Faith in Conflict

by Stuart Bell, Helion and Co, £25

The most shocking thing about the First World War is that it was a war among Christians. Catholic Frenchmen fought Catholic Germans; quietist English low churchmen were in mortal combat with pious Bavarian Lutherans. Chaplains on both sides celebrated Mass not far behind the front line. Soldiers prayed the Paternoster and then spent the rest of the day trying to slaughter as many of the enemy as possible. If there were a motto for the Great War, it would be, “Praise God and pass the ammunition.” The perennial claim made by all combatants was, “God on our side”.

Of course there were pacifists, conscientious objectors and many Christians expressing qualms. Corporal Ronald Skirth in the Royal Field Artillery complained that his superiors, “had authorised me to break the Sixth Commandment in the name of patriotism”. But this was a common misunderstanding, for the original Commandment should not be translated, “Thou shalt not kill” but “Thou shalt do no murder” – that is, wrongful killing. The Church had held the doctrine of just war since the days of Augustine and Aquinas. Another NCO was reduced to the ranks when he refused to fire a shell at a church.

Should this four years’ slaughter among the Christian nations of Europe lead us to conclude that such Christianity as existed was pretty negligible? No, the truth is that few of the combatants on either side were committed, doctrinal Christians or regular churchgoers. Most, though, said they believed in God and the afterlife and in that vague presence which goes along with “decency and respect for things that matter” – a faint afterglow to the vanished age of faith.

Stuart Bell, a Methodist minister, tells us: “The language of a holy war was employed from the first Sunday in the war” – and by both sides. Llewellyn Gwynne, chaplain general, declared: “Chaplains are part and parcel of this fighting machine … which may overthrow the spiritual foes of humanity and allow the Kingdom of God to operate on earth.”

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