A British soldier pays his respects (1917)
Today at 11:00 am, we commemorate 90 years since the end of the First World War, the “war to end all wars.” When it started in August 1914, most people thought it would be over by Christmass.
Four years later, 9.4 million lives had been lost on the battlefield, and around 15 million men were left permanently crippled by physical or mental disabilities. Some 750,000 German civilians died as a result of the Allied trade blockade; 82,000 Serbian civilians lost their lives through disease and starvation; and the attempted genocide of the Armenian people cost around a million lives. After the war, Europe was left with a legacy of political upheaval, economic hardship and social dislocation. Truly, Albert Einstein was right in 1914 when he said: “Europe, in her insanity, has started something almost unbelievable.”
Six German soldiers killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, 31st July 1917. They died in the fight for Pilckem Ridge, a British offensive which lasted for three days and gained two miles of enemy land.
At first, the Church of England (like most people in Europe) generally supported the war, and encouraged young men to sign up and go out to fight (for more information, have a read of the excellent book The Church of England and the First World War by Fr. Alan Wilkinson, a good friend of our Parish). But as reports came through of the carnage and horror at the front, more and more people came to doubt whether Christians could really be so jingoistic. Fr. Dick Sheppard, who went out to the front as Chaplain to a military hospital, wrote home less than a week after arriving: “War is awful. More awful than I supposed possible.” He became a lifelong pacifist.
The Church has always had a complex relationship with armed conflict, probably causing as many wars as it has opposed over the centuries. Even now, when most mainstream Christians are convinced of the Gospel imperative for peace and justice, opinions are divided over how best to achieve it. Some Christians are convinced Pacifists, whilst others believe armed resistance is sometimes necessary to stop great injustice or suffering. But none of us should ever forget the horrors war brings.
Back in the third century after Christ, the Church Father Tertullian wrote of the soldier’s laurel wreath of triumph:
Is the laurel of the triumph made of leaves,
or of corpses?
Is it adorned with ribbons,
or with tombs?
Is it bedewed with ointments,
or with the tears
of wives and mothers?
S. Cyprian of Carthage, also writing in the Third Century, spoke in words which resonate in our own times:
The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed.
And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.
But perhaps today the last word should go to Saint Martin of Tours, whose Feast Day it is today. Martin started his adult life as a soldier in the Roman army and ended it as a Christian Bishop who worked tirelessly for peace, justice and reconciliation.
The most famous story of Martin recalls how, as a soldier in France, he was confronted by a beggar. Having nothing to give the poor man, Martin took a sword and cut his heavy Officer’s cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. Later, the Saint had a vision of Jesus wearing the cloak, and saying to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not Baptised; he has clothed me.”
The vision recalls Christ’s words about the Judgement, in which it is not our creed but our justice and charity which determine our love of Christ:
“I was naked, and you clothed me.” (Matthew 25:36)
After his Baptism at the age of 18, Martin refused to fight for the Roman army, and became a hermit. Later, he was reluctantly made Bishop of Tours by popular demand, though he always felt himself unworthy of the office, and seldom left his monastery. His few departures from Tours were always in the cause of justice and peace, pleading for the welfare of his people, including condemned prisoners.
Martin was known for his lengthy fasts, and in the Middle Ages his Feast Day was the last day before the pre-Christmass fast, which came to be known as the “Martinmass Lent.” People traditionally feasted on Martinmass, often eating goose (recalling the legend that a goose honked to let the people of Tours know where their reluctant Bishop-to-be was hiding).
Now that Advent starts a bit later, and winter seems to be upon us already, perhaps there’s little reason for us to keep up the Mediaeval tradition of this mini-carnival on S. Martin’s day. But if we no longer keep carnival (carne vale, saying farewell to meat), perhaps we can pray for a farewell to the carnage and slaughter of war.
As Christians, we still have many things for which to fight, but we are called to do so not with guns and bombs, but under the banner of the Prince of Peace. At 18, Martin refused to fight for the Romans with these words: “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier: allow me now to become a soldier to God. I am the soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight.” At the end of his life, this faithful soldier to God prayed thus:
Lord, if your people still have need of my services,
I will not avoid the toil.
Your will be done.
I have fought the good fight long enough.
Yet if you bid me continue
to hold the battle line in defence of your camp,
I will never beg to be excused from failing strength.
I will do the work you entrust to me.
While you command, I will fight beneath your banner.
Let us fight for peace beneath the banner of the living God, who makes wars to cease in all the world (Psalm 46:9).
Saint Martin refuses to fight for Rome, and becomes a soldier of Christ.