Remembering the Great War

Never such innocence again.
Philip Larkin, MCMXIV

By the time the Armistice ending the Great War was signed 11 November 1918—the Guns of August having at last fallen silent—four bloody years of lethal destruction had elapsed, leaving the Old European Order in ruins, its pretensions shattered beyond recall. In the bitter aftermath of disillusion that had, like a dark shroud, blanketed the post-war world, the easy innocence and idealism that had once shaped people’s lives seemed all but blown away. Like the snows of yesteryear, they were no more. The accumulated moral capital of the pre-war world appeared to have been spent. Quite simply, the long lazy afternoon of the nineteenth century, with its smug suppositions about the inevitability of material progress and human perfection, had all been blown to bits in the first weeks of the war, strewn about the poppies growing in Flanders Fields.

Or so it seemed to the survivors, members of a doomed generation,whose cynicism and disgust found voice in Hemmingway’s A Farewell To Arms. There language itself was made to stand in the dock, summoned by the staccato sentences of his machine-gun prose. So many words, said Hemingway, could no longer be spoken. “Only the names of places had dignity …

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Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

The Great War—the War to End All Wars—began exactly a century ago, in Sarajevo, an obscure city then situated within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose hapless Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, got himself assassinated by a Serbian fanatic, thus catapulting a dozen or so countries into a killing spree that would consume sixteen or so million people. That nearly half the numbers killed were non-combatants suggests the enormity of the tragedy.  As for its outcome, who can doubt but that it marked the terminal phase of a civilization that, while it may have once called itself Christian, could no longer maintain the fiction.

“It was three o’clock in the morning,” muses Dr. Tom More, hero of Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins:

I had been reading my usual late-night fare, Stedmann’s History of World War I. For weeks now I’ve been on the Battle of Verdun, which killed half a million men, lasted a year, and left the battle lines unchanged. Here began the hemorrhage and death by suicide of the old Western world: white Christian Caucasian Europeans, sentimental music-loving Germans and rational clear-minded Frenchmen, slaughtering each other without passion. ‘The men in the trenches did not hate each other,’ wrote Stedmann. ‘As for the generals, they respected or contemned each other precisely as colleagues in the same profession.’

So did no one try to stop the carnage? And if they had, would it have succeeded in putting an end to the senseless butchery? Not very likely, it seems. A collective death wish having taken hold of the generation of 1914, nothing short of a miracle could have ended the mass psychosis. How else does one account for the madness of trench warfare? Four hundred and fifty miles stretching from Switzerland to the Channel, that murderous lesion covering France and Belgium known as the Western Front would claim the lives of between five and fifty thousand soldiers a day. “When all is said and done,” wrote the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who despite multiple injuries managed to survive the bloodbath, “the war was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.” Yes, and into each bloody fissure along the length of that flesh-eating front, the fairest blooms of European manhood lay fallen and dead. Why was there no one willing to stop it?

Actually, there were. But who would listen? Certainly not the ardent young men who, during that unclouded summer before catastrophe struck, could scarcely wait to avenge King or Kaiser. Nor the generals, eager to try out their new toys, a vaunted array of technologized terrors like tanks and airplanes, submarines and poison gas. Not surely the politicians, who, having loosed this juggernaut upon the world, had no idea how to stop it.  Besides, as practically everyone on both sides exuberantly predicted, the war would be over by Christmas. No one, it seems, had bargained on four blood-soaked years of entrenchment along the Western Front.

“How sweet is war to those who know it not,” wisely exclaimed the poet Pindar some twenty-five hundred years before the war that was thought so horrible as to make future wars unthinkable.

And yet there were voices raised in opposition. Indeed, at least two of them were Vicars of Christ, who, from the very first days of the conflagration, stepped bravely into the breach to try and put a stop to it. The first was the saintly Pius X, whose resolute refusal to bless Austrian arms signaled to the world the “absolute impartiality” of the Church concerning the issues dividing the belligerents. His death, some three weeks into the conflict, made way for his successor, Pope Benedict XV, the real protagonist for peace, who wasted little time in condemning the excesses of either side. Less than a week into his pontificate, he issued Ubi Primum, an Apostolic Exhortation outlining the horrors to come. An entire continent, he direly predicted, would soon be “red with the blood of Christians.”   It would, he feared, portend the end of civilized Europe. The Proud Tower, described with such lavish and meticulous detail by historian Barbara Tuchman in her panoramic study of the world before the world—1890 to 1914—had finally collapsed.

Let it not be said that the Church stood silent, keeping her own counsel in the face of so blatant and far-reaching a resurgence of barbarism. The spectacle of seeing so many of her own children killing one another to no purpose, roused the fierce instincts of a Mother in whom, the sainted Augustine would exclaim, an entire world stood reconciled (Mundus reconciliatus ecclesia). And so, even before the year was out, Benedict would issue two additional appeals. The first, on the Feast of All Saints (November 1), was the encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Appealing for Peace), in which he reminded the world that as the father of all peoples he had every right to call a halt to the holocaust of his children.

The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons military science had devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.

When that heartfelt appeal fell on deaf ears, the Pope tried again, this time entreating the belligerent nations to observe a Christmas truce, “in order that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” But did they listen? Not officially, to be sure, the warring governments having dug their heels too deeply into the mud, as it were, of Flanders Fields. But the men in the trenches responded with alacrity, arranging their own informal truce, a series of ceasefires during which Christmas lights were hung, carols sung, gifts exchanged, and even games of soccer played inside the killing fields. But the reprieve soon ended, the war resumed, and millions more were to die.

Other initiatives were taken by the Pope, including a Peace Note issued the following year, calling everyone to a conference to consider various proposals to ensure a “just and lasting peace.” It was rejected summarily by both sides. (How clearly the Pope’s impartiality was vindicated by the fact that the Allies should call him the German pope and the Central Powers the French pope!)   What were the salient points? Only that military arsenals be reduced, disagreements be adjudicated without recourse to war, free access to the seas be ensured, self-determination for the peoples of Europe be respected. That sort of thing. Alas, none of it proved sufficiently persuasive to people bent on total destruction of their neighbors.

So the engines of war kept on cranking out their corpses for another year or so, leaving Europe in the end not only prostrate from the devastating loss of life but determined, certainly among the Germans, to resume the struggle once they had recovered. “Nations do not die,” prophesied Benedict at the time of Versailles, that most vindictive of treaties which he had not even been permitted to help draft. And thinking especially of the German peoples on whom the long shadow of war would fall with special ferocity, he reminded the Allies that, “humbled and oppressed, they chafe under the yoke imposed upon them … passing down from generation to generation a mournful heritage of hatred and revenge.”

Pope Benedict XV, who did not last much longer than the war he tried to stop (he died in 1922), could not have seen its sequel, though he had certainly foretold its coming, though even he could not have imagined the scale of hideousness and destruction it would bring.

What did you do in the war, Daddy?
I tried to prevent the damn thing! 


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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