The Great War was seen as a clash of civilisations and a contest of rival `national' values and virtues which the clergy, together with the broader educated classes, helped shape. Exchanges of fire on the battlefields took place beneath a no less vicious war of ideas, in which the big intellectual and spiritual cannons blazed with accusations, denials and counter-accusations. Historians everywhere rushed to serve up `practical pasts'. French intellectuals of all backgrounds and persuasions were united in the belief that the war was between civilisation and barbarism, a view confirmed by the catalogue of German atrocities and oppressions on and off the battlefield. France's civilising mission bridged the gap between Catholic and republican messianisms, with the descendants of the Year II and those of Clovis united in the belief that France had a universal mission to mankind. For a brief moment, Frenchmen were exposed to the fusion of Christian and republican messianisms that characterises the United States of America.
Across the Marne and Somme, where the German border lay, war proved the moral superiority of German `heroes' over Anglo-Saxon shopkeepers', to employ the chief elements in the title of a book by the economic historian Werner Sombart, although there was much disdain for the frivolous French and the Russian barbarian `culture of the horde' too. Hatred of England was born of envy, partly the product of an intense sense of betrayal at a time when putative racial or real religious affinities counted for a great deal more than they have since. In German eyes, Protestant England (for Ireland, Wales and Scotland failed to register) had bizarrely allied itself with a godless France and Orthodox Russia, a `land of assassins and pogroms' beyond the pale of European civilisation - these two countries that had gone to war on behalf of Serbian robbers and regicides. Both Britain and France had also betrayed the white race when they brought Muslim or Hindu (not to speak of African animist) troops from their colonies to fight the Christian-German Michael. This charge came a little oddly from a country whose ruler had proclaimed himself the friend of `300 million Muslims' and whose Ottoman ally had a grim record of anti-Christian atrocities notably in Armenia and the Balkans. So too did attempts to impugn the humanitarian record of the British Empire, for imperial Germany had recently been responsible for systematic slaughter of the Herero people in South-V Vest Africa (now Namibia) that eclipsed anything the British had done in South Africa or the Sudan.
As is usual in circumstances of total war, attempts were made to strip the enemy of all moral worth, or as Frank Lenwood had it in 1915: `we idealize our own country and our own people, while in relation to a hostile nation we practise that kind of realism which ... involved the selection and emphasis of all the ugly and sordid facts'.'' When in September 1914 prominent German clergy and theologians issued a statement enthusiastically supporting their country's cause, their British opposite numbers retaliated in kind. German theology had often been uncritically revered in the England of George Eliot, but it was not long before British clerics underwent `the most painful experience of their lives to find men, whose names they have long been accustomed to revere, showing themselves so blindly and bitterly partisan in their judgements regarding the causes of the war'. (Arlie J. Hoover, God, Germany and Britain in the Great War. A Study in Clerical Nationalism, New York 1989, P. 36.)
British clergy contrasted the critical daring of modern German theologians towards the Holy Bible with German intellectuals' credulous divinisation of the German state. Since the Anglican Church was integral to the British state, churchmen had to stress its historical autonomy to distinguish it from conditions across the Rhine. They claimed that whereas in Britain the Church preceded the state by several centuries, retaining, beyond the Reformation, its moral autonomy and independent voice, as sometimes manifest on the episcopal benches in the House of Lords, in Germany the Lutheran Church was so subordinate to the state that it was tantamount to a pious claque in a system without effective institutional checks and balances. The German state was amorality incarnate, living witness to the cynical and unChristian doctrine that might is right. The archbishop of Canterbury drew the implications of this when he wrote: `We believe, with an intensity beyond words, that there does exist exactly what our opponents deny, a higher law than the law of the state, a deeper allegiance than can be claimed by any earthly Sovereign, and that in personal and national conduct alike we have to follow higher and more sacred principles of honour than any state law can enforce.' (Randall Davidson, The Testing of a Nation, London 1919, p. 87.)
While British clergy were fervently patriotic, and sometimes susceptible to chauvinism, they also believed that there was a `higher patriotism of the Bible' by which nations and individuals would be judged. They may have held the view that the British Empire had a divine mission, to spread Christianity to the four corners of the globe, but this was inherently universal, an expansion rather than contraction of God's love, and it did not confuse an absolute God with an evanescent history unfolding on earth. By contrast, the immanentist and Hegelian strain in German liberal Protestant theology, in which whatever one felt powerfully enough was indicative of the developing presence of God, meant that He was manifest in the intense emotions of August 1914, directing the movements of German armies at war. As a wartime German cleric put it: `God is what the god-inspired people do.` Ernst Troeltsch gave this its most grandiloquent expression:
We fight not only for what we are, but also for what we will and must become ... Our faith is not just that we can and must defend our state and homeland but that our national essence contains an inexhaustible richness and value that are inexpressibly important for mankind, a value that the Lord and God of history has entrusted to our protection and development. The German faith is a faith in the inner moral and spiritual content of Germanness, the faith of the Germans in themselves, in their future, in their world mission ... This is a belief in the divine world ruler and world reason that has allowed us to become a great world nation, that will not forsake us or deny us because our spirit comes from its spirit. (Ernst Troeltsch, Deutscher Glaube and deutsche Sitte in unserem grossen Kriege, p. 19.)
