Remembering the Great War: Seven lessons we must learn 100 years on
The Great War haunts the British imagination in a way that no other does. It remains profoundly present through its poems, novels, paintings and songs. There are still, too, the family memories; stories told by the survivors, and – perhaps even more powerful – stories left untold because there were simply no words adequate to the telling. And, of course, it is physically inescapable: on village greens, in churches of every denomination, there are the names of those who did not return. The lists are horrifically long and saddest of all are the clusters of names from the same family, which still appall us with their intimations of grief.
Do Christians have a special perspective on the war, or special insights to share? At one level, no; British Christians will share in the commemorations as citizens. However, we believe deeply that God is active in the world. The Old Testament prophets saw patterns in history. The apostle Paul wrote of the whole creation "groaning in the pains of childbirth" and the book of Revelation is a coded commentary on geo-politics. It would be surprising if such a cataclysmic event taught us nothing.
First, it speaks to us of the need for good governance. The outbreak of war in 1914 was arguably the worst diplomatic failure of modern times. It was a tragedy because it was avoidable. There is a widespread cynicism about politics and politicians at the moment. Membership of political parties is low and dropping. We do not trust politicians or believe in them. But without strong, effective governments, the peace of the world is at risk. Think of Ukraine; think of Syria and Iraq and Gaza. Christians should be the first to be counter-cultural, and work and pray for good leadership.
Second, it speaks to us of the need to be prophetic. When large professional professional armies are built up and a militaristic culture takes hold – as it did in Germany – they are going to want something to do. When deep injustices are allowed and national ambitions are thwarted – as they were in Austria-Hungary – the conditions are ripe for war. Churches in every country failed seriously to challenge the underlying conditions that made war possible.
Third, it speaks to us of the need to be courageous. There is the courage of the battlefield, which is one thing: but there is a different sort of courage needed to challenge the status quo and to think as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. Famously, Edith Cavell, the nurse shot by the Germans for helping British soldiers escape from Belgium, said before her execution: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." After the outbreak of war, and then as casualties mounted, there was a surge of hostility to anyone of German descent; mobs ransacked shops and beat people who had lived in the UK for decades. And, of course, there were brave conscientious objectors who refused to fight and paid the price in ostracism or imprisonment. Standing against the crowd takes courage.
Fourth, it should inspire us. The young men who fought and those who supported them at home did so because they believed deeply in the cause for which they were fighting. Some of them – among them poets like Siegfried Sassoon – were disillusioned by the end of the war, and theirs is the perspective that has become dominant. Most were not, and continued to believe that it was a war that had to be fought. They made unimaginable sacrifices for something greater than themselves. Would we?
Fifth, it should chasten us. We are still living with the consequences, not only of the war, but of the Versailles Treaty of 1919. Arguably this delivered victor's justice and laid the foundations of the next war, which would be far worse. The division of the Arab provinces of the collapsed Ottoman empire led to the creation of new countries including Iraq and Syria among them. It also saw the Balfour Declaration declaring Britain "in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". It's simplistic just to blame the European Great Powers for what's happening now, but the sins and follies at the roots of these conflicts have to be confessed.
Sixth, it should make us deeply, deeply suspicious of nationalism in all its forms. It's one thing to cheer on our national football team, a fine illustration of the triumph of hope over experience. It's another to make us think we can define a whole people as "the enemy". German soldiers wore belt-buckles with "Gott Mit Uns" stamped on them; British army chaplains told their men that God was with them. They were both right; but if they believed that God blessed their cause and fought for them, they were both tragically wrong.
Last, it should make us mourn, and drive us to pray for peace. There are enough wars today. We cannot turn on our televisions without seeing harrowing pictures from Gaza, or Syria, or Iraq. But the vast monuments at Thiepval and Tyne Cot, with the tens of thousands of names of those killed but never found; the rows of white tombstones; and those sad, sad tablets in parish churches with their pathetic dozens of dead still speak to us and call us to pray: never again.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and freelance writer.
Worship resources and a study guide based on the Churches' response to the war are available here.