NEVER fail to be gutted by the list of names under war
memorials. Whether it is the long list carved in the entrance to
Christ Church, Oxford, where half of the names seem to bear a
title, or the list outside a memorial hall in a small Welsh
village, where a high percentage of the young men who lived there
at the time lost their lives, the emotional impact is the same.
I am struck by the futility of it all, to use that word made so
familiar through the poems of Wilfred Owen; but, above all, by
unutterable sadness for lives cut short and their desolated
families. One moment I will never forget is standing before one
such memorial in South Bavaria, where the list went on for column
For people of my generation, although we were formed and shaped
by the Second World War, it is the First World War that has entered
most deeply into our being, above all in the way in which it
The Victorians were brought up on the romances of chivalrous
knights, noble crusaders, and brave idealists. Most - in the
officer class, at any rate - began the war with something of that
spirit. Rupert Brooke wrote to Violet Asquith in February 1915 to
I've never been quite so happy in my life, I think. I suddenly
realise that the ambition of my life has been - since I was two -
to go on a military expedition against Constantinople. And when I
thought I was hungry, or sleepy, or falling in love, or aching to
write a poem - that was what I really, blindly, wanted.
RNEST RAYMOND was a chaplain in the war. When he came back, he
wrote the novel Tell England, about two public- schoolboys
in the war. On the boat going to Gallipoli, the chaplain initiated
them into the pursuit of beauty. "Pursue beauty like the Holy
Grail," he told them.
Among the death and devastation and ugliness of the war, they
began to doubt this creed. But one of the boys, before he was
killed in France, wrote to his mother to say that he had, indeed,
learned to see beauty "in everything". It was a consolatory message
that people wanted to hear in 1922, and the book was reprinted 14
times in that year, and many times thereafter.
In fact, that message was not so consolatory for Raymond
himself, and he left the priesthood to become a full-time novelist,
although he did return to the Church in the 1960s. No one today
could look at war in the same way as the boys in that novel
More representative, perhaps, was the attitude shown by a young
chaplain with the 8th Scottish Rifles, William Wilson, the father
of Lord Wilson of Tillyorn. He wrote to his mother every week, with
a mixture of good spirits and sangfroid.
Then the letters, all in the same tone, start to contain
information such as: "By the time this reaches you, you will have
heard of our smash up . . . only one of our officers came back
unhurt. . . It is awfully sad isn't it? But we have to face these
things out here. I am the only one left in our mess and now occupy
the whole of the dugout in a solitary state."
This was a morning in which 25 out of their 26 officers were
killed or wounded, and 400 men. All this was interspersed with news
that they had managed to get porridge two days a week, or tinned
prawns for breakfast.
News that "more and more chaplains are crocking up, or getting
'cold feet'", is followed by statements such as: "I am
extraordinarily fit and happy. By the way, my servant considers
that I have a pair of boots worth polishing! Could you send out a
tin of polish - but I don't want any unless you can get some
dark stain-polish - mahogany or dark red."
HIS attitude was not so much representative of tales of
chivalry, as a public-school attitude of coolness, understatement,
and keeping going, without making a fuss. The attitude is much to
be admired, but it is one that deliberately does not dwell on the
During the 1920s, when the general population began to be aware
of the horrors in the trenches rather than what the papers had
wanted them to believe, the romantic gloss was stripped away. There
was a general sense of disillusionment with life as a whole, as
expressed, for example, in T. S. iot's poem The Waste
Land, and a widespread feeling that anything was better than
war; so pacifism was the only option.
In 1940, this attitude, too, shifted, and thoughtful Christians
who had been pacifists realised that there were some things worse
than war. Consequently, reluctantly, but firmly, most of them
supported the war against Hitler. That realisation, together with
the hollowness of Munich, is also part of the legacy that we
It may be necessary to fight, but only as a very last resort,
when all else has failed; and then with a sense of tragic
necessity, not romantic idealism. Wellington got it right when he
remarked, after one battle in which he had been victorious, "There
is only one thing sadder than winning a battle." Winning a battle,
however necessary it might seem, is still the second saddest thing
in the world.
N RECENT months, we have, I think, seen some lessons learnt from
the First World War operating in practice in relation to the Crimea
and Ukraine. We have made it quite clear to President Putin that,
although his actions are illegal and immoral, and sanctions will be
used against him, we will not be using force.
We have judged, correctly, that the horrendous cost would
outweigh any possible good, just as we made a similar judgement in
relation to the Soviets when they suppressed the rising in Hungary
in 1956, and the one in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
This is never a cost-free option; for it meant, for example,
that the peoples of those countries suffered under Soviet
domination until the end of the Cold War. Crimea will not go back
to the Ukraine. (That Russia has a reasonable claim to the Crimea
is another issue: the fact is that it has acted illegally.)
The other lesson learnt from both world wars is the danger of
entering into security alliances. It is not that these are wrong in
principle - NATO has been an essential one - but they need to be
drawn up only to defend essential interests, and with the clear
determination to use force if those interests are threatened.
So it is that the Western countries have been resisting the
attempts by Georgia to join NATO, because it is inconceivable that
NATO could actually go to war to expel Russian forces from Georgia,
where they are now camped, only 20 miles from the capital.
Deterrence is important - and it was the failure of deterrence
that led to the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands; for we
withdrew the last of our Antarctic supply vessels, thereby giving
the impression that this was not something we were serious in
defending. But, in order to work, deterrence must be credible; that
is, it must be meant, and be seen to be meant.
The experience of the First World War has made us rightly
cautious about using military force in Europe, and about entering
into uncertain security alliances. That is surely a good. Military
interventions outside Europe are another matter altogether, and we
are far from a consensus on the rightness or wrongness of those in
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former
Bishop of Oxford.