Other Allied clerics took a different tack. While some writers dilated on the drunkenness, insanity or immaturity of Germany, all conditions that could at least be regarded as temporary and curable, many thought there was something indelibly flawed about that country, a view that in intensified form has survived the Second World War. Avoiding the awkward common experience of Reformation, they argued that Germany had never been thoroughly Christianised at all, and that an imperfectly eradicated paganism had erupted in the heart of Europe. Here they paid particular heed to a prophecy made in 1834 by the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine:
Christianity, and this is its greatest merit, has occasionally calmed the brutal German lust for battle, but it cannot destroy that savage joy. And when once that restraining talisman, the cross, is broken, then the old combatants will rage with the fury celebrated by the Norse poets. The wooden talisman is fast decaying; the day will come when it will break pathetically to pieces. Then the old stone gods will rise from unremembered ruins and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and Thor will leap to life at last and bring down his gigantic hammer on the Gothic cathedrals.
Evidence of this atavistic turn was apparent when in September 1915 German artillery pulverised Rheims cathedral. Some British authors mixed their religious metaphors in ways that seem rather opaque. Presumably Barnard Snell knew what he meant when he wrote: `The will and conscience of mankind are against the return to Odinism with Berlin for its Mecca and the Kaiser for its prophet.'
Hunting intellectual culprits is a perennial intellectuals' game, played with interchangeable pieces: how much easier to pin everything on a Friedrich Nietzsche or William Kristol than to have to think. Both British and French clerics, and others, alighted upon not only the Kaiser but the `unholy trinity' of general Friedrich von Bernhardi, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Since Bernhardi had been put out to grass in 1909, partly because the General Staff was embarrassed by reactions to his opinions, his significance in German military circles was limited. Nonetheless, he was blamed for the cynical
Machtpolitik which was pervasive among Germany's military and political elites, notwithstanding his view that `the man who pursues moral ends with immoral means is involved in a contradiction of motives, and nullifies the object at which he aims, since he denies it by his actions'. The historian and nationalist prophet Heinrich von Treitschke was assailed for his glorification of a Prussian state at a time when most of Germany's present transgressions were being loaded on to a pointy-helmeted 'Prussianism'. Finally, and perhaps most unfairly, the philosopher who regarded `bovine nationalism' as `boorish selfconceit' and who had fled Bayreuth, Bismarck and the beer-halls for the gentler Italian south was held to be the 'immoralist' responsible for such outrages as the burning of the Catholic library at Louvain. When a new English edition of his collected works went on sale in Piccadilly, the bookshop drummed up custom with a sign saying, `The Euro-Nietzschean War. Read the Devil in order to fight him better. (Albert Marrin, The Last Crusade. The Church of England and the First World War, NC, 1974, p. 103.)
French Catholic clergy also blamed Treitschke and Nietzsche for Germany's amoral bellicosity, but further back they discovered rabid `pan-germanism' in Martin Luther. (Fontana, Les Catholiques franfois pp. 52-3. ) Treitschke came in for a trouncing to and for Emile Durkheim; see Steven Lukes, Emile Durkheimn. His Life and Work , London 1973, pp. 550-1)
The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain attacked Luther for the `pantheism' he detected in his exaltation of the individual conscience; the priest Pasquier used huge public lectures to assail Luther for separating salvation from morality, thereby laying the groundwork for Germany's current public amoralism. (Martha Hanna, The Mobilization of the Intellect. French Scholars and Writers during the Great War ,Cambridge, 1996, pp. 18-19.)
The preposterous figure of Wilhelm II provided Allied clerics with multiple possibilities for outrage, much of it warranted. The French alighted upon his bizarre claim before the war - condemning the conversion to Catholicism of the landgrave of Hesse - that `the destruction [of Roman superstition] is the supreme object of my life'. The British were appalled by Wilhelm's claims to a unique relationship with God, as exemplified in a speech to his troops in which he said: `Remember that the German people are the chosen of God. On me, on me as German Emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon. His sword and His visor. Woe to the disobedient! Death to cowards and unbelievers!' (Hoover, God, Germany and Britain in the Great War, p. 29.)
In a less ad-hominem way, the war was seen as a clash between the ideas of 1789 and those of 1914, between what the liberal theologian Ernst Troeltsch called `The German Idea of Freedom', based on free self-subordination of the individual to a semi-autocratic state, and the much inferior British and French parliamentary systems that enabled pernicious interests to dominate atomised 'individuals' (Wolfgang Mommsen, `Die "deutsche Idee der Freiheit"' in his Burgerliche Kultur and politische Ordnung pp. 133f, plus See also Klaus von See, Die Ideen von 1789 and die Ideen von 1914. Volkisches Denken in Deutschland, Frankfurt, 1975.)
But in a broader sense the conflict was construed as being between Germans uniquely possessed of `spirit' and `inwardness' and an England seeking to turn the world into `a loathsome department store', while the French indulged themselves with frivolity and pornography in their Sodom on the Seine.34 A more elegant version of this was to contrast the ethics of duty espoused by Kant with the low utilitarianism of Bentham and his followers. A criticism of imperial Britain that has a more resonant ring was that British gold was taking over the world, reducing other nations to atomised satrapies. A German-dominated central European federation would allegedly guarantee the cultural diversity and independence of the nations that helped Germany to clean up the `temple of mankind', although this generous spirit was not immediately apparent in occupied northern France.
