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.
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.