War I: England 1914

The Revd Brutus Green

In May 1913 George V, Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany met in Berlin at the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter. It was the last time the cousins met. The borders and wealth of Europe stood in a very different position in 1918, and perhaps the worst was still yet to come. But why are we remembering the War in church? What has the church to do with war at all? You perhaps heard today of a church selling a Civil War helmet and asked yourself why on earth would they want to keep it?

Each service in this series takes a different country, partly to remind us through their music how interconnected Europe was, how it shared a common culture and religion; and how such great civilisations could still destroy each other on the field. Each service also moves through the years of the war with poetry and letters reflecting something of the changing mood. The reflections hope to capture something of the different themes and changes the war brought about but also to address the important question of how we remember and why we remember. Churches have always been places of cultural memory. Every church in the country has its war memorial. Whatever one thinks of war, churches are places of remembrance for all our generations past.


And so we begin in England in 1914, as ‘the old order changeth, yielding place to new’. Or as the historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it - the Age of Empires gives way to the Age of Catastrophe.


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War and the End of Empire


“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” British foreign secretary Edward Grey’s most famous words as the lights on Whitehall were extinguished on 3rd August 1914, after Britain declared war on Germany, mark a key moment of change in modern world history. The end of an order. The nineteenth century had seen the coming together of Europe into blocks. In 1800 Europe contained 500 political powers, which had by 1900 been reduced to just twenty. In that century the percentage of European ownership of the world rose from 35 to 85 percent. Britain claimed ownership of a quarter of the world’s land, Russia covered one sixth of it. Great empires, the Romanov dynasty’s Russia, the Hapsburgs’ Austria-Hungary, Kaiser’s Germany, and the Ottoman empire were in ruins by 1918. In 1914 there were three republics in Europe. By 1918 there were thirteen.

It was not all cosy before 1914. The nineteenth century had seen a plethora of wars - following the Napoleonic there was the Crimean, the Franco-Prussian, the Russo-Turkish, the American Civil War, coming into the twentieth century with the Boer war, Russia & Japan, Italy & the Turks and then the Balkan wars. At the turn of the century America defeated Spain, and Japan Russia, a harbinger of the approaching end of European dominance. But it was also an era of globalization, economic interdependence, growth, imperialism, democracy and progress in Europe; newspapers, railways, the telegraph and the steamship.Then the ‘iron dice’ begin to roll. Not all armies were quick to adapt. The French, easily spotted in bright blue and red uniforms at the beginning of the war, were massacred by machine gun fire - 75,000 in the first month. Their cavalry wore breastplates, while British officers still wore swords. By the end, 65 million soldiers had fought. Nine million were killed, eight million held prisoner, twenty-one million were wounded - not counting the scores crushed by post-traumatic stress, like Virginia Woolf’s Septimus, unable to adjust to postwar life.

David Reynolds in his recent acclaimed study of the impact of World War I begins with the claim that we have ‘lost touch with the Great War’; that through the novels, the sentimentalizing pity of Wilfred Owen, exemplified by the personal tragedy and pathos of films like Saving Private Ryan ‘the history has been distilled into poetry’, echoing a much earlier claim by the critic Arthur Waugh that the poets of the first world war had for the first time succeeded in allowing poetry to make war ‘in its own image’.

The poetry though does tell an interesting story, not least because there was so much of it - The Westminster Gazette declared a moratorium on poetry submissions, The Wipers Times had to beg for prose and the Daily Mail reported in 1915 that more poetry had been published in the last eleven months than in the last eleven years. The more interesting story, however, is the way the poetry shifts, roughly speaking, from Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen, and when this shift occurs.

Brooke was the poet of the war. The Dean of St Paul’s took ‘The Soldier’, which we heard earlier, as his text for his Easter sermon in 1915. When Brooke died three weeks later there was national mourning to the extent that it was proposed the clock at Granchester should be fixed at ten to three permanently in his honour. Brooke never actually saw active service but this did not stop him, almost uniquely, selling well into the twenties. Then, a decade after the end of the war, everything changed with the ‘War Books Controversy’. This brought into the public realm serious questions about the whys and hows of an entire generation of young men lost like the ‘morning mist… the early dew that passeth away’. Wilfred Owen’s poems had no real success until the late twenties, but quickly replaced Brooke’s model of the soldier as a romantic hero with the soldier as sacrifice; as Wilfred Owen wrote to his brother the year he died: ‘I know I shall be killed. But it’s the only place I can make my protest from’. It was Owen who then became the figurehead and exemplar of modern war poetry. And our attitude to the War changed forever.