The belief that God had chosen Germany for a divine mission conspired with the initial triumphs on the battlefields to foster the certainty that God was on Germany's side. As the theologian Alfred Uckeley declared: `God is the God of the Germans. Our battles are God's battles. Our cause is a sacred, a wholly sacred matter. We are God's chosen among the nations. That our prayers for victory will be heard is entirely to be expected, according to the religious and moral order of the world.'' While some clergy were vulgarly triumphalist, others preferred to see the sudden onset of national unity and Germany's supreme struggle as an opportunity for national atonement after the materialism of the pre-war years. Like some of their predecessors in 1870-1 they were convinced that victory in war was an opportunity for the `political, moral and religious rebirth' of a nation with whom God had a special covenant. Recent history was used to support this story. God had helped liberate Germany from Napoleon in 1813. In 1870-1 the miracle of German Unification had occurred in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, God's verdict upon the regime of Napoleon III. Hopes that this would lead to a spiritual reformation of the German people had been disappointed by the drunken chauvinism and crass materialism of the years that followed, not to speak of active attempts by socialists and freethinkers to 'de-Christianise' the German people. (See Harmut Lehmann, "`God is our Old Ally". The Chosen People Theme in Late Nineteenth- and Early TwentiethCentury German Nationalism' in William R. Hutchinson and Hartmut Lehmann (eds), Many are Chosen. Divine Election and Western Nationalism (Minneapolis 1994) P. 87.
The theologian Karl Barth was one of the few to resist the `hopeless muddle' of `love of country, lust for war and Christian faith' which were characteristic of most of his clerical colleagues. The fundamental tenets of Christianity had been displaced by a `warlike Germanic theology' which was tricked out with much talk of `sacrifice' and other Christian values to the point where death on the field of battle was equated with Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
The importance of National Liberalism and Protestantism to the foundation of the German Reich had inhibited Catholic identification to the extent that Catholics were routinely ranged among such multifarious `enemies of the Reich' as Alsatians and Poles. Although the end of the Kulturkampf and the dissolution of traditional Catholic enclaves eroded Catholic immunities to the national religion, their faith continued to enjoy primacy over nationality, while there was scant sympathy for the marginalisation of their Church by such temporal surrogates as race or nation, especially since many nationalist pressure groups were rabidly anti-Catholic. This makes the reaction of German Catholics to the outbreak of war in 1914 so remarkable, although few went as far as bishop Wilhelm von Keppler of Rottenburg in declaring it `a struggle for the Kingdom of God'.
Less remarked on than the concurrent collapse of socialist internationalism, both Protestant ecumenicism and the internationalism of the Roman Catholic Church collapsed under the weight of the patriotic tide. Appeals to warring Protestants by the archbishop of Uppsala -in Sweden came to naught, while those of the dying Plus X and his successor Benedict XV were ignored. Whereas German Catholic responses to the defeat of France in 1870-1 had been muted, in 1914 they construed the cause of the Central Powers as a defensive war by Austria-Hungary, Europe's pre-eminent Catholic power, and an opportunity to strengthen German Catholicism through closer association with Austria and impending territorial annexations in Catholic Belgium. A war of the spirits was as much common currency here as it was among Protestant pastors. In 1915 Michael von Faulhaber, later cardinal of Munich, declared the conflict a `just war', a holy war against Paris, the `the West's Babylon'. As a Catholic field chaplain explained in April 1915, German patriotic idealism was at war with the `barbarism of the Russians, the atheism of the French, and the insatiable cupidity and mercantile spirit of the English'. British outrage at the violation of Belgian neutrality was turned aside with homely parables about minor acts of trespass on the part of a man who fled through a neighbouring garden after coming face to face with three hulking robbers.
Given the troubled relations between the Catholic Church and an aggressively laicising republican state in the decades before the war, it is unsurprising that a few right-wing French Catholics regarded the war as divine punishment for national apostasy, a view expressed by the bishop of Lucon: `If France is invaded, it is a just punishment.' More thought that the war was an opportunity for people to expiate their sins, or that it might bring such benefits as reconciliation between the classes or an upsurge in national religious fervour. That in itself was an insight into the extent to which the thinking of the French Church was within national terms. The idea of a crusade had a special resonance in the homeland of St Bernard of Clairvaux, with several clerical writers claiming that France was engaged in one on behalf of Christian civilisation against a Germany given over to barbarism. If the French were fighting to repulse a massive foreign invasion, the British faced no such urgent menace, other than to their gentle island way of life.
Significant numbers of British clergy, and especially Nonconformist ministers, had voiced opposition to the Boer War and regarded militarism with distaste. In many cases, doubts about the war were overcome as they internalised the fate of `little Belgium', a country whose `rape' (a metaphor resonant among professional gentlemen) included the wanton destruction of such cultural treasures as the library at Louvain. Ironically, a decade before, Anglican clergy had been prominent supporters of the Congo Reform Association, which in the wake of revelations by consul Roger Casement had exposed the horrors of Belgian colonial rule. Casement's subsequent involvements with the Germans over Ireland led the Manchester Guardian to describe his devastating reports on the Congo as `exaggerated' and the Church to reconstrue `little Belgium' as a present victim rather than a past oppressor. In a famous Punch cartoon, the kaiser taunts king Albert amid the ruins of his country: `So you see - you've lost everything.' To which Albert replies: `Not my soul!' To this 1915 added further evidence of German atrocities and illegalities. These included the reprisal shooting of civilian hostages; the use of aerial bombardment and poisonous gas; the sinking by submarines of neutral commercial shipping; and the fate of such innocents as nurse Edith Cavelll. This came very close to home. The daughter of a Norfolk country clergyman, nurse Cavell worked in a Red Cross clinic in Belgium, whose patients included German soldiers. She helped organise the escape of British troops stranded behind German lines before her betrayal by a Belgian collaborator led to her trial and execution. Although the spinsterish-looking Cavell was fifty when she was shot in 1915 as a spy, propaganda postcards depicted a rather more youthful corpse, surrounded by a pool of celestial light, and under the far from benign gaze of a member of the German firing squad. Clergy wept as they recalled this `poor girl'.
