War II: Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1915

The Revd Brutus Green

In August 1914 Dean Inge of St Paul’s wrote in his diary of how people had three things on their minds: ‘their summer holiday, the danger of civil war in Ireland and the abominable outrages of the suffragettes’. The war was a surprise to many, but it also occurred at, and accelerated, a time of widespread change in the vanishing Victorian/Edwardian Britain.

Last week I suggested that the evidence shows that it is in the late 20s that attitudes to the war changed, reflected in the switch in popularity from Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling to Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. One thing that this reminds us is that cultural memory of history can be greatly at odds with history. Again, against received wisdom, rather than the war being a catalyst for secularization, the 1920s show a modest growth in church attendance. The war was not, though, without its immediate changes in the social mores of the nation - not least the inevitable brutilisation of soldiers in the trenches.

Foremost, it is clear that there is a fine line to be trod in war of the scale of the Great War - between backing the national cause - as a preacher, a politician, a king or an ordinary person in the street, and slipping into the rhetoric of hate - which is both unchristian and immoral; between patriotism and nationalism. For some military service and war were both of these things from the start. And so this week we turn to look at some of the moral complexities involved with the great war, at the front and at home.

Some of the readings and songs need to considered in this context. It is a greater disservice to edit out history’s moral ambiguities; even if they make us uncomfortable; but reflecting on war requires us to look honestly and straightforwardly at the past.



In 1915 at Ypres the British were first exposed to the German’s recently invented flamethrowers, forced backwards with sheets of liquid fire pouring over their lines. A little to the South, the Allies, at the time far outnumbering the Germans who were split on two fronts, prepared for ‘the Big Push’. Shortages in ammunitions created a significant problem for the British who for the first time resorted to the also German-invented poison gas. This ‘barbarous and ineffective’ weapon killed more British than the enemy. In general, it created such revulsion that it was banned in 1925 by the Geneva convention and did not really reappear in the Second World War. The British then advanced in columns of ten across a line of more than a thousand. A German diary recorded, “Never had the machine gunners such straightforward work to do nor done it so effectively… they could be seen falling literally in their hundreds”. That night 22 British battalions reinforced the line, many not having eaten in days. They advanced straight into another storm of shells and bullets, a massacre that one German commander reported “filled every one of us watching with a sense of disgust and nausea”. In the end the Germans held their fire out of pity to leave the remnants to crawl from the field, with 60,000 British casualties in less than a fortnight. Among the dead was John Kipling, only son of Rudyard who thereafter gave up writing fiction, and must have come to hate those first lines, if not the tone, of the 1914 poem read earlier: ‘Who dies if England live?’

Traditionally, ethics has concerned itself with two questions in relation to war - jus ad bellum and jus in bello: the moral case for going to war and the moral limitations of warfare. The use of weapons is a perennial question in warfare. There was a large movement to ban the use of aeroplanes in war after the First World War as collateral damage to civilians was recognised as unavoidable. Similar questions persist today concerning drones. Equally the disgust felt in 1915 over poison gas remains an issue in the case of Syria: ‘guttering, choking, drowning’.

The First World War raised a whole slew of moral questions, not just at the front but also back in Blighty, and changed the inherited Victorian/Edwardian moral framework forever. A question that united those at war and at home was how the enemy should be perceived and treated. Consider the song we sang earlier. The theologian Henry Scott Holland wrote that it was right to fight ‘for Belgium [i.e. national sovereignty] and for the rule of law between nations’ but ‘the assurances of the Press that the losses of the enemy were most gratifying [] is the war temper. Such a temper is an outrage against man, a sin against GOD. It is under the curse of CHRIST’. Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson on a similar note found himself at the centre of a controversy arguing against reprisals on German civilians - anything which has as ‘a deliberate object, the killing and wounding of non-combatants’, whether for ‘vengeance’, ‘terror’, or ‘deterrence.’ His words were bitterly resented and came under public attack simply for attempting to maintain Just War principles.

This was the majority church position but the noted liberal theologian H.D.A. Major wrote an article against the ‘Christian sentimentalist‘  arguing that ‘If the only way to protect adequately an English babe is to kill a German babe, then it is the duty of our authorities, however repugnant, to do it’ given that ‘the innocent German babe will in all probability grow up to be a killer of babes himself… whereas the English babe… [will] grow up to be a protector of babes, and a destestor of those who would slay them’. Effectively doing away with the Just War tradition (and apparently irony), Major recast the War as a simple battle of Good against Evil.

Civilising instincts often prevailed. Given that most nations involved were Christian respect was given for religious buildings which were often then used as refuges for the wounded. It was common practices for surrendering forces to hold up crucifixes or bibles. There are many examples on both sides of common compassion, the most famous being the extraordinary widely observed 1914 Christmas truce, which gave all a chance to bury their dead. This odd juxtaposition of religious compassion against a backdrop of murderous war is well represented by the British padre Doyle who, just before the Germans’ positions of Messines ridge was destroyed by what at the time was the world’s largest ever man-made explosion, climbed out of his trench to pronounce the absolution on them.

Inevitably demonisation also occurred at home and abroad. The Master of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, Reverend Johns, preached that on a German invasion ‘half the children born next year in a town occupied by German troops would have a German soldier for a father... have nothing to do with a man who can enlist and fight for the protection of his home and will not.’

