WHEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT
Remembering the Great War
Winston Churchill observed: ‘history will be kind to me for I intend to write it’. I doubt he would have said this in the digital age, where anyone can blog their view of the world. The sheer volume of books published to coincide with the First World War makes it hard to say anything new or original on the subject and the hotly contested issue of why the war began is especially wearisome, unless we take a severely reductionist approach and claim the first cause was simply a few gunshots in Sarajevo.
Harry Patch, the last serving British soldier, died in 2009, meaning there is no longer any living testimony to this gruesome war. It is easy to be buried by the weight of words written on the subject, many of which contradict one another, and to lack the willpower to dig ourselves free. The bewildering array of views on the war may be gleefully taken by post-modernists as evidence that there are few, if any, objective truths to lay claim to in history, but I believe we should resist this. History may have many different and competing narratives, but it contains plenty of objective facts and truths and we should not despair of finding them.
Much of today’s debate revolves round three issues: the causes of the war; the experience of the serving forces; and just how much of the modern world was made by this conflict. I can only skate across the surface of these questions.
In the month that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the Austrian government, backed by Germany, demanded retribution from Serbia; the Russians, with French support, gathered forces to defend its Serbian ally while Britain had to decide whether to keep its promise to defend Belgian neutrality, a choice finally made on August 4. In his book Catastrophe, Max Hastings observed: ‘Posterity has puzzled endlessly over how the leaderships of the world’s greatest powers, mostly composed of men no more stupid or wicked than their modern counterparts, could first have allowed the war to happen, then continued it for four more years’. There is no simple answer to this, but it does show how politicians are constrained by larger forces. We prefer to think our political leaders control events, but the evidence shows it is usually the other way round and we should have the maturity to accept this.
If one gunman was trigger for the world’s greatest conflict, then one fruit seller was responsible for the Arab world’s ferment today. Mohammed Bouazzizi set fire to himself in Tunisia in December 2010, frustrated by the petty harassment of police officer. Nobody could have foreseen that this would set off epic conflicts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq - among other peoples simmering with resentment at authoritarian rulers - provoking ever greater hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims. And no-one has quite understood what this really means for the wider world yet either.
Jesus taught in his parables of the power of the mustard seed, which would grow from a grain into a tree, showing what good would emerge from the humble acts of those who followed him. The same principle is at work in historical development, and we are usually poor at spotting its origins. The CIA, for instance, was taken entirely by surprise by the sudden ending of Soviet communism. This calls both for humility and also for wisdom, that those who govern may receive from God the guidance they need to make right judgments. They may not believe in God personally, but those who do should pray that he guides their choices, for God alone masters the courses of history and empire and he alone will outlast them.
The traumatic experience of the soldiers of this war defies comprehension. Ten million soldiers died and twice this number was wounded. The decision to advance on German lines in an ordered walking pace on the first day of the battle of the Somme ensured over thirty thousand were killed within the first hour. Events like this led to the charge that the infantry were lions led by donkeys, though junior officers died in huge numbers also on the western front.
The popularity of the war poets in the modern English curriculum means most children understand something of the reality of this war a century on. Jeremy Paxman’s view that the anti-establishment ethic of the poets fits our generation more readily than the spirit of those who signed up at the time may be true, but after the 5.7 million men who served returned to Britain, a new mood of social defiance was forged which led to wider suffrage, the rise of the trades unions, the end of aristocratic rule and the slow puncture of the British empire.
No-one could contradict the testimony these men brought home with them and one consequence was an irreversible loss of trust in the British institutions which helped to ruin their lives. Among these, the Church of England suffered a loss of support from which it has still to recover. There are many complicated reasons for the decline in church attendance over the last hundred years, but the impact of this war on the nation’s men is one of them. It is not just that the Anglican Church was allied with the British State in its prosecution of the war; it is the impact that violence and suffering on such an epic scale has on those who experience it.
We are made in the image of God and scripture reminds us frequently of how we encounter God in other people. If that other person is trying to impale you on a bayonet, poison you with gas or incinerate you with a flamethrower, it is hard to perceive God either in them or anywhere nearby, despite the Bible promises which many of those soldiers would have been familiar with. This is one audit of war we rarely make: the impact it has on our hope in God. Only twenty or so years later, similar shocking and bewildering questions of faith would be asked by the Jews of Europe.
The war to end all wars was merely the prelude to the bloodlust which would define the last century. The Treaty of Versailles, which settled the war and whose terms have been blamed for the humiliation inflicted on Germany which led ultimately to the idolatrous rise of Nazism, may have had its faults; but imagine a Treaty negotiated by militaristic Germany on its terms as victor instead. Once begun, this war had to be won by the Allies.
The human race has a spiritual thirst and hunger which can only be satisfied in God. ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the water; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!’ says the prophet Isaiah. In practical demonstration of this, Jesus fed the five thousand with the little resources the people brought to him. History does not repeat itself neatly so we can pre-empt suffering; it is more of a re-mix, a new tune with identifiable riffs. We are usually well into the song before we realise we have heard it before.
The identifiable riff we hear in history is the lust of nations for land, wealth and status, a tune so tone deaf it never hears the divine harmony of loving the stranger, not ravaging them. Jesus is the bread who satisfies all our hungers; the nations who went to war against one another twice in the last century all had churches and Bibles which bore testimony to this. One day, of God’s choosing, we will mourn together that we were not able to relate, one nation to another, in ways which honoured God and saved countless individuals from suffering and death. For now, the greatest dignity we can afford the lost is to cherish their memory and tell their story, lest we forget.
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