The clergy's wartime role went further than the mobilisation of spiritual enthusiasm. In countries with volunteer armed forces, they figured in recruitment campaigns. This evidently started close to home since an estimated 30 per cent of those granted commissions in the British army were clergymen's sons. The death toll was horrendous, with thirteen bishops having lost their sons in combat by early 1916. The son of the bishop of Liverpool, Noel Chavasse, was the only British soldier to win the Victoria Cross with bar. The country's theological colleges were drained of students, as were Church elementary schools whose teachers rushed to enlist. A few bishops attempted to refuse ordination to any able-bodied man of military age, that is between twenty and thirty, although this never became a matter of Church policy.
Diocesan bishops routinely had close links with what were still county-based army regiments, as they did with the local and national political Establishment. Hensley Henson, at the time dean of Durham, took regular Sunday church parades with the men of the Durham Light Infantry, a practice some soldiers affectionately recalled in their letters to the dean from the Western Front. As prominent members of their respective county communities, senior clerics such as Henson felt it their civic duty to participate in recruitment meetings, along with the lord lieutenants and other dignitaries such as local politicians. Henson recalled the response of people in a northern English mining county where Quakerism was strong as he explained the meaning of the conflict:
The spirit of the people was beyond praise. I was profoundly impressed by the fact that the argument which seemed to be most effective was genuinely altruistic. The Germans never realised the effect in Great Britain of their perfidy in attacking Belgium, and their atrocious method of attack. The miners were little moved by the danger to Great Britain, for they were comfortably assured that Great Britain was impregnable, but the treatment of Belgium stirred a flame of moral indignation in their minds, and created a determination to come to the rescue which I can only describe as chivalrous. (Herbert Hensley Henson, Retrospect of an Unimportant Life, Oxford, 1942, 1, P. 174.)
Henson felt a powerful moral obligation to resist Germany's `career of cynical and violent aggression', a sentiment encouraged by the anti-British bellicosity he had observed in the German press when he visited pre-war Kiel. Yet Henson was acutely aware of the pitfalls and snares surrounding the patriotic preacher in wartime. He used the preface to a collection of his wartime sermons to explain his point of view:
it must surely be the true function of Christian preachers to keep steadily before their congregations the intrinsic wrongness of mere revenge, the sacred duty of forgiveness, the necessity of so carrying through this conflict that the fellowship of mankind shall be strengthened and exalted, not permanently obstructed ... They [wartime preachers] will not make themselves the mouthpieces of that anti-German passion which (for intelligible reasons) is running strongly among our people ... the Christian preacher ought to strive so to preach that in the retrospect of a later time, he shall be able to recall his words without shame. For the War will not last for ever. Sooner or later peace will return, and the passions of the conflict will begin to die down in the most exasperated minds. The work of the Christian preacher will again become normal. Again he will be preaching the Gospel of Love, and pressing on men the difficult morality of Christ's Law. His influence for good will not be helped if his people have associated him with the very violences of thought and speech of which they themselves are growing ashamed. (Ibid. p. 188)
Not all senior Anglican clergy exercised Henson's fastidious self-restraint. The bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, had made his ecclesiastical career in the capital, becoming, while bishop of Stepney, `the idol of the East End', a position customarily bestowed on boxers and gangsters. He was popular among Oxford undergraduates who were tantalised by his cockney accent and the romance he brought from the `exotic' East End. From 1001 onwards he was senior chaplain to the London Territorial Rifle Brigade, with whom he spent two months in camp after the outbreak of war. Instructed by a general to `put a little ginger' into his first Sunday sermon, the result was that all the reservists volunteered. Winnington-Ingram was a bluff-minded patriot, unembarrassed by national symbols, and, judging from photographs, manifestly comfortable in military uniform. On a visit to five thousand Territorials elsewhere, the bishop stood on a wagon covered with the Union Jack, insisting, `We would all rather die, wouldn't we, than have England a German province,' an avocation that brought forth `low growls of assent'. He conjured up the dread prospect of Oxford becoming another Louvain, while assuring the troops that the spirits of those who had fought at Crecy, Agincourt, Waterloo, Inkerman and Alma were with them. From the start Winnington-Ingram was convinced that this was `The Holy War', the title he gave to a sermon he delivered to soldiers in September 1914:
But when we have said all that, this is a Holy War. We are on the side of Christianity against anti-Christ. We are on the side of the New Testament which respects the weak, and honours treaties, and dies for its friends, and looks upon war as a regrettable necessity ... It is a Holy War, and to fight in a Holy War is an honour ... Already I have seen the light in men's eyes Which I have never seen before.
A year later he used the Manchester Guardian to cry, `MOBILISE THE NATION FOR HOLY WAR', to which his more liberal clerical colleagues responded that the clergy should not become `Mad Mullahs preaching a Jehad' (sic). (Alan Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War ,London 1978, P. 253)
He spent Holy Week and Easter 1915 visiting the troops, chaplains and field hospitals in France. He conducted services in which the troops joined with the hymns `When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' or `Rock of Ages'. Some ten thousand Canadian soldiers crowded into an evening service that he held at their request. (Percy Colson, Life of the Bishop of London. An Authorised Biography, London, 1935), pp. 180ff.)
