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Soul of a nation in throes of war  

17 June 2016

Michael Wheeler on a neglected aspect of the First World War

Author’s collection

Not yet the pastor: Martin Niemöller, U-boat captain, later imprisoned by the Nazis. From the book

Not yet the pastor: Martin Niemöller, U-boat captain, later imprisoned by the Nazis. From the book

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of faith from the First World War
John Broom

Pen & Sword £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

SECULARISATION and the multi-faith profile of modern Western societies seem to make some historians and all politicians wary of referring to religion at all. Modern commentators on the First World War often overlook the fact that religion, and particularly Christian­ity, played an important part in the lives of individuals and in the public discourse of the main antagonists.

John Broom wants to correct this and to “keep alive the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of people a century on and to appreciate the moral and spiritual strength of a generation of people from all walks of life thrust into a world of new and frightening challenges”.

Fight the Good Fight fulfils this aim by offering 23 case studies. These are organised into six groups. Part I, Christian Britain in 1914, opens with accounts of John Reith, the larger-than-life figure who dominated the BBC in its early days, and David Jones, the artist and poet who has recently been celebrated in a retrospective exhibition.

Part II looks at three chaplains from different denominations and an Army Scripture Reader. Part III covers women in war, most poignantly Edith Cavell, whose execution was widely regarded as martyrdom. The Christians from other nations in Part IV include Martin Niemöller, and Francis Meynell figures in “Conscientious Objection”, Part V. Finally, we take a look at two families in war.

So a wide variety of “voices of faith” are heard, often through quotations from letters or diaries in the face of hardship and the horrors of war. Broom is a specialist teacher in autism, currently working on his Ph.D. thesis. He is always sympathetic and indeed empathetic: he likes to use his subjects’ Christian names, even in the case of Reith! But he is rarely critical, either in the sense of judging his subjects — something that he explicitly eschews in his introduction — or of offering informed commentary on the nuances of the material presented. This is a pity, as many opportunities are missed.

Take, for example, Lilian Hayman (here, for some reason, “Mrs Hayman”), who ran a boys’ Bible class throughout the first four decades of the 20th century and kept in touch with many of her “boys” as they went to war. When news of the persecution of British prisoners in German hands arrived, Mrs Hayman’s boys learned that “It is good for the Church to be persecuted for its religion as it helps people to pray more as God helps. It also sets an example of our Lord, who was also persecuted.” A statement that cries out for analysis is quietly passed over.

Some of the photographs that illustrate the book are as thought-provoking as the text. Below a propaganda image of the hollow-eyed Hun emptying his pistol into Nurse Cavell is an equally arresting photograph of a bright-eyed Martin Niemöller, dressed in the uniform of a U-boat captain.


Dr Wheeler is a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton and Chairman of Gladstone’s Library.

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