Many conscientious objectors were religious, usually from the non-conformist or sectarian denominations. They proved to be a mixed bag. Those who became stretcher-bearers were held in high esteem due to the danger of their task. The non-combatant corps on the other hand dubbed the ‘No Courage Corps’ were confined to duty at home or on lines of communication were vilified. 7th Day Adventists were court-martialled for not working on Sundays. The Bloomsbury group also wanted nothing to do with the war. Bertrand Russell went to prison, E.M. Forster worked with the Red Cross in Egypt. When Lytton Strachey was asked why he was not fighting for civilisation he retorted, “I am the civilisation for which you are fighting”. Tried as conscientious objector, he was asked what he would do if he saw a German soldier violating his sister. With calm insouciance he dryly replied: “I would try to get between them”.

For the most part, though, the lasting impact of the war was the relaxing of usual standards of ‘respectability’. This happened in a number of areas. There was a relaxation in attitudes to the Sabbath. The Archbishop of Canterbury, again not without controversy, declared field work on Sundays acceptable in 1917. Among soldiers cultures of swearing; drinking; gambling, illicit sex and theft proliferated. Particularly looting of the dead and stealing in camp - including reserves stealing razors from those who were attacking were matters of concern for command. Another worry was that such behaviour would come out when they returned; as one soldier described: “We’re trained up as murderers - I don’t dislike it, mind you - and after the war we shan’t get out of the habit of it.’

Unsurprisingly for British culture, binge drinking, particularly from soldiers, became a social problem. Before the war pubs were open from 5am - 12.30am on weekdays. These were shortened, particularly to prevent morning and afternoon drinking. Taxation on alcohol was also increased, and strength reduced. George V gave up alcohol for duration of the war and suggested the nation followed. Many bishops followed included Bishop Gore, who spoke at a meeting to encourage teetotalism:

‘All my life I have been accustomed to a liberal supply of generous wine. My doctor told me that to give it up suddenly at my age might prove dangerous.’ When he added slowly: ‘I have never experienced the least inconvenience from not taking wine’, the teetotallers cheered loudly. Gore went on: ‘Many of my teetotal friends assured me that I should experience greatly improved health, and marked clearness of mind.’ Again he added impressively: ‘I have never experienced the slightest benefit from not taking wine.’ The audience at first responded with a horrified pause, then roared with laughter... (Alan Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War, p. 103).

I have to say, on the twelfth day of Lent, I feel the same.

In all this moral degeneration, sex, of course, also reared its ugly head. The pressure on young men and women when a life might end the next day turned around Victorian sensibility. Roland was only twenty when he was engaged to Vera Brittain, and twenty when he died. Time was compounded and emotion intensified. By 1918 illegitimacy rates had increased by 30%. Contraceptives became more freely available, divorce rates through the war tripled and sexual education for women became a priority. While there was a set path for dealing with war widows and their children, these issues raised a considerable problem in what to do with bereaved girls and illegitimate children. Victorian attitudes to unwed mothers now seemed heartless. For the soldiers on the continent a different problem arose, as British chaplain Tom Pym remarked: ‘gonorrhoea is a minor discomfort compared to wounds or death cheerfully faced in battle, and is much more pleasurably obtained’.

Those ‘abominable’ suffragettes ceased activitiy during war but the war had more lasting effects on women - conscription dismantled the final barriers to the necessary full scale employment of women. In 1915 Emmeline Pankhurst organized a demonstration in London of 30,000 women claiming the ‘right to serve’, backed by the government. With the end of the war women over 30 had the right to vote. Typically, the church was divided on issue - many supported the cause but also churches were burnt down, services interrupted and the Coronation Chair in the Abbey was damaged by a bomb. Percy Dearmer, formerly of this parish, whose blue plaque is just around the corner argued for more use of women in ministry. Charles Raven, a chaplain who later became Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, described the presence of women as a humanizing influence on the war and later advocated the ordination of women.

The war was unquestionably a moral disaster across Europe - a disaster brokered by ‘famous men’. The German choice to begin the war by entering Belgium, violating its national sovereignty, was fundamental to drawing Britain into the war. On route they chose to go through Louvain. With the Belgian resistance and fear of the British matters got out of hand and in short time the Germans were dragging senior police-officers and officials out of their houses and shooting them. The town was sacked and looted with a fifteenth-century church and venerable library destroyed. This was only the precursor to the massive destruction Europe was to undergo, not least the best of the French cathedrals at Rheims, millions of lives and the enormous wealth of Europe squandered. The Europe that was left was brutalised and begging, a ticking bomb for what became an even more vicious conflict a generation later.

Still, necessity is the mother of invention and as technology and medicine moved forward in leaps and bounds, the war catalysed significant social change. Attitudes to women, sex and class were all liberalised.

The questions the war generation faced - how to regard and treat our enemies, whether terrorists or foreign nationals remain current, as do means in warfare, whether it is weapons, chemical, biological and nuclear; or, the issue America has recently been struggling with, torture and treatment of prisoners. And for all the moral degeneration of 1915, we also remember the moral valour and courage of famous men and women, such as John Kipling and Edith Cavell both of whom were killed that year; and those of whom ‘there is no memory’, for many were also ‘godly men’ and women, whose ‘righteous deeds have not been forgotten... their bodies are buried in peace, but their names live on generation after generation’.