– By Gordon Heath
It was a war that was not supposed to happen. Growing tensions in Europe were obvious, but recent developments in international arbitration had fuelled hopes that differences between imperial powers could be resolved peacefully.
A hundred years ago, Canadians entered the summer with little inkling of the utter disaster looming just over the horizon, and were unprepared when they found themselves at war on August 4, 1914. Armageddon had arrived.
The war in Europe rapidly militarized all aspects of Canadian life as “total war” became a grim reality. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) grew to be a potent fighting force. Canada eventually sent close to 620,000 troops (roughly 8 per cent of the Canadian population) and experienced 60,000 dead and 173,000 injured.
In one month alone at the Battle of Passchendaele the CEF suffered 15,000 casualties. The overall cost of human life for all combatants during the entire war was staggering – over 8 million dead and 21 million wounded – out of 65 million mobilized.
No aspect of Canadian life was untouched by the war. Churches were no exception. The war eventually impinged on every facet of church life related to identity, ministry and aspirations.
As for identity, those who supported the war had no need to prove to anyone they were “true” Canadians. Most Evangelicals took pride in their loyalty to nation and empire. Conscientious objectors such as Quakers and Mennonites, or those who opposed conscription such as French Catholics, faced derision, violence or even arrest for their alleged lack of patriotism. German Lutherans encountered hostility even when they supported the war effort.
Regarding ministry, there was no escaping the seemingly insatiable demands of total war. Pastoral responsibilities to soldiers and their families swelled as the war dragged on and the casualty list grew longer. The shortage of men for leadership put myriad stresses on local parishes and seminaries, and the theological issues raised by a God who allowed such horrors to continue year after year gnawed at faith in a benevolent God.
As for aspirations, the war’s supporters believed the war to be fought for high ideals such as righteousness, freedom, civilization and an end to the genocide of Armenian Christians. While there were excesses – such as recruitment from pulpits, the language of holy war, and even jingoistic support for empire [thinking your own country is always right and agreeing to aggressive acts against other countries] – the churches’ support was just as often nuanced and critical, shaped by either the classic just war paradigm of just cause (jus ad bellum) and just means (jus in bello) or pacifism’s outright rejection of violence. Many anticipated that the sacrifice of sons and wealth would lead to a renewed and reinvigorated Christianity and nation, and the “war to end all wars” would usher in a new world order.
The war failed to revive faith. International peace was also elusive, with civil war and military conflicts continuing unabated into the 1920s. Canada’s last known veteran of the war John Babcock died in 2010 without ever seeing the much-touted promise of a new world order.
Almost every conflict in the 20th century can be traced back to the Great War. The secularization of the West and demise of Christendom was accelerated by the catastrophe.
Despite the horrendous impact of the war, there is hope that a century later we have learned a few lessons from what was often portrayed as Armageddon. At the risk of appearing to be a Pollyanna, there have been a few encouraging developments in that regard.
First, the move to the margins of Canadian life has meant churches are freer to criticize. They have become less trusting of politicians when it comes to war, and act more as prophets who hold governments to account than priests who bless.
Second, Christians on both sides of the war and peace debate seem to be kinder to one another, a virtue not always exhibited during the war. Pacifists have allowed for expressions of remembering and honouring during Remembrance Day services on November 11. Just war proponents have come to see pacifists not as cowards or unpatriotic, but fellow Christ followers who differ when it comes to applying the Sermon on the Mount.
Finally, the idea of a warless world ushered in by military victory seems to be a thing of the past. Certainly the Great War should teach us the futility of that expectation. It is still deemed okay to hope for a new world order – but one ushered in not by bombs and bullets, but by the return of the Prince of Peace.
Gordon L. Heath is associate professor of Christian history at McMaster Divinity College, and is editor of the recently published Canadian Churches and the First World War (Pickwick, 2014).
This post was original published as a History Lesson column in Faith Today.