War III: France 1916

The Revd Brutus Green

I was at a dinner in the city last week for a company for which I have a sort of sinecure position. Essentially, there are a number of functions throughout the year with some wonderful food and some very fine wine, and to earn my supper I merely have to say a grace beforehand. Frequently I have made reference to the seasons of the church and so on this occasion I reminded my brothers and sisters of Christ’s forty days in the desert, at the outset of an extremely nice four course meal in an extremely opulent hall.

It’s this sort of uneasy compromise, characteristic of state religion, that Christianity squirms uncomfortably with at war. Nowhere was it felt more than within the chaplaincy department of the First World War, but it was an issue for all Christians in the inevitable tension between Christ’s teaching and war.

In the last two weeks we have considered some of the large scale changes that occurred, especially in Europe, in and following the First World War: how Edwardian respectability was fatally wounded, the changing role of women in society and the fading of Europe’s mastery of the world. We have also exposed some myths that are read back into the war: its association with secularism is less believable with church attendance rising through the twenties; and the disillusionment narrative where a nation of young Rupert Brookes go off in 1914 coming back as Wilfred Owens in 1918 is clearly a later poeticising of history, when it is only in the late twenties that Owen’s poetry becomes popular and the War Books Controversy changes the way the war is seen.

Out of this same controversy came Robert Graves’ satyrical memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), which together with one or two similar works of the period condemned the Church of England and blew its reputation, for choosing war over Christianity from behind the front lines.

This is the theme of today’s service.


To some war in Europe seemed to be a failure of Christianity. What should have been the basis of an international moral society in Christ’s teaching of peace and forgiveness had fallen to pieces. While interwar and subsequent Christianity have often associated with pacifism, the truth is that the Church of the day was rigorously bound up with a militaristic patriotism. Article 37 of the Church of England’s 39 Articles declared it ‘lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars’. The Crimean war of 1854 had begun with a proclamation of a General Fast across the country, and the nation considered war helpful in drawing people from decadence back to virtue and religion.

More to the point, at the outbreak of the war hundreds of ordained priests volunteered for regular service with combatant roles both commissioned and non-commissioned. In 1916 it was reported that more Church of Scotland ministers were serving as combatants than as chaplains. And because of this militaristic culture, a great number of the initial volunteers were churchgoers. Especially, the Boys’ and Lads’ Brigades were militaristic youth organisations connected with churches and so naturally fed straight into the army. The Bishop of London claimed that ‘khaki is the garment of the faithful’.

The religion of 1914 Britain was a largely uninterrogated practical Christianity, as much if not more a code of behaviour, or ethic, than a faith. The British Army maintained a ‘diffused’ practical Christianity. Sometimes described as ‘the emergency religion of the trenches’, it often went hand in hand with the sort of superstition that naturally accompanies times of terror and helplessness. Bishop Neville Talbot reported: ‘The soldier has got religion, I am not sure that he has got Christianity’. During the earlier part of the war there were several large scale religious revivals. There was no sign of spreading atheism - the war actually brought millions into regular contact with the church, ironically giving many in this violent context their first experience of religion.

The generals in particular were almost surprisingly religious. Haig in particular believing himself to be an instrument of God. General Horne, during the battle of Passchendaele, told a chaplain’s conference ‘Every blow at the Germans is a blow for the Kingdom of Christ’. He was one of three army commanders to write publicly in support of the Church of England’s National Mission of Repentance and Hope on the Western Front. Many of the commanding officers regarded religion as one of the most important virtues in the soldier, as Lieutenant Colonel Croft wrote, ‘religion is the mainspring of the Happy Warrior’. For the staff in command it was clear that morale, the soldiers’ sense of purpose in the war and religion were all bound together and so must wherever possible be encouraged. Haig said that a ‘good chaplain is as valuable as a good general’.

This attitude continued in World War Two, with the war’s most famous commander Bernard Montgomery declaring: ‘I would as soon think of going into battle without my artillery as without my Chaplains’. But as much as the chaplains were valued by the generals it is the poet Robert Graves’ impression of chaplains that has often stuck. Graves drew attention to an early position that clergy should stay behind the front lines, questioning their courage, and, with others, suggested the clergy had swapped their discipleship of Christ for a more earthly, back-seat military vocation. Actually in 1916 chaplains were encouraged to move forward and were frequently at the front line helping with the wounded and usually tasked with the grim honour of collecting, identifying and burying the dead. Chaplains were also expected like Old Testament prophets to give reassurance before battle, as we heard in the reading from Scripture. They were also a ‘useful link between the man in the ranks and his officer’. In the end, chaplains received 4 Victoria crosses and nearly 200 decorations including 145 military crosses. It was not without a price and by the end of the war 172 army chaplains had been killed. In 1919 the King bestowed the title ‘Royal’ on the chaplains’ department in honour of their ‘splendid work’. Again this application was to apply in the Second World War with the same ratio of chaplains dying as combatant soldiers.

