Faith at war
It is a hardened atheist who does not ask a few favours of God as he fixes his bayonet
John Scriven covers the two World Wars and the Falklands conflict, with two chapters by Tim Dieppe on the siege of Malta in World War II and Churchill’s Christianity.
Scriven’s accounts are confined to the Western Front and the Middle East in World War I, and Europe and North Africa in World War II. Given this takes up 370 pages, it is unsurprising that there was no room for the Russian front or the American and British campaigns in Asia. The aim of the book is to “examine the causes of key events in their historical context and to consider how prayer and the providence of God could have affected their outcomes”.
The author has successfully highlighted examples of God’s intervention and support, but fails when writing far too much detail of pure military history. By neglecting the war against Japan, he loses the opportunity to examine Bill Slim’s spiritual beliefs in Burma (“Sometimes, doubt and fear slunk in upon me. And then I walked once more among my soldiers, and I, who should have inspired them, not for the first or last time, drew courage from them” — Defeat into Victory), the power of God in the Japanese PoW camps when He was all that was left to the inmates and the anguish over the decision to use the atomic bomb, for instance.
Individuals under stress, uncertainty and fear require an anchor, no more so than soldiers about to go into battle. Men fight well alongside their friends and with NCOs and officers they trust. However, there is always room for insurance and, for most, this rests on the premium of prayer. While soldiers, as a tribe, are seldom good church attendees, it is a very hardened atheist who does not ask a few favours of God as he fixes his bayonet.
Scriven illustrates the more direct hand of God with the apparitions of the Angels of Mons and the lesser known White Cavalry of Béthune. It is easy to scoff and put these visitations down to mass hysteria, fatigue and wishful thinking, but it is worth remembering that the men who told these stories, however hungry, wet, cold and exhausted, were tough, experienced soldiers, not given to fantasy. A great many of them saw identical sights at different times and in different places. Possibly some of the stories were invented later, but maybe they were not. Even in 1098 the appearance of St George was said to have heartened the Franks at the battle of Antioch. Neither the authors, nor I, would agree with Silius Italicus’s maxim that, “Groundless superstition ill becomes an army; valour is the only deity that rules in the warrior’s breast” (Punica, Book V).
Haig’s personal faith clearly sustained him
The authors underline the power of prayer and spiritual belief, particularly of the Generals in the first War and, to a lesser extent, those in the second. Whether this was merely an institutionalised product of the Public School “chapel once a day and twice on Sundays” regime is open to question but there is no doubt about the strength it gave them. Haig’s personal faith clearly sustained him. Whether Allenby, on his way to capture Jerusalem, actually accepted Admiral Fisher’s view that his men represented the return of the “lost” ten tribes of Israel is questionable. However, he would certainly have agreed that air superiority was essential; “As birds flying, so will the Lord of Hosts defend Jerusalem” (Isaiah 31:5). Dieppe covers Governor Dobbie’s reliance on God during the siege of Malta, and Churchill’s more ambivalent attitude to the Almighty in his lifetime. Montgomery asserted he read the Bible every day: no one dared ask which bits and how did he have the time? He also writes that he had Drake’s prayer before the attack on Cadiz in 1587, pinned on his caravan’s wall, no doubt next to the photograph of Rommel. I prefer Sir Jacob Astley’s prayer before Edgehill in 1642: “Lord, I shall be verie busie this day. I may forget thee but doe not thou forget me.”
A surprising lapse is there is no mention of St Augustine’s Just War: “It is the injustice of the opposing side that lays on the wise man the necessity of waging just wars.” This gives the soldier the confidence that what he is doing is right. There was no doubt about the first and second World Wars and, indeed, the Falklands, but Iraq and Afghanistan in modern times? Scriven illustrates the power of prayer to the commander of today with Major Chris Keeble’s reaction to the death of his Commanding Officer, “H” Jones, in the Falklands by quoting Keeble’s story of meeting the company commanders and, worried about what to do next, going into the gorse to say a prayer. There is no doubt about Keeble’s spirituality but, sadly, his recollections of the attack on Goose Green after H’s death are at variance with others’.
As battle looms, church services gather the crowds
The spiritual and pastoral care of the Regimental chaplain is rightly underlined, but it is sad there is no mention of Tubby Clayton and Toc H in World War I. We could have done without seven quotes from the Rev. Samuel Rees Howells, founder and Director of the Bible College of Wales “interceding” for the nation in the Second World War. As battle looms, the padre’s church services, whether actually in a church, under a tree in a field or a more formal drum head event, rightly gather the crowds. Chaplains’ courage when rescuing the wounded or giving Last Rites under fire is well recognised by VC awards in World War I. David Cooper, padre of 2 PARA at Goose Green in the Falklands, is a good example of today’s tough, no nonsense spiritual leader of the flock of hard bitten “Toms”. Chaplains, together with medical officers, have a significant role in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is no mention in the book of this significant phenomenon in current warfare. The padre has a vital part in comforting and helping soldiers undergoing decompression after a battle.
The theme of this book is exemplary and the research outstanding — 77 pages of endnotes alone. The illustrations of the power of prayer and the hand of God, arguably determining the outcome of battle, are persuasive. However, what lets it down is far too much concentration on the causes, run up to and conduct of the two World Wars which should really only be background to the key points of the authors’ arguments. Had the bulk of this been edited out, there would have been room for the war against Japan, operations in Burma, the Americans in the Pacific, the Korean war and then, more up to date, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. There could be, it is suggested, a good deal of evidence of Providence there. Individual chapters on these, as the authors have treated Malta, Churchill and the Falklands, would seem to be highly relevant.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe