‘There are no atheists on the front line’ is an often-heard phrase and anyone who has served on operations will know that, in time of test and trial, you instinctively turn to someone or something to fortify your courage and do what is morally right. However, contrary to the adage, there were many in the First World Warwho questioned where was God in the trenches?
There were also many who questioned the reasons for war. Unlike the Second World War, which was seen as clear-cut conflict in which Nazism had to be defeated, the moral dimension of the Great War was less obvious as the UK had not been invaded. However, the German violation of Belgium and the violence against French and Belgium civilians provided a case for war that was taken up both by politicians, to sell military mobilisation, and the clergy, who were the moral arbiters in society in condemning evil. As soon as war broke out the churches took seriously their pastoral duty to enlisted men. Chaplains of all denominations were serving at the Front by late 1914.
Just after the outbreak of war, the Bishops of Exeter and Bristol issued an encouragement to the clergy in their Diocese to use the declaration of war as an opportunity to foster a religious spirit. They believed that ‘the ministry should harness this time of stress to shepherd anxious individuals back to the Church because these individuals would be looking for ‘strength greater than their own. The Church holds the answer. It is Christ. Brethren, preach Him as you have never done before’. It was also felt that, due to the extraordinary circumstances of war, the people of Devon would be especially open to spiritual guidance and religious ministration’.
In September 1914, the Rev Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, who was to become the well known and much loved Army chaplain, ‘Woodbine Willie’, and was to win the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, wrote in his parish magazine: “I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. Here ought to be no shirking of that duty.” However, the reality of human suffering, in its infinite diversity, presents a Christian pastor with some of his most challenging tasks and before long he would realise that war was tragic and wasteful and would write his poem, “Waste”:
Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of Manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth,
Waste of Blood, and waste of Tears,
Waste of Youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the Saints have trod,
Waste of glory, Waste of God, -War!”
Despite his apprehension, he believed “The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity must be brought out of the study into the street, and must lay hold on men, not as a theory, but as an experience. He felt that a chaplain should provide a model that illumines the very being of God: “Live with the men, go where they go, make up your mind that you will share their risks, and more, if you can do any good. You can take it that the best place for a padre is where there is the most danger of death. Our first job is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and reckless devotion. Don’t be bamboozled into believing that your proper place is behind the lines – it isn’t.
The closeness of death made belief, and its opposite, a pressing issue for the millions of men serving on the Front and for those left behind at home. The society of the day was a profoundly religious one, with faith integrated into all aspects of life. There is a belief that disillusionment, where people bought the Christian pro-war rhetoric, went off to fight and realized later that they’d been deceived. However, in their letters, diaries and other documents many people revealed that they found the war to be profoundly religiously meaningful, despite its unimaginable horrors of death and destruction. Religious faith informed a sense of duty, gave them the language, narratives, ideas and symbols to frame the conflict and to understand their part in it.
The experience of the war shaped people’s belief. For some, the futility and brutality of the deadly conflict destroyed any vestige of faith, while others found refuge in their religion and, for many, war only served to strengthen their faith. Impromptu chapels were set up on the front line. Soldiers writing home spoke of being united in faith with their comrades in arms, while hymn singing in the trenches was commonplace. Often, the pain of war altered, but did not erase, faith.
Many in the trenches noted that fatalism was more help than the comforts of organised religion. Death and mutilation struck randomly. Faced with the uncertainty and fear of bullets and, especially, artillery bombardments, troops repeated the fatalistic mantra ‘If your name is on the shell you will get it’.
Superstition was also rife in the trenches, with lucky charms or routines offering some small measure of comfort and control at a time when life and death seemed random and out of control. For those on the Home Front, and for the survivors and the bereaved after the war, contact with the afterlife offered some gleam of comfort. Spiritualismenjoyed something of a boom as countless numbers of bereft parents sought to make sense of the sudden and painful loss of their loved ones. A loss made more difficult to bear in many instances by the absence of a grave at which to mourn.
Other forms of folk religion came to the fore, as populations attempted to cope with the terrible loss of life. Impromptu shrines were established in many towns and villages, and wives, mothers and other family members lit candles in the hope of good news, or in memory of those that they had recently lost. In Britain, war memorials, listing the names of those who had died, transformed many public spaces into sites of mourning.
Organised religion attempted to rise to the challenge of the war, and tried to meet the social challenges of demobilisation, economic depression and political strife that followed. Churches remained central to national acts of memorialisation, with services and parades forming the backbone of commemoration up and down the land and drawing on the religious language of sacrifice to perhaps give some sort of meaning to the years of struggle and loss.
The idea of a sacred union between God and the English people was deeply rooted in English history in that people congregated to thank God for the Armistice, just as the men had come to thank God for victory at Agincourt, the Armada victory and also for the result of the wars in the time of Napoleon.
Echoing the deep rooted belief in the sacred union between God and the English, the Mayor of Exeter, Sir James Owen, in addressing the crowds at Armistice noted ‘They had all done their best to help to secure victory but he was certain that it was the divine authority of God which had guaranteed Britain’s victory against the Germans’.
The strongest statements on the strength of religion during the war live on to this day in religious ceremonies of remembrance, war memorials in nearly every town, and the thousands upon thousands of graves marked with a simple Christian cross on the battlefields of the Western Front.