Belief and the Great War
Michael Snape, University of Birmingham
It is hard to overestimate the importance of religious belief for British society during the First World War. For most Britons, the vast majority of whom were believing, if not necessarily churchgoing Christians, the war was understood as a ‘just war’ which demanded great, and even Christ-like, sacrifice and service.
In time, Christian themes would inform not only the meaning of the First World War, but also its commemoration- as can be seen in the Cross of Sacrifice that is a feature of every British war cemetery. For some, however, their Christian beliefs led them to make a stand against the war, whether as pacifists or as conscientious objectors. Similarly, while a great many soldiers and civilians found comfort in orthodox expressions of Christian faith, the personal pressures of the war led others to experiment with Spiritualism, or to reject religion altogether. Furthermore, Britain was not a monolithically Christian society; British Jews were no less affected by the ordeal of war, and felt much the same consolation -and challenges- in terms of their own personal and collective faith. In Asia and in Africa, the wider British Empire embraced a great diversity of religions, and millions of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu soldiers and civilians also had to reconcile their religious faith and convictions with the experience of a world at war.
This theme seeks to recapture the diversity and complexity of the First World War in terms of religious belief, and to help faith communities -nationally and locally- to commemorate their forebears and to help them understand the significance of their experiences for the past and for the present.