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Reflections on the end of the Great War

Reflections on the end of the Great War

On Remembrance Sunday, Alan Billings shares his thoughts.  


Whenever war is discussed today, our starting point is invariably the idea of the 'just war'. This is as true for journalists and generals as it is for politicians and priests - or even the man or woman in the street. Yet just war principles were only revived relatively recently, and not by theologians but by left-wing anti Vietnam War protestors in America. They wanted a moral vocabulary with which to critique their government's failure to bring that conflict to an end. They found it in the long forgotten writings of Christian theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. It was not, however, where anyone began their reflections before, during or after the Great War. Christians might have been uneasy about war, but, apart from a small number of pacifists, they accepted relatively uncritically the right of the state to wage war on their behalf.

Once hostilities began in 1914, nationalist passions, already stirred, were quickly inflamed. Religion was used to justify and amplify those passions rather than restrain them – on both sides. Each declared a clash of ‘civilisations’, and said it was imperative that righteousness should triumph. The Bishop of London said it was a holy war - ‘Christianity against anti-Christ’. French secularists and Roman Catholics temporarily buried their differences in the face of German ‘barbarism’ and the President declared a ‘Sacred Union’. The Kaiser made the implementation of God’s will personal, telling the German people that they were 'the chosen of God' and that he was God’s 'sword'. One German theologian, Alfred Uckeley, said, 'God is the God of the Germans. Our battles are God's battles'; the German cause was 'wholly sacred'. Few took much notice of Hensley Henson, a future bishop of Durham, who warned against the dangers of so inflaming a spirit of revenge that the business of making peace after the war would be that more difficult.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in a more religious age, the churches were co-opted to assist the war effort. If men were to be sent into battle, they needed to know that their cause was a righteous one. Chaplains made clear which side was fighting for Christian values and were not afraid to demonise the enemy. This almost failed at Christmas in the first year of the war when soldiers on both sides left their trenches and fraternised in no man's land. For a brief moment these men thought differently about what best exemplified the spirit of Christ.

But by the end of the war, and especially after the Somme offensive in 1916, when one million were either killed or wounded, attitudes towards war as well as the Church and Christianity, began to change. Many found the idea of God being partisan repulsive and they abandoned Christianity. There was a growth in pacifism and Christian clergy and lay people were often at the forefront of the many pacifist groups that formed. One Anglican layman, George Lansbury, was at one time President of the 'Peace Pledge Union', whose members pledged not to support 'any kind of war'. Between 1931 and 1935, Lansbury became leader of the Labour Party, which put that party in an electorally impossible place as Hitler came to power in Germany.

Despite the decline in religion, the post-war generations continued to see war through a Christian lens. The war memorials that were erected across the country perpetuated the idea that the war had been a righteous cause and those who died had lain down their lives in the way that Jesus had lain down his – sacrificially, for his friends. This has remained an enduring idea, and one that continues to give comfort to the families of those killed in conflict – as long as they are convinced that the fighting was just, otherwise death in war was not a sacrifice but a waste.

Now, one hundred years on, just war principles are widely accepted and few would want to return to the jingoism of the past.

Christianity did not restrain passions in the Great War. But perhaps it did help to ensure that when the nation subsequently commemorated the conflict on the anniversary of the Armistice, we did so not at a triumphal arch, but at a cenotaph, remembering the dead.

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