Anzacs and WWI: part 3, propaganda and religion

How could support be created and maintained to provide enough willing participants committing themselves to the horrors arising out of the political machinations of so many nations?

Australia was one of the only nations who didn’t enforce conscription. However, as casualties rose recruitment became more difficult and the Government held a referendum on the matter of conscription, calling upon Australians to vote “YES”, to make conscription law. The Government needed to recruit thousands more per month to replace those troops who were being killed or maimed in battle.

The vote was very close but the proposition was defeated, however the Government tried again, holding another referendum that was also defeated but again only by a small percentage.
I wonder whether those who supported conscription gave any though to the reason WHY such high numbers were needed to keep the war machine in action – that those numbers would be made up of their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers… and that it was probable that they would suffer the same fate as those they’d been sent to replace.

God King and CountryGod King and Country2

After reading quite a lot about the topic, it seems that every nation used religious rhetoric to encourage and motivate enlistment, usually but not exclusively through state churches – merging patriotism with loyalty to God. The call was to fight for God, King and Country.

Apart from a few smaller independent churches, the only contrary voice in “Christendom” was the Roman Catholic Church. The pope of the time was totally against the war, but most Roman Catholics ignored him.
My intention has been to continue this brief series on WWI by addressing the various spiritual aspects of the war

That is a topic far too broad to cover in a brief blog post, just as my previous two articles could only brush the surface.

The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins and War Diaries: A Chaplain at Gallipoli, Kenneth Best, edited by Gavin Roynon have shown me different ways in which religion was used to make WWI a “Holy” war, motivating men to enlist, to endure extreme horrific experiences and even to commit horrific acts upon others.

In his book Philip Jenkins says:

“Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, in 1915 wrote to a newspaper declaring the church’s explicit duty ‘to mobilise the nation for a holy war’. In a notorious sermon… he urged British forces to: ‘kill Germans- do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends. As I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity; I look upon everyone who died in it as a martyr.”

great-and-holy-warJenkins also says “At a very early stage in the war, the full panoply of holy war rhetoric came to dominate media and propaganda in all the combatant states”. It wasn’t limited to any particular nation.
He says “Allied propagandists had no difficulty in finding embarrassing sermons and essays by German leaders that assumed their empire was engaged in a sacred war. In 1914, one notorious pastor, Dietrich Vorwek praised the God who reigns on high, above ‘Cherubinen und Serphinen und Zeppellinen’”

Vorwerk also wrote his own version of the Lord’s prayer containing lines such as :

“In Thy merciful patience forgive
Each bullet and each blow
That misses its mark.
Lead us not into the temptation
Of letting our wrath be too gentle
In carrying out Thy divine judgement…”

The prayer closes with:

“May we, through Thy mailed hand
Come to power and Glory.

Jenkins recognises how easy it would be to “consign such militaristic pastors to the demagogic fringe” but cautions that “some of Germany’s greatest thinkers and theologians” were expressing “near identical sentiments…at a time when the country plausibly could claim cultural and spiritual leadership of the Christian world.

bestReligicised propaganda wasn’t only used to encourage recruitment for war. It continued after arrival on the battle field. One of the roles of army Chaplains was to reinforce ideas of self-sacrifice and the willingness to lay down one’s life for others: effectively misrepresenting the teaching of Jesus for ends totally contrary to that teaching. The religion of the war had nothing to with the gospel of God’s Kingdom that Jesus preached. Instead it was a message that mixed man’s kingdoms with religion – a faith based on patriotism, hence the mantra of “for God, King and Country”.

Kenneth Best was one of those Army chaplains who had the job of keeping his “flock” in battle ready condition, not physically but “spiritually”. Administering church rituals and preaching sermons to steel the men to face day to day life (and death) in the Gallipoli trenches.

After the war Best lost what faith he had.
Reading this statement from his diary, that loss is not surprising, just as it’s not surprising that he could use his understanding of religion to promote the soldiers’ willingness to kill and even die.

“The muezzin calls from his minaret – men prostrate themselves. During their long fast, they keep commandments, so they know God. God is a real help to them – not like us. We suppose there is a God – but really don’t KNOW.”


Medallion photos from Australian War memorial website here: