Lest We Forget: Evil is a reality that the First World War demonstrated all too well

First World War PoppiesAs we head towards the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the commemoration events are beginning to kick in. On Monday David Cameron launched the Royal British Legion Centenary Campaign by planting poppy seeds with school children. Today Justin Welby and John Sentamu, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will also be planting poppy seeds ‘to remember the terrible events of the First World War and as a sign of our hope in Jesus Christ for peace in the future.’

To coincide with this Canon J John has written this guest post reflecting on the horrors of the First World War. J John is an internationally recognised Christian speaker and author. He has written over 50 books and spoken in 69 countries, teaching the Christian faith and addressing over 300,000 people in person each year. His series Just 10 (on the Ten Commandments) has now exceeded one million people in attendance.Canon J John

You can find out more about J John and his work through his Philo Trust website and also follow him on Twitter.


There is something terribly compelling about the First World War. Like some ghastly pile-up on the motorway, you can’t help but stare at the horror. There is the overwhelming scale of the destruction: ten million people were killed. There is also the sheer density of the war: most of the slaughter occurred along a battle line that moved barely miles in four long years. It was the ugliest of wars: a desperate, drawn-out, slog of a struggle – unredeemed by cinema-worthy actions such as Pearl Harbour, Dunkirk or D-Day. It was also without any ultimate triumph: the war ended with all sides in blood-drained exhaustion. This was a war without glory and honour; a terrible slaughter across a ruined landscape. We gaze appalled at the horror of the First World War and then, as with the motorway pile-up, show concern and drive on.

This centenary year sees many evaluations and re-interpretations of the political, military and social aspects of those terrible events of 1914-18. While these evaluations are fascinating, I find myself wondering whether they really address the deep issues that the First World War highlights so shockingly; namely the nature of evil and how we deal with it, issues that have relevance for us all.

Of fundamental importance is the way that the First World War demonstrates that there is such a thing as evil. As someone whose life centres on communicating Christian truth, I know that evil does not simply occur in the context of war; it is a real and terrible spiritual reality in our world. In thinking about evil, our culture – so intelligent and sophisticated in many areas – is frankly out of its depth. We are technologically literate but morally naive. Previous generations might have gone overboard with classifying different kinds of wickedness, but we have tended to avoid thinking seriously about it at all.

The First World War is a striking lesson in how destructive and hateful evil actually is. We should pause for a moment and actually contemplate the fatality figures of ten million and what that really means. The next time you see a war memorial, focus on just one of those names. Then, imagine what that loss represents on a mass scale through the years of 1914-18: the parents, the sweethearts or the wives, husbands, children and friends. Think of all that they might have done, the things they might have created, the joys they could have experienced and what they might have contributed towards the future. And then remind yourself that all that life and potential was cut short. Now, multiply that loss by ten million and add to it the ruined landscapes and destroyed towns, not to mention the political and economic legacy that was to shape the world for generations to come. And let’s not forget that war is a fertile ground for almost every vice, breeding brutality and corruption. That is the scale of evil.

Another thing that the First World War illustrates all too clearly is how evil can acquire a momentum of its own. No one intended the eventual four-year-long bloodbath that was the First World War. Yet, from the first gunshot in Sarajevo, the fighting descended into the most appalling slaughter the world has ever seen. The conflict acquired an impetus of its own, becoming increasingly intense, brutal and widespread. As the war progressed, the scale and range of the weaponry multiplied, growing more sophisticated and ever more inhuman. There were artillery barrages, machine guns and gas. Limits on the use of weapons were gradually withdrawn, so that eventually, through Zeppelins and submarine blockades, there were deliberate attacks against civilians, miles away from the frontline.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties alone were nearly 58,000; almost 20,000 of whom were killed. The First World War was a juggernaut created by the interaction of policies, men and technology. Once started, the war rolled unstoppably forwards, crushing all beneath it. One reason why war develops a life of its own is because evil is contagious. Ordinary decent people – people like you and me – became part of the war. Some of them were involved in terrible things and many of them justified these actions as being for the sake of the ‘cause’. One of the most distressing aspects of evil is the way in which it can hijack religion. Despite Christ’s clear teaching that God and Caesar had different spheres of authority, all sides in the First World War were ready to blur that distinction. For example, German soldiers had ‘Gott mit uns’ (God with us) inscribed on their helmets. And on the Allied side there was much talk of ‘for God and the King’, as if this was a mutually agreed venture between equal parties. During the American Civil War, a pious cleric expressed to Abraham Lincoln the hope that ‘God was on our side’. The president wisely rebuked him, pointing out that the more pressing issue was whether they were on God’s side. Religious faith is the strongest of all forces and we must be very wary lest it be diverted to evil ends.

