?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. First it’s fairies, now it’s the well documented intervention of the Agincourt bowmen. Is there nothing that you believe. Embellishing your scepticism won’t help you get your honorary doctorate, you know

    But on the other hand, a beautiful and fascinating piece of writing.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Wow. An amazing article, and the facet of history analyzed is particularly revealing. The climate crisis mythos is by comparison much more deeply entrenched and pernicious.
    The recent tragic tornado outbreak in the US is rapidly taking on the level of mythic climate retribution that would be very familiar to Mr. Machen.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow what a remarkable piece of history, of which I was completely unaware. And a lean yet highly engaging style; wish I could do that. Indeed it’s top drawer material for infamous cultural narratives (and thank you for the nod). So I’ll be using it as an example! This is only just out of living memory, humanity’s ingrained behaviour wrt cultural narratives won’t have changed significantly in this time, only which narratives are believed (or no longer believed) by which populations. So regarding your last two paragraphs, imo: yep, yep, yep, yep and more yep.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m sure that Maurice Strong and J Vanderbilt had to work a lot harder to get their fantasy accepted than Arthur Machen did. Still, if the top echelons of the UN could be persuaded, then many more would see the wisdom of that organisation becoming the de facto world government.

    Like

  8. I’d like to thank everyone for their kind words. I had set out to provide entertainment that might briefly brighten up a dull Sunday and I am pleased if that proved to be the case, if only for a handful of people.

    Richard, just a simple ‘Your Majesty’ will do for now 🙂

    Hunterson7, the tragedy unfolding in the US is just too awful. Anyone looking for signs of divine retribution will see them in the rubble but the reality is that Nature can be cruel and it has always had that capacity.

    Andy, giving you the nod was just basic good manners, I think. And thank you for drawing my attention to another gaffe that I have now corrected (‘top draw’?).

    Bill, the interesting thing is that Machen never set out to deceive, and was roundly condemned when he tried to put the record straight. It is interesting to conjecture what would happen if Mann woke up one morning and decided that his critics had been right all along. Do you think he would be allowed to say so?

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Bill, imo the real question regarding Maurice Strong and J Vanderbilt and other movers, was not that they worked hard to push the narrative (they did). But was the narrative already in charge of them, rather than vice versa? I.e. they already believed it themselves, so their hard work was largely in its service, so to speak. We can’t ever know the internal motivations of individuals, but my guess is that, mainly, this is the case.

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  10. Einstein of course said of Cliscep posts that they should be as lean as possible, but no leaner.

    Today’s battleground regarding the narrative of impending climatic doom is ostensibly an epistemological battle fought with a scientific armoury, but it is also an ideological dispute that has been running ever since the Enlightenment’s notion of human perfectibility was challenged by environmentalists who saw man’s control of nature as being nothing more than a Promethean tragedy to be averted at all costs.

    There are some long words there but the picture painted is for me far too lean. Many have been critical of the “Enlightenment’s notion of human perfectibility” (which Rousseau was more into than Immanuel Kant – see crooked timber of humanity – and indeed David Hume?) without being environmentalists. It is a brilliant story very well told but the last section seems to present a false alternative. CS Lewis in The Abolition of Man questions human perfectibility, to put it mildly, as does Thomas Sowell in his classic work A Conflict of Visions. Adopting Sowell’s ‘tragic view’ of humanity doesn’t make me an environmentalist.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you. A great article.

    A more recent myth that millions of people seem to believe is that wearing surgical or cotton masks can prevent the transmission of tiny virus particles. Even the CDC does not claim that they give the wearer any reliable protection. (It is a little more ambiguous about any protection given to those around the wearer). But anyone with glasses can demonstrate very easily the condensation of exhaled water aerosol “particles” upon the lenses of their glasses while wearing a surgical mask, and we are told that the way viruses travel through air is by being attached to aerosol water “particles”.