The following year Winnington-Ingram led three thousand troops through a summer downpour from Trafalgar Square to the steps of St Paul's, where he preached from behind a makeshift altar of military drums. He was also the most active Anglican cleric in soliciting subscriptions to government war loans. The `Bishop of the Battlefields' was an old-fashioned English patriot. He was far from unique in propagating the war as an apocalyptic crusade. His friend, Basil Bouchier of St Anne's Soho, announced: `We are fighting, not so much for the honour of our country, as for the honour of God. Not only is this a Holy War, it is the holiest war that has ever been waged ... This truly is a war of ideas. Odin is ranged against Christ, and Berlin is seeking to prove its supremacy against Bethlehem.' Other clergy, such as bishop Diggle of Carlisle, regarded the clash of soldiers and technologies as mere surrogates for a much larger battle:
in this war there move and work spirits deeper, stronger, more revolutionary than any or all of these - spirits of good and evil, powers of heaven and principalities of hell, invisible spirits of goodness and wickedness of which men are the instruments and the world the visible prize ... this present war is essentially a spiritual war; a war waged on earth but sustained on either side by invisible powers. (Albert Marrin, The Last Crusade. The Church of England and the First World War, Duke, 1974p.141.)
British clergy were exempted from military service, with virtually every Anglican leader opposed to the clergy taking part in combat on the grounds that their true role was to husband the nation's spiritual resources. This prohibition was only reversed in the crisis of the German offensive in the spring of 1918 when clerical exemptions were abolished and conscription extended to men of fifty and below. A few Anglican clergy nonetheless enlisted in the armed forces, while a further six thousand more moved into civilian jobs, whether as mechanics or tax inspectors, vacated by men serving at the front. There were also approximately three and a half thousand chaplains attached to the British army by the time of the Armistice, of whom nearly two thousand were Anglican clergy. One hundred and seventy-two of these men died in the war, including eighty-eight Anglicans, while four were awarded the Victoria Cross. Many more received other major awards for bravery in battle.
The chaplains came under the chaplain general, bishop John Taylor Smith, a militant Evangelical with a background in crushing the Ashanti in Africa; his deputy in France was the former bishop of Khartoum. The chaplain service was poorly organised, recruitment often consisting of a session with Taylor Smith, who asked: `If you had five minutes, and five minutes only, to spend with a man about to die, what would you say to him?' Rejects routinely forgot to ask the dying for the home address of their nearest relatives. In France, the chaplains, whose rank was that of captain, were forbidden to go nearer the fighting front than brigade headquarters. They would probably get in the way, and the sight of them wounded or dead would undermine the very morale that their presence was supposed to maintain. Chaplains were separated from most of the soldiers by education and social class, divisions not only perpetuated by their having batmen and private quarters but by their use of such terms as fighting `with a straight bat' to men who preferred soccer. Their hearty compensatory bellicosity went down badly with men who were better acquainted with the physical reality of killing another human being. They came out poorly from any comparison with Roman Catholic priests, who were not only from a similar social background as the men, but had precise sacraments that did not leave them lost for words when confronted by the dying. To be fair, sometimes the tone used by chaplains was dictated by their commanding officers, who had a limited view of the function of these younger 'sky-pilots. Major general Sir William Thwaites recalled that he used to gather the chaplains together before an engagement: `I told them on one occasion that I wanted a bloodthirsty sermon next Sunday, and would not have any texts from the New Testament.' Some chaplains came to an accommodation with the soldiers, based on `Tommy doesn't want religion, and I don't try to persuade him.'
This does not mean that chaplains were entirely bereft of purpose. Those who organised canteens and cinema shows, or who brought cigarettes, tea and soup to the wounded in field hospitals were more popular than the grim fellow satirised by a mythical Tommy in reverend Studdert Kennedy's mocking doggerel:
Our padre were a solemn bloke We called 'im dismal Jim.
It fairly gave ye bloomin' creeps To sit and 'ark at 'im.
Exposure, often for the first time, to ordinary Britons, other than college porters, farm labourers and domestic servants, led the Church of England as a whole to reflect on its own endeavours. A member of the YMCA returning from the Western Front discerned an opportune moment for a wide-ranging assessment of the impact of the war on the religious life of the nation. Senior clerics readily concurred and an elaborate survey, soliciting views from generals to privates, and entitled The Army and Religion (1919), was born. It is an impressive document, there being few other institutions one could imagine that would follow the Churches (for it included Nonconformity too) in exposing their own major flaws in this way.
The report did not minimise the dulling and brutalising effects of a total war that reduced men, already become uniformed numbers, to mere adjuncts to deadly machines. Even among the well educated, such as a former inspector of schools, there was a resigned and fatalistic desire to exist only on the immediate surface: `I stopped thinking, I now do just what I am told, and in between think about eating, drinking and sleeping. (The Army and Religion. An Enquiry and its Bearing upon the Religious Life of the Nation, London, 1919, p. 88)
The report ruefully acknowledged that decades of intense domestic political conflict over religious education had translated into a general ignorance of the basic tenets of the Christian religion. The smattering of sentimental Christianity they had picked up from Sunday Schools was pitifully at variance with existential terrors they experienced every day. Much of the report confirmed the contemporary quip that `The soldier has got religion, I am not so sure that he has got Christianity.' Exposure to tremendous displays of material might and the immanence of death turned minds to an unseen power and the awakening of an elemental faith that most of the men were ill equipped to articulate in terms familiar to the Church.
