WWI Centenary: Archbishop writes in the Sunday Express
Monday 4th August 2014
In the vestry in my parish, where clergy get ready for services, there was a photo taken from around 1910. It was the choir outing and two or three rows of men and boys sat looking suitably solemn, while a very grim and stern choir master stood at one side at the back. It could as easily have been a football team. There were names, and every year when we processed out of the church to the war memorial, and read aloud the list of those who had died between 1914 and 1918, some of the same names appeared.
The Great War set its mark on the 20th century. Many people suggest that it was the beginning of a conflict that did not end until 1989. What an author called Philip Bobbitt called ‘The Long War’. Four empires collapsed as a direct result, and two more were so enfeebled that they began to decline, although they were unaware of the fact for some years.
The Great War unleashed forces that dominated most of the 20th century. It sowed the seeds of the Nazi regime in Germany and it opened the way to the horrors of Stalinism and the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, with its evil spread over Eastern Europe.
Everyone was conscripted in one way or another. Of course huge numbers of mainly men were conscripted into the armed services. There was a doctrine of attrition, meaning that if our army is bigger than their army, we can lose troops at the same rate but they will run out of troops first. Civilians were co-opted into famine and hunger, into refugee carts and dispersion and loss of families. Even in places where the war did not physically come, as in much of the United Kingdom, there was conscription into hatred and bitterness.
Even God was conscripted. He was called up straight away, right at the beginning in August 1914. Every power that went to war in those dreadful days of foolishness and insanity conscripted Him at once. He was on their side. Few disagreed. The Church of England was not in general one of those few, although there were brave exceptions. The Quakers stood out against the war, seeing the act of war as an absolute evil. Their moral courage still amazes me.
Most of all, it was a war of great surprises. Everyone had a surprise, when they realised that, as a 19th century German general more or less said, no strategy survives the beginning of war. None of the plans really worked, although they had all been worked out in great detail and with the best science and maths and logistics of the day. Armies were deployed to the right place at the right time but then they were surprised that modern weaponry meant, as one of my teachers put it, that the defending armies fought with the speed of the 20th century, and the attacking armies with the speed of the 19th. That meant that breakthroughs became impossible, and the cost of the offensive incredible.
People were surprised by the human cost and by the financial cost. And they were surprised by its totality.
When I was teaching in Kenya in 1974, in student years, I did what many students did and hitch-hiked and took local buses through much of East Africa. One bus broke down for a couple of days in a small town (then, it is huge now) called Dodoma. Bored out of my mind I wandered around the town, turned a corner and in the dusty, sandy heat found a small area of perfect green grass, neatly cut. In it stood a few rows of gravestones, from British cavalry who had fought in action near there and had fallen during the almost forgotten East African war between 1914 and 1918. It was a small piece of England, to half-quote another writer. The war spread all over the world, and no-one failed to be surprised.
And I feel that one of the key reasons that they were surprised was that they had forgotten what war was like. Britain had not fought a large-scale European war since 1815, 99 years earlier. We had never fought a total war in which the whole population was engaged. The cost of such things had never crossed our minds, and its horrors were not sufficiently in the DNA of political leaders that they were willing to take the risks involved in not going to war.
And where was God in all that? There is a poem by my favourite poet, Wilfred Owen, called 'At a Calvary near the Ancre':
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ's denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.
Owen, by this time, was not a practising Christian, although he had been before the war, and had drifted out of faith even earlier than 1914. But he gets at something very true there. Christians have never said that God saves us from suffering. Jesus himself suffered immeasurably on the cross, and we believe that he is God himself, so that God bore the suffering of the world for our sakes. Owen was right in seeing that Christ is with those who suffer, not usually to remove them from suffering, but to suffer with them and because He is the God of resurrection, to give hope in the deepest darkness.
So as I look forward today, remembering the events of 100 years ago, I think of two things. First, remembering matters. Forget what it all meant, how it happened, how surprising it was, what destruction and terror it wrought for so many generations, and we may well find ourselves in the same place. Avoiding war means the courage to face evil with determination, and the determination to avoid hatred, to seek peace and pursue it. And the second thing, is even in the darkness, the deep darkness that is war, there is hope. Hope does not betray us, although optimism usually does, because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.