    Click to access understanddifferenceinfographic-508.pdf

    QUOTE: “Filtration – Does NOT provide the wearer with a
    reliable level of protection from inhaling
    smaller airborne particles and is not
    considered respiratory protection”

    (N95 masks are another kettle of fish, as shown in that same document).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Richard,

    Yep, I agree that the debate over human perfectibility is a lot more involved than implied by my article. I chose to mention the environmentalist rebuttal, not because it captures the full nature of the debate, but merely because I think it captures the aspect of the debate that is most germane to the climate change controversies. I could attempt a much less lean coverage of this subject, still focusing in on the environmental angle, but I can’t promise that I could make it entertaining enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. May I belatedly add my praise and thanks for that piece – as has been said, a fine piece of writing, and an interesting story. I’ve been sitting here feeling sorry for myself with a bad head cold (not covid – I’ve taken tests), and can confirm that reading this brightened up my day.

    Like

  14. Wonderful post John. Thank you ,
    “the tragedy unfolding in the US is just too awful. Anyone looking for signs of divine retribution will see them in the rubble but the reality is that Nature can be cruel and it has always had that capacity.”
    From the Guardian;
    Beshear said the path of devastation was about 227 miles (365km) long, which, if confirmed, would surpass the 218-mile so-called Tri-State tornado in 1925, which killed at least 695 people and destroyed 15,000 homes across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

    So pretty much the same size as a 1925 event

    Liked by 1 person

  15. John: I should of course have mentioned Edmund Burke, a contempory of Rousseau who took strong issue with him about perfectibility. And, unlike Thomas Paine and almost all thinkers of the day, Burke saw ahead of time that the French Revolution was going to be a disaster, not least because of such utopian fantasies. Yet I know of not many climate alarmists in 2021 who go out of their way to praise or even mention Burke!

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  16. Richard,

    Mentioning Burke certainly adds another dimension to the debate but, if I may stick strictly within the false dichotomy of humanism versus environmentalism, I think there are still some interesting observations to be made. For example, the way the climate concerned pick and choose which of the green energy solutions are to be allowed to tackle global warming makes a lot more sense when seen through an anti-perfectibility lens, at least to the extent that perfectibility can be characterised as the hubris that Man can and should control Nature entirely for his betterment. For people looking through this lens, nuclear power is just another example of the Promethean folly. The underpinning sentiment to all of this, I feel, is that Man should know his place and accept that he is a part of Nature and so could never be its master.

    I wouldn’t want to take this debate much further because it isn’t a subject I have studied to any great depth. At the moment, I am re-reading a book I first read some twenty odd years ago: ‘Science and the retreat from reason’ by John Gillott and Manjit Kumar. It’s thesis is that anti-interventionalism lies at the root of much of today’s rejection of the scientific programme, and that a retreat from rationality is both a cause and a result.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. For example, the way the climate concerned pick and choose which of the green energy solutions are to be allowed to tackle global warming makes a lot more sense when seen through an anti-perfectibility lens, at least to the extent that perfectibility can be characterised as the hubris that Man can and should control Nature entirely for his betterment. For people looking through this lens, nuclear power is just another example of the Promethean folly.

    If that’s your perfectibility, my good man … I have much less problem with the setup, though I might quibble slightly with ‘entirely’. It is interesting. Sincere thanks for drawing the Mons angels – and the subsequent heartfelt sermons (the clue’s in the second syllable) – to our attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Andy,

    It is a cropped detail taken from a painting by Marcel Gillis. There are a number of artistic portrayals of the myth that I could have chosen, but I particularly wanted one in colour and one that also fitted the details provided in my essay. It is equally important to select a picture that doesn’t get too mangled by WordPress in the process of publishing – hence the cropping.

    https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-angels-of-mons-65958

    Liked by 2 people

  19. @ John – just read a book “Angels” which covered the Battle of Mons bit you mention/quote.

    can’t recall the auther but it was a good read – started with Zoroastrianism & all major religions thru to today.

    people seem to like/need “Angels” even today – to many shows to quote (superman ?)

    Liked by 1 person

  20. “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” as everyone knows.

    In the early stages of the pandemic when there was little proper PPE available (the French had been burning their stockpiles) some bright spark came up with the idea that *face coverings* would help. And I think he was correct since in shops etc where I have been wearing such, I am free of Covid. Last month it just took one tile-fixer, coming into my house to complete my kitchen, but with a cold & me not to wear a mask (though windows open) and I caught it.

    Like

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