Consciousness of God ebbed and flowed as troops neared the front. Soldiers fell back on fragments of religious ideas that they had learned, and often forgotten, which they fused with resentments about the moralised social order that the Church represented: `a mosaic of kill-joyism and Balaam's ass's ears, and Noah, and mothers' meetings, and Athanasian damns, and the Archbishop of Canterbury on £15,000 a year'. The image of Christianity was personified for many by the abstemious old matron who asked a wounded soldier: `Do they really give the poor men in the trenches rum to drink? (Ibid. pp. 8-14 and 61-2)
Soldiers were perplexed that nineteen centuries of Christianity had not resulted in universal peace, even though they knew that in many parishes rival Christians `fought each other to the knife' over incomprehensible issues. They did not associate Christianity with the rough egalitarian comradeship and self-sacrifice that prevailed in the trenches: `being helpful to your pals, doing your bit, keeping your troubles in your kit-bag, and scorning grousing'. A Scottish officer defined this religion: `The religion of ninety per cent of the men at the front is not distinctively Christian, but a religion of patriotism and of valour, tinged with chivalry, and at the best merely coloured with sentiment and emotion borrowed from Christianity.
Several army chaplains ruefully admitted that the Church had failed to connect with entire swathes of British society, notably the urban and industrial working class, although much of the rhetoric (and effort) of the most progressive sections of the Church of England in the preceding decades had been directed to little else. As a chaplain with a Scottish regiment reported: `The men are not hostile, only indifferent. We have been speaking a language that has lost all meaning for them, and for ourselves too:4 Others were more critical, condemning the Churches for their lack of vision and their `unattractive standard of comfortable and complacent respectability, a respectability quite compatible with flagrant inconsistency and selfishness'. (48 Ibid. P. 207)
While German clergy, to their obvious chagrin, were excluded from combat duties, this was not the case in secularist France (or Italy) where since 1905 clergy had been subject to laicising laws governing general military service. Anticipating the consequences of these laws, the Holy See suspended canon law proscriptions against clerical participation in combat before hostilities commenced. The scale of the clerical contribution to the French war effort did much to reconcile the clericalist right and the anticlerical Republic, especially when the Republic was obliged to ditch incompetent officers who had been over-promoted because of their political conformity, while allowing talented Catholics, who had been discriminated against, to make their mark. Fourteen of the nineteen officers whose abilities in the field in late 1914 won them rapid promotion had hitherto been the subjects of insidious masonic smears.( Maurice Larkin, `The Catholic Church and Politics in Twentieth-Century France' in Martin Alexander (ed.), French History since Napoleon, London 1999, p. 155)
The contribution of the Catholic Church, not forgetting either French Jews or Protestants, ranged from patriotic exhortation to clerical participation in combat itself. By claiming that patriotism was both God-given and as innate as the maternal instinct, clerical supporters of the war sidestepped any need to defend France's current form of government, although, as we have already mentioned, there was some overlapping of Catholic and republican messianisms. Welcoming evidence that a century of 'de-Christianisation' had been superficial, clergy invested the course of events with sacred meaning, in that respect being in tune with the outlook of many of their fellow countrymen and women, who despatched a blizzard of pious kitsch to the men at the front. The troops were more than willing to attribute their survival to postcards of the Virgin Mary and medals of the Sacred Heart as well as to horseshoes, lucky stars and rabbits' feet, expressing their gratitude for divine protection after the war in the poignant votive tablets in countless French churches. Clergy played a leading role in attributing the miraculous halting of the initial German thrust on the Marne on 8 September 1914 to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the feast day of whose nativity it happened to be. (Annette Becker, War and Faith. The Religious Imagination in France 1914-1930 , Oxford 1998, P. 75)
They also transfigured the suffering of French soldiers into a latter day version of Christ's Passion, an identification many religious soldiers were prepared to make too: `The smashed marble tombs in the cemetery gaped over black holes. Christ, torn at last from the dark cross standing alone on the flooded plain, now lay on the ground, cold and livid, his arms outstretched. He was sharing the common lot of our men.' Countless postcards drew visual parallels between the passion of wounded soldiers with their arms outstretched and Calvary itself.
The French clergy abandoned the scowling apartness that had been their stance during the Third Republic. Since they were subject to conscription, their role was not confined to that of military chaplains: 32,699 French clerics, 23,418 seculars and 9,281 regulars, served in the Republic's armed forces; a further 12,554 worked in military hospitals. In terms of individual dioceses, this meant that 72 of the 220 clergy in Aix-en-Provence were mobilised, in Autun 286 out of 655, and in La Rochelle, 140 out of 300. These were often the youngest and most vigorous clergy, including those who had yet to embark fully on their clerical careers. In addition to young seminarians, some 841 Jesuits, ignoring the ban on religious congregations, joined the French forces, with many of them returning from far-flung missions overseas. Twenty per cent of them would die in battle or from their wounds. Of the French clergy who served in the armed forces, some 4,618 died in battle; over thirteen thousand received military decorations and many more citations. (Fontana, Les Catholiques franfais p. 303 )
Clergy served in combat, as stretcher-bearers - notably the Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin - and nurses, or as chaplains in the field. Given the progressive feminisation of religion, both in France and elsewhere, this reconnected the all-male clergy with an exclusively masculine world, and the earthy values that underpinned it, in ways that countered some of the more egregious anticlerical stereotypes based on the clergy's lascivious interest in over-credulous women.
