At the outbreak of war in 1914 many young British men enlisted to fight because their Christian convictions convinced them that this was the right thing to do. Some Christians opposed violence on pacifist grounds. However, at the outbreak of war those who fought had no way of foreseeing the catastrophic loss of life that lay ahead. So objections to the war were greatly outweighed by the sense that the actions of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (the Central Powers) were so wicked that the only right course of action for Christians was to take up arms.
There were grave issues which made Christians feel this was a ‘just war’ which had to be fought in order to overcome a worse evil. These included the vast expansion of the German army, warmongering in the Balkans, and the invasion of Belgium, which was an ally of Britain. The media reported atrocities, some of which were true and some exaggerated.
Many Christian organisations responded in ways designed to give hope and help to those who were fighting. 43 million copies of the Gospel of John (which tells the story of Jesus) were distributed to soldiers by the Scripture Gift Mission and the Bible Societies. The Church Army and the Salvation Army provided recreation huts close to the front line. They provided tea, proper chairs, games, counselling, Bible studies and a letter-dictation service for illiterate men who wanted to write home.
It was during the First World War that army chaplains emerged as an extremely significant contribution by Christians to the care and spiritual support of military personnel. The Army Chaplain’s Department had existed since 1796, but at the start of the Crimean War there was only one chaplain for 26,000 troops (it increased to sixty as the need became clearer). However, during the First World War over a thousand chaplains (known as padres) served with the Allies, and a similar number served the opposing army. 179 British chaplains died during the war, and three were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery.
Some chaplains became well-known figures and among them was GA Studdert Kennedy. He was widely known as Woodbine Willie because of his practice of giving out Woodbine cigarettes after services. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery, but was equally significant for his compassion and comfort of wounded soldiers. He wrote and spoke extensively about fighting and faith following the war, and became a national figure. Thousands lined the streets at his funeral and tossed cigarette packets on the hearse as a tribute.
Typical of the memories of Studdert Kennedy is one from a group of scared soldiers who were putting up barbed wire in front of their trench. Seeing someone crawl towards them they asked nervously who it was. Studdert Kennedy called out, ‘The church.’ They asked him what the church was doing there. He replied, ‘Its job.’
Chaplains currently serve in every area of the British military and every location of active service. They are not permitted to carry or use weapons. There have been Jewish chaplains since 1892, and Buddhist, Moslem, Sikh and Hindu chaplains since 2005.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh …
a time for war and a time for peace.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Ecclesiastes is a poetic book, full of worldly wisdom, dating from about four centuries before Jesus.
And they said…
General Lord Richard Dannatt, former Chief of the General staff, the highest ranking soldier in the UK:
11 November is the date when we remember Armistice Day – marking the surrender of Germany to end the First World War. A surrender is two things: the end of fighting and the beginning of peace. On 11 November 1977, I stopped fighting with God – I fully committed myself to him. I found on that date a far better way of life. To commit myself wholeheartedly to God was to enjoy that peace and purpose in life that only full commitment to Jesus Christ can bring. It was the beginning of a new life in Christ.
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’), 1883 – 1929, army chaplain during the First Word War:
On June 7, 1917, I was running to our lines half mad with fright, though running in the right direction, thank God, through what had been once a wooded copse. It was being heavily shelled. As I ran I stumbled and fell over something. I stopped to see what it was. It was an undersized, underfed German boy, with a wound in his stomach and a hole in his head. I remember muttering, ‘You poor little devil, what had you got to do with it? Not much great blonde Prussian about you.’ Then there came light … It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay the Christ upon his cross, and cried, ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my little ones ye have done it unto me.’ From that moment on I never saw a battlefield as anything but a crucifix. From that moment on I have never seen the world as anything but a crucifix.
Robert Bridges, 1844-1930, the Poet Laureate, in a letter to The Times on 1 September 1914:
Those who fight for [the Central Powers] 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 [the enemy’s] bad principles and their diabolical conduct do not set the whole world against them, then the world is worse than I think.