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100 Years Since The November Armistice

Isaiah 49:13-19
When I was a child the Charge of the Light Brigade was scarcely any further removed in time than the First World War is now, but when I was born the First World War was recent history. It had been over for barely 40 years. Although it seemed like a different era, it was more recent then than the moon landings or the Miners’ Strike even are now. 

My grandfather, who fought on two fronts - in France and Italy, had never talked about his experiences until I questioned him about them as a small boy.
I was fascinated. Had he killed anyone? Had he been wounded? Could I see the wounds, please? What did it feel like to be shot? My grandmother listened intently as she had never dared to ask such intimate questions!

My grandfather's reticence didn't mean that he had put the War behind him. Later, when he got Alzheimer's Disease, he formed the impression that my parents 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.

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’d been on sentry duty all night. 'Why hasn't this man shaved?' the officer inspecting his company demanded when they were on parade next morning. My grandfather was set to work immediately peeling potatoes for the whole company even though he’d gone without any sleep.

He saw action 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. Crossing No Man's Land in the first battle was, he said, was 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, he said, but knew that he’d been hit. I don't know how he got back to his own lines.

He recuperated by the seaside in Northern France before rejoining his unit in Northern Italy where he recalled marching up a very steep hill to the front line, toiling through crippling heat with a 90lb pack and carrying his heavy Lee Enfield rifle. When the Austrians saw that a fresh battalion of men had been 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.

During his last experience of battle he and three colleagues were hit by a shell. The others were killed or severely wounded. My grandfather was luckier. His back was peppered with shrapnel and a small piece lodged in his middle finger, part of which had to be removed later. I still have his postcard telling his mother that he’d got a Blighty One and was coming home.

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.

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 would seem to be a thing of the past. However, costly wars continue to be fought and the world now seems just as dangerous now 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 mistaken belief that they could win a quick and clear-cut victory, but they had been sorely provoked and it was the Russians - not the Germans - who mobilised their army first.

Wasn't the European Union, for all its faults, an attempt to guarantee that we need never have to rerun that kind of desperate conflict? It's something for us all to ponder.

One of the problems for many returning soldiers after the 1914-18 war was that they could no longer believe that God has inscribed all our names on the palms of his hands, or that he 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 doesn’t exist or else he doesn’t really care.

Sometimes they had encountered chaplains who were happy to say prayers for them before a battle but not to go over the top with them and the hymns they had sung at parade services no longer seemed relevant. They could no longer sing for joy.

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 in the name of the very same God who is supposed to have compassion on us today. This suggested a double standard at work, where enemies of God could be shown no mercy whereas friends of God should be spared. But both camps in the First World War had claimed that God was on their side, so this argument made no sense to many of the returning soldiers.

There were Christians, like the German army chaplain, Rudolf Bultmann, who came back from the War with a radically different picture of what God is like. They stressed that God really does share our sufferings and know our names, but has no miraculous power to save us. This meant rethinking the miracle stories in the Bible and turning them into colourful stories about what God is like.

Another argument made by Christians was that human free will means we must have the freedom to make disastrous mistakes. God was appalled by the War, but couldn’t intervene without removing that freedom. The objection to this argument was that the soldiers who were condemned to die in mass attacks had no free will either and might have welcomed God’s intervention, just as suffering civilians in Syria or Yemen would probably welcome it today.

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 seen a steady decline.

It’s not surprising 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.

Is there still room for the older concept of the Just War, a doctrine invented by Christians who wanted 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 hadn’t been exhausted first, the means used to fight the War - such as massive explosives, machine guns and poison gas - weren’t proportionate, many innocent non-combatants were harmed - especially in occupied territories, and there was no reasonable chance of success without a great deal of bloodshed.

But there have been wars that can be more easily justified. The intervention by British soldiers in Sierra Leone comes to mind. A war which had lasted for eleven years, causing the deaths of 50,000 people and 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 there were other just wars to be fought.

The legacy of the First World War has had a massive impact on Christians. We need to continue thinking about it, and to draw out the right lessons for building a better, safer and more caring world for our children and grandchildren.

This is a reworking of an earlier blog post in August 1914

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