The questions asked of chaplains were difficult. Soldiers would banter with padres asking how they saw the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” - which beats the usual questions from the BLAST kids on a Sunday morning. One chaplain memorably retorted that he hoped the soldier gave such consideration to the other nine commandments. Padre Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy also known as “Woodbine Willy” noted the number of soldiers who brought up versions of the Problem of Evil - how do you reconcile Christianity with ‘the bayoneting of Germans and the shambles of the battlefield’? It seemed to many that Christianity and war were entirely at odds. At one point Kennedy found himself in the front line when a strafe started. ‘Who are you?’ asked a Sergeant to which Kennedy replied “I’m the church.” The sergeant countered “Then what the bloody hell are you doing here?”

This captures the great difficulty for chaplains, and for soldiers generally. These new and unwanted experiences were difficult to comprehend. The great numbers of soldiers returning with unidentified cases of shell shock or post-traumatic stress is well attested to. Throughout the war the soldiers and the general public drifted apart. On returning home communication either way often proved impossible. Communication and making sense had generally become very difficult. And chaplains had the task of interpreting Christianity in this context, a task they often understandably failed at with providential or nationalistic platitudes. To be clear, this was not some theological crisis concerning the problem of evil or suffering. It was an experiential and social crisis among some soldiers, to which Sunday School theology and the old public school attitudes lacked bite.

There were, however, soldiers and chaplains who expressed Christian ideas in a very articulate way, and very often they were also those who lived that theology also through their actions. Kennedy whose poem was read earlier expresses clearly the frequent trope of the soldier in the trenches as the passion of Christ, with its anger against the statesmen. Kennedy received the military cross for bravery while tending to the wounded.

After the war he became an ardent pacifist.

Wilfred Owen, though, in his life and poetry gives us the most provocative and helpful example. In Owen, all the contradictions are laid bare and unresolved. Before the war he had considered becoming an Anglican priest.  At times he speaks as a pacifist against the wayward church: ‘I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom’ snubbing the ‘pulpit professionals’, those ‘Christians [who] have deliberately cut some of the main teaching of their code’; and yet he returned again and again to the war, even finally when he didn’t have to. On Easter day 1918 he wrote to his mother, ‘God so hated the world that He gave several millions of English-begotten sons, that whosoever believeth in them should not perish, but have a comfortable life’. But he was glad to be recommended for the Military Cross and wrote with great excitement about going over the top. Here then we can see the tension between service, duty and love of country, and peacefulness, gentleness and turning the other cheek. Owen himself acknowledged the tension: ‘There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer’.

This tension found its way into his poetry. Take the excellent poem we heard earlier. The simple idea behind it is the sounds of war performing themselves the funeral service. The bells and orisons (prayers) are the gun fire, which you can hear in the ‘stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle’; the mourners are the ‘shrill demented choirs of wailing shells’; the candles are held in shining tear-filled boys’ eyes, the pall for the coffin, the pallor of waiting girls’ brow; the flowers only the tenderness of those who wait at home. There is a bitter, aggressive irony to this levelled at war with all the unburied, obliterated bodies and absence of dignity in death. But there is also an exaltation of the human - that in these extreme circumstances the care human beings have for one another, the mutual suffering endured, is as good as any church service.

The horrifying crushed dreams and betrayed prayers of the first letter read this evening, are not diminished by this sort of theology, but at least there is a recognition that human love shared briefly but fiercely, carries something of the divine. Similarly, Vera Brittain’s poem of care after heart-break, losing her fiancé, brothers and friends, is a moving call to Christian charity. And there is a savage irony in Wilfred Owen, who is frequently blamed now for posthumously poeticising the war and the soldier as sacrifice, tragically being killed in the last week of the war; his mother learning of his death as the armistice was announced.

The statistics suggest that the extreme experiences of war intensified people’s beliefs. Atheists hardened, the faithful became more so. That said, the war asked the hardest questions of Christianity; questions that fell squarely on all those with faith in the midst of horror. There is no doubt that faith was hugely helpful to soldiers under pressure, which is why the command was so encouraging of religion. But for many there was a testing of what it means to be a disciple of Christ that in various ways proved conflictual, tragic, inspirational and exemplary of Christian virtue. Christianity has never offered easy answers. The war provided no easy questions.

‘There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer’.