The French military chaplaincy had been created in May 1913, with four priests appointed to each army corps. This meant one priest for every forty thousand soldiers, in contrast to the one per thousand envisaged by the US. By the outbreak of war there were about a hundred official military chaplains, a number plainly inadequate to demand. On 11 August the Catholic deputy Albert de Mun intervened with prime minister Viviani to sanction a further 250 unpaid volunteer chaplains. Following advertisements in the press, French Catholics donated the money needed to support these priests, although by November the Ministry of War had allocated them each ten francs per day. Rabbis and Protestant pastors further augmented their ranks. On the fighting front the war lessened intra-confessional tensions, as Catholics, Protestants and Jews were thrown together for the first time. As the story ,Tent, about the four men forced to share two beds: `We draw lots: the pastor lies down with the rabbi (the Old and New Testaments together'' a1-~c dogma, which T_ represent, lies down with free-thought'. A celebrated wartime painting by a Jewish artist was of rabbi Abraham Bloch with his Red Cross armband offering a crucifix to a dying Catholic soldier, shortly before the rabbi was himself killed, expiring, as it happened, in the arms of a Jesuit. (Becker War and Faith pp. 44-6)
Since these volunteers did not appear to be part of any command structure, their appearance at the front was initially greeted with amazement or indifference by the troops. This changed when fear and death became pervasive realities. They soon won their comrades' respect, and not just through the services they managed to rig up amid the ruins of so many places of worship or in caves and dug-outs adorned with makeshift altars and images of saints that the soldiers had salvaged.
The clergy were thrust into an elemental wasteland where uniforms and mud obliterated social distinctions. Some of them were clearly very brave. When some soldiers were loth to leave their trenches for an attack, the abbe Lelievre pre-empted the need for their colonel to draw his gun by leaping into action himself, obliging the wavering soldiers to follow. Others put themselves in extreme danger in order to administer the last rites to men dying in no-man's land, or took the place of married men with families when an exceptionally perilous mission was required. Some went about with their packs filled with the tattered bundles of letters, knives or pipes which were all that the dying could leave their families as remembrances.
French clergy also paid the ultimate price in the eleven dioceses that were either turned into combat zones or subjected to a brutal German occupation. Cambrai, Lille and Rheims were totally occupied, together with parts of Arras, Beauvais, Chalons, Soissons, Nancy, Saint-Die and Verdun. The Catholic clergy of Alsace and Lorraine also came under intense suspicion as sympathisers with the French enemy. The German authorities executed several French clergy as spies after they were found with maps, or in prohibited areas. Cathedrals and churches were not spared from wanton destruction. Notoriously, on 19 September 1914 Rheims cathedral, scene of the last royal coronation in 1825, was hit by three hundred German artillery shells. The bells melted and the roof caught fire, killing wounded German prisoners being held in the nave." The chief rabbi of France joined other religious leaders when he wrote: `The destruction of the Rheims basilica is an odious blasphemy against God, the Father of all, and reveals the absence of all religious and human feeling in its perpetrators: Other fine buildings were shelled too; the cathedral at Soissons took about nineteen direct hits.
In Germany the clergy reacted slowly to signs of public disillusion with the war. Many joined the ultra-nationalist Fatherland Party, formed at Konigsberg on 2 September 1917, to rally support for continuation of the conflict in furtherance of the most implacable war aims. When in the autumn of 1917 a small group of pastors in Berlin called for a negotiated end to the war, this was categorically rejected by the majority of their clerical colleagues who continued to offer prayers acclaiming Wilhelm II long after many realised that he had to go. German Catholic clergy rediscovered the internationality of their Church in the wake of papal intercessions for peace, but after being denounced by their French colleagues they fell back into the general belligerent line. Splits emerged within the Catholic Centre Party, between conservatives opposed to the reform of Prussia's inequitable franchise and those who supported Matthias Erzberger's calls for electoral reform and a peace based on the relinquishment of territorial annexations.
The scion of an impoverished Genoan aristocratic family, Giacomo Della Chiesa, was elected pope Benedict XV on 3 September 1914. The effects of war were discernible at the conclave. Cardinal Hartmann from Cologne encountered cardinal Mercier of Belgium. `I hope that we shall not speak of war,' declared Hartmann. `And I hope that we shall not speak of peace,' replied Mercier. There was worse. Cardinal Billot of France learned that two of his nephews had died in battle. Cardinal Piffl of Vienna used his diary to record not just the shifting permutations of votes, but the grim progress of the battle of Lemberg. The war cut through the respective national allegiances of Catholics everywhere, while threatening fundamentally to alter the European balance of power. Both considerations determined the Vatican's diplomatic and moral stance. Its diplomacy was an attempt to maintain the status quo of before the war. The Vatican sought to maintain the Habsburg Empire as a Catholic counterweight to Protestant Germany. It also sought to prop up the Ottoman Empire so as to prevent Russia achieving an Orthodox St Peter's at Aghia Sophia on the Bosphorus. Above all, the Vatican endeavoured to keep Italy out of the war, first because an Italo-Austrian war would destroy the Habsburg Empire, and secondly because it suspected that the Italian state would mismanage such a war and be engulfed by social revolution. An Italian victory was not good either. If Italy emerged on the winning side, it would ensure that the Vatican was not represented at any peace conference, possibly enabling it to settle the Roman Question on its own terms. Beyond the Church's worldly interests, the pope regarded the conflict as a terrible manifestation of European nationalism, the collective suicide of a great Christian civlisation. (On Vatican diplomacy see John Pollard, The Unknown Pope. Benedict XV (1914-1922) and the Pursuit of Peace, London 1999, p. 90)
The moral pronouncements of the pope, as the pre-eminent religious leader in Europe, were a universal currency worth having. All belligerents attempted to persuade him to abandon an institutional stance of studied impartiality, thereby indirectly rescuing the Vatican from the diplomatic isolation it had experienced during the pontificate of Pius X. The Central Powers had three representatives at the Vatican, from Austro-Hungary, Bavaria and Prussia, and German Catholics, then as now, were among the Vatican's chief source of financial support, although they were already being eclipsed by America. (John Pollard, `The Papacy in Two World Wars. Benedict XV and Pius XII Compared', Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 2001, 2, p. 85
Britain and France endeavoured to make up lost ground. Although France had broken off diplomatic relations in 1905, it quickly repositioned an unofficial envoy to the Vatican. The British returned an envoy to the Vatican in December 1914. Diplomatic relations were also repaired with the Netherlands and Switzerland, which with Spain and the US constituted a potentially important `league of neutrals'. Relations with the tsar's representative continued to be cool because of Russian policy in Catholic Poland. The Italian state quietly opened a back channel through one of Benedict's closest friends.
