The Book, ‘The First World War by John Keegan’ is now widely regarded as the greatest historical text on the First World War. He describes the First World War as a European Tragedy. These are the opening lines of the book:
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First.
We are here today to remember. To remember the First World War. To remember the sixteen million people who died in the conflict and the twenty million people who were wounded and the countless people whose lives were torn apart by this devastation. Almost every town and village in the United Kingdom has a war memorial. The long lists of names engraved there tell us that World War One caused a huge collective bereavement. All around were the signs of absent friends, neighbours, brothers, sons, and sweet hearts. Those who returned were scared by physical injury and mental trauma.
We are here today to remember. We know the truth of the George Santayana quote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Just over a hundred years ago, on August 9th 1914, a special service for troops was held in Canterbury Cathedral. The congregation was told “Prayer to God is incumbent upon us all at all times, but in a great war it is the most important of all duties and the most precious of privileges. By declaring war against Germany we have more reason perhaps than at any other time in our history to fall before God’s footstool, and to implore him for his protection and blessing.”
In 1914, it seems, most people in this country believed in a God who protected the British Empire and who smiled upon the rightness of our cause. However, as the war progressed and the unimaginable horrors of the trenches just seemed to go on and on, people began to question what God was doing.
Siegfried Sassoon in his poem ‘They’ explores this:
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
Geoffrey Studdert – Kennedy was a charismatic army chaplain known affectionately as Woodbine Willie. He tried to make sense of why the God who had protected nations and empires had seemingly turned his back.
One of his meditations is called God and Prayer. It begins by evoking a scene in the trenches. “I wish that chap would chuck his praying. It turns me sick. I’d much rather he swore like the sergeant.”
We ask today, as people understandably asked then, is prayer useless? Is God useless, absent, or even real? Woodbine Willie answers that prayer will not save us from suffering any more than it saved Christ from his cross. However it is the only thing that makes us able to fight against evil in a way that can actually heal and transform the situation as Christ did, by selfless compassion, with all the risks that carries.
Woodbine Willie used sermons and poetry and meditations to argue against the idea of a God that is like Father Christmas or a fairy godmother. He said that God is discovered in the heart of your own endurance and pain, the one who holds our deepest self and makes it possible to look upon the world without loathing or despair. God is not on one side or another in a conflict, but present and real in the suffering of all.
This shocking new understanding of God that Woodbine Willie talked about was the direct result of his ministry in the trenches on the front line, and it was the only credible religious response to the daily nightmare of war. Of course the other response to God after the nightmare of War was to stop believing in God and this was evident in the rise of Communism and Fascism.
When we see today children being bombed in Gaza, or shot out of the air over the Ukraine, not to mention the horrors of Iraq, we can begin to see why commemorating world war one is important to us. Human beings are very good at forgetting the hard earned wisdom of the past. By commemorating those who fought and suffered in World War One we recognise the evil of warfare, the cruelty endured by the innocent, and the iron dignity of many who returned determined to build a better world.
We commemorate so that we don’t forget that all are made in the image of God and are given life as a gift to be treasured and enjoyed. The one lesson that rides above all others is that in Christ Jesus we find a God who knows what it is to suffer, but who responded to suffering with forgiveness, compassion and the promise and vision of new life.
May the word of Christ dwell in us richly that we who live now may walk in Christ’s light. May we learn the lessons our parents and grandparents learned, and I pray that God saves us from learning them in the way they had to.