From a different angle, consider the devoted Christian, Field Marshall Douglas Haig. Commander in Chief at the Somme, perhaps the greatest disaster in British military history. He never saw the front, never visited the wounded, resisted the use of the machine gun and steel helmet and even after the war favoured the horse and sabre over the tank and aeroplane. But he remained popular to his funeral in 1928, a day of national mourning. There have been some reappraisals since, with some seeing the Somme as his learning curve leading to the last ‘Hundred Days’ and victory, but his reputation took a downward plummet after his death and since the 60s ‘Butcher Haig’ is more often than not the subject of scorn.

It is often assumed that 1914-18 was a breaking point; that soldiers went out Kiplings and Brookes and returned Owens and Sassoons; that the War shattered confidence and belief in the British empire and humanity. In the same way people assume that the soldiers returned from the dreadful carnage atheists to a disillusioned secularized nation. The opposite is true. Michael Snape’s study of the war and religion showed that if anything war returned soldiers with greater piety. It is striking how many, Christian or not, spoke of the presence of the ‘White Comrade’ on the battlefield, and the amount of poetry given to finding a common language for the soldiers’ experience and Christ’s passion; it seemed that in the trenches Christianity had ‘stooped from the sky… It had become incarnate’. Only a few months ago I heard a present chaplain, having served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan affirm the continuing truth of the First World War aphorism: ‘there are no atheists in the trenches’.

All of which is to say that the public imagination moves very slowly, especially when the nation is mourning and its dead are regarded as holy martyrs, incomprehensible, almost unmentionable. When we look back we should beware the baggage we carry with us; our temptation to think we are more objective because we are less involved; to think we can explain the public mood by text book statistics is a dangerous one. The First World War was many things and its consequences are still felt today, but it defies a single explanation or interpretation. We can no longer adequately put ourselves in the boots of those who fought or waited for loved ones - we cannot feel as they felt.

Usually, the most fought over question is whose fault was it? Austria-Hungary’s impatience with Serbia, German militarism and ambition, Russian haste at mobilisation, the arms race, economic rivalry, cultures of machismo and honour, the fearful insecurity of waning empires; or the boy who shot the archduke. In some respects it comes down to concrete choices made by individuals. The City of London and the Governor of the Bank of England are at least exonerated here as they pleaded at length to stay out of the war. The war even in July 1914 was not inevitable. But as Margaret Macmillan ends The War that Ended Peace: countries, and specifically people, in the end make choices. And ‘there are always choices’.


The second immediate question is why was this war waged as all or nothing? There were enough warnings of the dreadful possibility of stalemate but in the end all marched off, convinced of their cause, expecting to be home for Christmas. In the end it was fought not for any specific goals or ends but as total war to annihilation, bankruptcy and revolution. It became a boys’ game of Risk between empires settling for nothing but global domination and submission, ending with all punished, a ‘plague on all houses’, till 1918 when ‘a glooming peace this morning with it brings, / the sun for sorrow will not show his head’.

The twentieth century gave rise to the view that the First World War brought to an end the positive Enlightenment view of history as developing civilization. The philosophy that follows more or less to the present day upholds a view that the Enlightenment view of history as progress was a charade, brought to light first by the destruction of the First war, then by the moral decrepitude of the Second. This view is not unchallenged. It has been argued that a higher percentage of the British population died in the English Civil War than in World War I, and it is certainly true that influenza succeeded in carrying off more than any human violence with 30 million victims between 1918 and 1919. Stephen Pinker’s thesis, that the myopia caused by the closeness of twentieth century history prevents us from recognising the growing resistance to violence that history actually tells, has some plausibility. Has humanity improved in the last hundred years? Or could we, as Japan’s Prime Minister suggests, as Eastern instability threatens, be close to another 1914?

For most powers 1914 saw the highest casualty rates of the war. 90,000 British and up to half a million french were killed. Austria-Hungary lost close to a million. Europe gave up mastery of the world. But more than this it remind us of the persistent possibility of unreasonable war. However absurd, however unwanted, it takes nothing more than unfortunate circumstance, volatile political situations and the wrong people, to bring about international tragedy. Equally we should be careful not to read history straight. The recent commotion over the Great War says more about the agendas of the protagonists than the war. Finding overarching narratives is not at all simple. It was not all Brooke, nor Owen; neither was it all Haig or Kitchener. It was not a ‘Lovely War’ or ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. Part of the reasoning for including a number of voices in poetry and letters is to remind us that the war was experienced very differently depending on the situation of the individual. There were tragedies and triumphs; lives to remember, to celebrate, to question, and to mourn. The lessons are not clear, except the terrible destruction that war always brings. We remember the war today not for nostalgia for a lost world. Nor for a greater, richer or more powerful Britian. We remember it because the countless lives given in sacrifice, in love, in courage point to pervading virtue and light that exists even in the darkest of times. We remember because in their fear, their weakness, their vanity and callousness they remind us of the frailty of humanity. Finally, we remember because ‘those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.’