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World War I

Isaiah 49.13-19, Matthew 5.1-11
When I was born the First World War had been over for a little over 40 years. It seemed a long time ago when I was a child, but really it was recent history - more recent then than the moon landings or the assassination of President Kennedy are now. I knew people who had taken part in the War, most notably my grandfather, who had never talked about his experiences until I questioned him about them as a small boy.
My grandfather's reticence didn't mean that the War was not important to him. Later, when he got Alzheimer's Disease, he formed the impression that my mother and father were military policemen and spent ages fumbling for his leave papers in an imaginary tunic pocket while repeating his service number over and over again. Throughout his adult life he also had terribly vivid dreams, during the worst of which he would kick my grandmother out of bed. They certainly weren't all about the War, but it's difficult to believe that some of them were not about it.
He was not a volunteer. By the time he was called up from a reserved occupation in the middle of 1917 he could have been in no doubt how dangerous it was to serve on the front line. His sole aim was to survive and come home in one piece. Beating the Germans did not seem to have interested him at all.
As early as January 1915 Lloyd George had wondered how long people would put up with the slaughter of so many young men for so little gain. He anticipated the same sort of revolution that eventually took place in Russia. But my grandfather's family were phlegmatic about his call up. He had the usual photograph taken, in his dress uniform posed beside a little picket fence. He looks very dashing.
Once of his most annoying experiences, he told me much later, was when he had been on sentry duty all night and was then given a field punishment, by the officer inspecting his company, for being on parade the following morning without shaving. 'Why hasn't this man shaved?' The officer asked. The accompanying NCOs offered no explanation and my grandfather was set to work immediately peeling potatoes for the whole company even though he had gone without sleep.
He saw action just twice - once in the Battle of the Menin Road near Ypres and then in the Battle of the Piave River to the north of Venice in Italy. Crossing No Man's Land in the first battle was, he said, his baptism of fire. He found that he was stepping on the bodies of the fallen and it was impossible to avoid them. Then he looked down and found that his trouser leg was soaked with blood. He felt no pain but knew that he had been hit. Soldiers falling out of the line without good reason risked being shot, but a thigh wound was a good enough reason. I don't know how he got back to his own lines - he talked vaguely of turning back. Perhaps he crawled, perhaps he did simply turn and walk back without thinking.
He recuperated by the seaside in Northern France, making the acquaintance of a pretty-looking young nurse whose postcards to 'Johnny', (my grandmother always knew him as John), he kept to the end of his life. In the summer of 1918 he followed his unit to Northern Italy and recalled marching up a very steep hill to the front line, toiling through crippling heat with a 90lb pack on his back and carrying a very heavy Lee Enfield rifle. When the Austrians saw that a fresh battalion of men had deployed opposite them they welcomed the new arrivals with a few shells. One man was wounded and my grandfather, who was a countryman, was immensely amused when the medical orderly fainted at the sight of blood.
I asked my grandfather if he ever fired his gun in anger, but he said that he never got close enough to the enemy, even though he was  marksman. His last experience of battle was when his unit advanced across open ground only to find that the Austrian or Hungarian soldiers ranged against them had already abandoned their trench and retreated to the second line of defence.
He and his comrades had a smoke and waited for further orders. Eventually they were told to withdraw back to their own lines. On his way back my grandfather must have been walking just in front and to the side of three other men, two of whom were carrying the third who had been wounded. A shell exploded in between them, killing the other three instantly.
My grandfather's back was peppered with shrapnel and a small piece lodged in the joint of his middle finger and had to be removed during an operation using laughing gas. The surgeon fused the joint, making it impossible for my grandfather to release the safety catch on his rifle in the prescribed manner, so he was repatriated via Marseilles. I still have his postcard telling his mother that he had got a Blighty One and was coming home at last. He had played his own, totally indecisive part, in a great victory which all but destroyed the Austrian army as an effective fighting force on the Italian front, but I don't think he ever knew that or cared about it.
Many people came back from the War with their faith shaken or destroyed. My grandfather seemed to come back with his faith strengthened, and he became a local preacher and Sunday School Superintendent. Perhaps it helped that, apart from the girl he met in hospital, he never felt close to any of the people he served beside. As a Methodist he was a bit of a fish out of water, because he prefered not to spend his money on drinking and gambling.
However, he did surprise my grandmother by revealing, many years later, that he still had a taste for rum - acquired from the daily ration doled at the front, with a double ration just before battle. And, like my wife's grandfather, he also took up smoking in the army. Her grandfather died from cancer aged 50, but my grandfather mostly smoked a pipe and survived into his 80s.
He probably came as close to death in the Second World War as he did in the first. Harvesting corn a long way from the farmhouse, he and his crew had to run for the nearest ditch when a returning fighter plane interrupted its flight home to try to machine-gun them. But my grandfather seemed to take both world wars in his stride and thought this barely worthy of comment.
The military historian John Keegan said in one of his Reith Lectures that he was concerned to make sure that never again did families accept the inevitability of War, and the tragedy it causes, in the way that both my grandfather's generation and his parents' generation had done. At least now every single death on active service is accompanied by an inquest into what went wrong.