Evil is a reality and the First World War demonstrated that. Yet we must do more than simply recognise evil as such; we must resist it. It is here we face a problem. Evil is so subtle that our attempts to defeat it are all too often counterproductive. The very actions we take to tackle it turn out to be evil themselves. To defend our innocents, we all too easily end up killing their innocents. In the First World War, no side emerged with unbloodied hands. So how do we combat evil? Here I must say, with regret, that I do not feel pacifism to be the right answer. There are times, when as a last resort, evil must be resisted by force. But in doing so we must be constantly aware of the deadly peril that in resisting evil, we ourselves are in danger of doing evil.

How evil can be contained in the fury of war has occupied great and good minds for centuries. Let me suggest two factors that contributed to the horror of the First World War. The first was a widespread arrogance about human progress and technology in the years leading up to 1914. That pride persisted into the war, which was marked throughout by overconfident battle plans and impetuous strategies that collapsed into bloody chaos on the battlefield. Sadly, wartime leaders are rarely gifted with humility. ‘Blessed are the meek,’ said Jesus, ‘for they will inherit the earth.’ True, and the meek and humble are much less likely to blunder into bloodbaths.

A second feature that added to the devastation of the First World War was the way in which people were dehumanised. There had been wars before in which men were able to kill others without ever seeing them. However, with the introduction of the machine gun, the artillery barrage and the bomber, the separation between the killers and the killed reached new levels. One of the defining creations of the First World War was the tank – rumbling over everything and everyone. Here I must restate the foundational biblical truth: men and women are made in the image of God and are of an immeasurable value. Consequently, the danger of dehumanising individuals in the heat of battle has not gone away. In our modern digitised world, military decisions and operations are often made by men and women seated at screens – completely disconnected from the humanity on which they are about to inflict devastation. It is alarming to think that human interaction can almost be eliminated from modern military operations.

The First World War speaks to us about how evil needs to be both recognised and resisted. Yet it would be an extraordinary folly to simply think that the lessons it teaches us about evil are solely applicable at the level of international conflict. All of us live or work in situations where there is tension. We all live in potential conflict zones and we can all make decisions and take actions in such settings that will make things either better or worse. A key response to conflict and grievance is to seek to absorb evil, rather than allow it to multiply. The supreme example is seen in Jesus on the cross – conquering evil by absorbing it. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ he said, ‘for they will be called children of God.’ It’s a high calling. A hundred years ago a generation of leaders failed miserably. May God grant that we in our day do better.

As Jesus taught as to pray, let us pray, ‘Our Father in heaven … deliver us from evil.’

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, War

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2 replies

  1. J John is correct. World War One has a special place in our psyche. It is, I would suggest, the first step towards it’s logical successor, World War Two. Indeed, I find myself considering World War two did not end in 1945 it actually ended in 1989, when Soviet Communism crumbled. Yet it (WW1) is no siren and foci of evil in and of itself. It can, historically, represent the clash of several imperial powers, and that for me is the historical origin of the contest. Is the evil of Moira Hindley in some way any different to Kaiser Wilhelm’s pride and nationalistic jingoism? Hindley’s evil and that of her partner in crime meant five murdered, Kaiser Wilhelm’s pride and that of his militaristic junta meant milllions died. Yet as John said, take a name on a war memorial and think….

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