Christianity and the First World War

How was it possible for countries that were Christian to fight each other? – Some notes towards an answer to this question.

Violence, fighting, and warfare are, of course, completely alien to Christian teaching. Christianity has, at its core, the concept of love and therefore respect for every human being. See below for details.

The conduct of the First World War, therefore, in that millions of people in allegedly Christian countries set out to kill millions of people in other countries, was anti-Christian.

How was it possible for so many people to ignore the core tenets of their faith?

A pro-war mindset for the general populations in the belligerent countries was made possible partly by the new-found power of state-backed media and, partly, by Christian leaders (in Britain at least) misinterpreting Christian teaching and promoting a perversion of Christianity.

As in many wars, the propagandists working to promote the wars portrayed the enemy as evil and their own country as good and this had the implication that the war was a struggle between good and evil. In a very simplistic logical sense it was suggested that it was right for the good to destroy the evil (enemy). This was a popular justification for the war and it was easy for all sides to point to enemy actions of killing and destruction which could, with justification, be described as evil.

The English Poet Laureate (officially appointed state poet) Robert Bridges wrote a letter which appeared in The Times on 1 September 1914 in which he stated, “those who fight for them will fight for ‘the devil and all his works,’ and those who fight against them will be fighting in the holy cause of humanity and the law of love. If the advocacy of their bad principles and their diabolical conduct do not set the whole world against them, then the world is worse than I think. . . There was never anything in the world worthier of extermination and it is the plain duty of all civilised nations to unite to drive it back into its home and exterminate it there.” – Minds at War, P 51.

The following day Robert Bridges attended the inaugural meeting of the government’s secret war propaganda bureau. He was an enthusiastic member needing no encouragement to shout for war.

His poem, Wake Up, England, had been published in The Times on 8 August 1914. Here are three of the eight verses.

Thou careless, awake!
Thou peacemaker, fight!
Stand, England, for honour,
And God guard the Right!

Much suffering shall cleanse thee:
But thou through the flood
Shalt win to Salvation,
To Beauty through blood.

Up, careless, awake!

Ye peacemakers, Fight!

(Minds at War p38.There are more poems in a similar vein in Minds at War.)

 As an example of the perversion of Christian teaching here is the statement by Canon J H Skrine of Merton College Oxford, found in a pamphlet issued by the National Service League. “War is not murder. . .  War is sacrifice. The fighting and killing are not of the essence of it, but are the accidents, though the inseparable accidents; and even these, in the wide modern fields where a soldier rarely in his own sight sheds any blood on his own, where he lies on the battle sward not to inflict death but to endure it  -  even these are mainly purged of savagery and transfigured into devotion. War is not murder but sacrifice which is the soul of Christianity.” Out in the Dark, p136.

I’m not sure how many people would be convinced by this argument but there are reasons whole nations take up arms against other nations and the main factor is a sense of fear of the “enemy”. An expert witness on the subject of taking nations to war is Hermann Goering. This is what he said in 1946. “ The people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

(Quoted in Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert from a conversation Gilbert had with Hermann Goering in his cell at the Nuremberg War crimes trial 18 April 1946.)

How did the British people come to fear the German people in 1914? It was not an overnight conversion. In fact there had been many years of talk of the “German threat” in the media and in particular in The Daily Mail and The Observer newspapers. Some bestselling books about the German threat added to the wariness of ordinary people. Of course, for many years, this was just talk, but when Germany invaded a neutral country, Belgium, the threats began to look like a reality. Soon there were reports of German atrocities in Belgium, some true, some exaggerated, and some fictitious. Nevertheless an arm quickly spread and sympathy for Belgium was genuine. Soon Belgian refugees were arriving in Britain. (See Minds at War p52-53 and 216 for more details.)

If any more evidence was needed that Germany was a threat to Britain it was soon provided by the Germans themselves when, from the sea, they started bombarding East and West Hartlepool, Scarborough, and Southend. The destruction and casualties were fairly minimal, but the propaganda own goal from the German point of view was enormous. These raids were soon to be followed with Zeppelin and aeroplane bombing raids. The Germans had confirmed themselves as the enemy of Britain.

Once the war was declared the government brought in censorship, managed the media through its influence with key owners, and established a secret war propaganda bureau which a number of writers including the poets Robert Bridges, Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy soon began to work for. (See Minds at War p54 and 58-67 for more details.)

Britain’s greatest military disaster, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when 20,000 men were killed was announced to the world by The Times with the assessment of the battle as “complete success”.

When conscription was brought in it became harder for ordinary citizens to keep out of the army. They had to take a personal stand and become conscientious objectors. Three quarters of a million men applied for exemption from fighting and were brought before tribunals specially set up to test the authenticity of their consciences. These tribunals accepted only 16,500 men as conscientious objectors. The consequence for many of these was often severe. Thousands were imprisoned. Many were tortured and 71 died in prison. (Minds at War  p199 and Gerard de Groot, Blighty, British Society in the Era of the Great War. p155.)

David Roberts, 21 August 2013

Note: Christian teaching on war

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied,  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”  Matthew Chapter 22, v36-40.

“I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Luke, Chapter 6, v27.



2 thoughts on “Christianity and the First World War

  1. linger not stranger, shed no tear
    go back to those, who sent us here

    we are the young, they drafted out
    to wars their folly brought about

    go tell those old men, safe in bed
    we took their orders and are dead
    by: AD Hope

  2. Who wrote this?The author seems to be a GNR.

    Silent for us home the cannon’s quaking roar
    Silent too the dragonflies that o’erhead soar
    Far away the ravaged fields of ceaseless fire
    Become so soon for many grave and pyre

    And in a darkening house in stillness sit
    The many who hold the woeful tiding writ
    Of one whose dying voice was never heard
    Upon whose lips an ebbing prayer stirred

    And still they slumber on foreign shores abound
    Their names engraved their bodies never found
    Remember then the freedom here to draw a breath
    Was bought for you there by sacrifice and death

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