The days when British generals unthinkingly consigned thousands of young men to death and injury just to relieve the pressure on another part of the Front, and with no other obvious tactical objective, would seem to be a thing of the past. However, costly wars continue to be fought by combatants from other countries and in some ways the world now seems just as dangerous as it was in the summer of 1914. The risk of another large scale conflict can never be said to have gone away entirely.
How can we as Christians play our part in making sure that something like the First World War doesn't happen again? After all, no one really wanted that war to happen. The Germans and Austrians probably started it, in the erroneous belief that they could win a quick and clear-cut victory, but they had been sorely provoked by the French, who in turn were anxious to avoid a rerun of their previous, catastrophic defeat in 1870, and it was the Russians - not the Germans - who mobilised their army first in support of their own allies in the conflict between Austria and Serbia. Only the British seemed to have no real interest in fighting, but it was always unthinkable really that we should allow a powerful, hostile enemy to deploy on the French and Belgian coastline, as Hitler was later to do and as Napoleon had done before him.
Isn't the European Union, for all its faults, one of the guarantees that we will never have to rerun that kind of desperate conflict? Even if you believe, as some people do, that the EU is simply a bloodless way of allowing the Germans to achieve the kind of European domination that evaded them in the two world wars, at least no one has had to die this time around. Should Christians vote 'Yes' in the coming referendum, if only to try to secure the future peace of Europe? I don't know. It's something for us all to ponder, though, as we weigh the other arguments for and against.
One of the problems for many returning soldiers after the 1914-18 war was that they could no longer believe in a God who has inscribed all our names on the palms of his hands, and who can no more forget any of us than a nursing mother can forget the cries of her hungry baby. They now felt that either God does not exist or else he does not really have compassion for us.
Sometimes too they had encountered chaplains who were happy to say prayers for them before a battle but not to accompany them into danger, and the hymns they had sung at parade services no longer seemed relevant. They could no longer sing for joy when they heard the promise that God would comfort his people.
If they had previously been church-goers, they might also have been familiar with the many stories - often taught in loving detail in Sunday School - of Old Testament heroes such as Joshua, Gideon and Samson who had slain Israel’s enemies without mercy and occupied their lands in the name of the very same God who was supposed to have compassion on us today. This suggested a double standard at work in the Bible, where enemies of God could be shown no mercy whereas friends of God would be spared. But both camps in the First World War had claimed that God was on their side, so this argument made no sense at all unless, like some Christians, you argued that the more bloodthirsty stories in the Bible belonged to an earlier, primitive time, where a true understanding of God’s nature was still emerging, or - like others - you argued that stories like these are in the Bible as a test of our faith. We simply have to believe them if we wish to be saved and go to heaven.
There were also Christians, like the German army chaplain, Rudolf Bultmann, who tried to respond to the pervading sense of disillusionment by coming up with a radically different picture of what God is like. They stressed that God really does share our sufferings and know our names, but that he has no miraculous power to save us from harm or prevent wars and disasters from happening. This meant rethinking the miracle stories in the Bible and turning them into allegories, which had long been a way in which Christians interpreted obscure or difficult passages of scripture.
Another argument was that human free-will means we have the freedom to make disastrous mistakes and inflict terrible suffering. God is as appalled as we are when these things happen, but cannot intervene to stop them without removing that freewill. However, the soldiers who were condemned to die in mass attacks had no freedom either and might have welcomed God’s intervention, just as suffering civilians in Palestine, Syria or Iraq would probably welcome it today. So this argument did not really work when faced by the bitter cynicism of so many veterans of the Great War.
The repercussions of these arguments are with us still, like the ripples which radiate across a pond after a large stone is dropped into it. The years before the First World War were the high point for church attendance in Britain and the hundred years since have - with the peculiar exception of the years during and immediately after World War Two - seen a steady decline in organised Christianity, which has turned Britain into a more or less secular country.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a very popular direction of travel for Christians has been towards pacifism. The relatively peaceful years between Waterloo and World War One had seen the emergence of a complacent sort of Christian nationalism spelled out in the hymn, ‘I vow to thee, my country’. Conscientious objectors were roundly condemned as unpatriotic, unless they volunteered as stretcher bearers. But gradually in the years since the First World War Christians have become more and more uncertain that war can ever be justified.
I still think, however, that there is room for the older concept of the Just War, a doctrine invented during the late Middle Ages in an attempt to limit the destructiveness and cruelty of war. The First World War could never be called a just war because all other ways of resolving the arguments between the combatants had not been exhausted first, the means used to try to prosecute the War - such as massive explosives, machine guns and poison gas - were not proportionate, many innocent non-combatants were harmed - especially in occupied territories, and there was no reasonable chance of success except at the price of a hugely disproportionate slaughter on both sides.
But there are wars that can be more easily justified. The intervention by British soldiers in the civil war in Sierre Leone comes to mind. A war which had lasted for eleven years causing the deaths of 50,000 people, as well as the maiming of thousands of civilians - including children, by cutting off their hands - was finally ended by a few British soldiers with local air support. It’s hard to see that this was anything other than a good thing - except that it helped to inspire Tony Blair to believe other just wars could also be waged in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
All told, the legacy of the First World War has had a massive impact on Christians. We need to continue to think about it, and to seek to draw out the right lessons for building a better, safer and more caring world for our children and grandchildren.


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