At various times the pope was accused of a bias towards the Central Powers, up to and including allowing an alleged German agent to operate in the Vatican, who was suspected of having helped sink two Italian battleships in their harbours, charges which had no basis in reality. All of the warring Powers were incensed by the pope's refusal to move beyond general condemnations of wartime atrocities and illegalities to the specifics of whatever outraged them. There was talk of the `Silence of Benedict XV' long before graver charges were aimed at Eugenio Pacelli, his successor but one as Pius XII. In fact, Benedict did intervene to stop German deportations of Belgian civilians and to protest against the Turkish massacres of the Armenians; what he could not do, since all sides were flooding him with denunciations of their opponents, was to condemn this side or that. Evidence of atrocities built up in a series of coloured books, together with the perpetrators' counter-accusations.
In January 1915 the pope despatched the young diplomat Pacelli on a mission to Vienna, designed to persuade emperor Franz Joseph to relinquish the Trentino in order to keep Italy out of the war. When this initiative failed, Italy's intervention in the war on 25 May 1915 led to the relocation of the representatives of the Central Powers to Lugano in Switzerland. The German government attempted to compensate for this loss of influence by dangling before the Vatican a solution to the Roman Question, bait to which the pope refused to rise. Just as well since foreign minister Sonnino had inserted a clause into the secret Treaty of London between Italy and the Entente, in which they agreed to exclude the Vatican from any peace settlement and to follow Italy's lead on the Roman Question. Throughout the years of war, Benedict attempted to alleviate the distress of prisoners of war through the Opera dei Prigionieri, which by the end of the war had dealt with six hundred thousand items of correspondence regarding captives. Sick prisoners of war were an especial object of papal solicitude; by January 1917 some twenty-six thousand of them had been given the chance to convalesce in Swiss sanatoria through the efforts of the Vatican. During the war the Vatican expended eighty-two million lire on humanitarian relief, whether to Lithuania, Lebanon or Syria, thereby virtually bankrupting the organisation, and helping oppressed civilians, while lobbying US president Wilson to restore peace.
In May 1917 Benedict appointed the newly appointed archbishop Pacelli to the nunciature in Munich. This led to conversations with chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg in Berlin that June regarding arms controls, the establishment of international courts of arbitration, the restoration of a soverign Belgium, and postponement of the ultimate disposition of Alsace-Lorraine to later negotiations. The army high command at Bad Kreuznach and the Kaiser rejected these gambits. The next opportunity for papal intervention arose when with the AustroHungarians reeling from the Brusilov offensive, and the accession of the youthful emperor Karl, the Central Powers seemed amenable to a negotiated settlement. Although the Vatican failed to prevent the United States from becoming a belligerent in April 1917, the readiness of a majority in the German Reichstag (in which the Centre Party's Matthias Erzberger played a notable role) to relinquish wartime annexations seemed to warrant a further papal initiative on the side of peace. Benedict instructed Pacelli to talk with Berlin, the heads of discussion being arms controls, the establishment of international courts, restoration of Belgian sovereignty and future negotiations over the status of Alsace-Lorraine. These points were then elaborated in a general `peace note' to the Powers issued on 15 August 1917. These included renunciation of indemnities and reparations, the evacuation and restoration of occupied territories, and observance of liberty of the seas. The British, French, Italians, Russians and Americans comprehensively rejected the papal proposals, on the ground that they appeared to favour the Germans, in whose good faith they had no trust. The German General Staff, who counted for more than civilian politicians such as Erzberger, could see no reason to withdraw unilaterally from Belgium when they had repulsed the Russian offensive, and seemed to be succeeding with unlimited submarine warfare. President Wilson's response was not encouraging either, since he effectively made peace conditional upon a change in the form of Germany's government. The famous French Dominican preacher Sertillanges denounced the pope's proposals so vociferously - `Holy Father we don't want your peace' - in a sermon in La Madeleine that his order censured him." Ironically, an Italian government that had rejected Benedict's peace proposals sought papal mediation in Vienna, once the armies of the Central Powers thrust Italy's armies 120 kilometres back to the River Piave in the offensive that led to the rout of Caporetto. When the Austrians sought to get out of the war with a separate peace, Benedict at least showed an eye for the new realities by referring them to US president Wilson, a Presbyterian from Virginia. Those new realities, which included the rise of the political religions of Communism, Fascism and National Socialism, would threaten to displace both Christianity and civilisation as we know it.
The Great War, the domestic and international civil wars, and economic dislocation that followed it, gave rise to mass despair, to which the solution appeared to be various forms of authoritarianism. In some countries authoritarian regimes were successfully supplanted by sinister movements that tapped into more atavistic levels of the human psyche, although in Italy the transition was from democracy to Fascism. These political religions threatened either to eradicate Christianity entirely, as the Bolsheviks sought to do in Russia, or perhaps worse, offered to accommodate it, within the new dispensations of Fascism and Nazism, which had themselves adopted many of the outward forms of Europe's old religion.