The Great War 1914-18 seemed to have revealed inhumanity on an unprecedented scale. For many the established religions failed to offer a meaningful explanation for such suffering. They would turn away from traditional churches after WWI.
But for others the Great War had provided moments of sublime revelation, not only the self sacrifice shown by comrades, but their own personal experience of the divine. The war for them was Armageddon, the battle between Good and Evil. Whilst propagandists could make use of this concept to interpret the grand scale of the conflict, for individuals it provided a very intimate framework by which to understand their experiences. Testimonies to these can be found in soldiers letters. For example, there are recently published letters from French soldiers to the convent of Lisieux, the place associated with the Catholic saint Therese de Lisieux.
Divine revelation in the midst of battle has a long history in Christianity; for example the apparition of the Christian cross (Chai Rho) in the sky to the Emperor Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge. Therese became an inspiration to French soldiers in WWI. Living in Normandy at the end of the 19th century, she became a nun aged 15. Her devotion to Christ and a series of miraculous recoveries from illness are recorded in her memoirs, ‘The Story of a Soul.’ Therese died in 1897 aged 24 and immediately her tomb became a pilgrimage site.
A process of canonisation was started in June 1914, just before the start of WWI. It is not surprising that the war was a time of intense spiritual experience for some soldiers who, faced with death, turned towards the saint in the making. Letters released by the convent show how soldiers who prayed to her in the trenches were blessed with her apparition and soothing words. Many attributed their miraculous survival in battle to her. Soldiers carried images of Therese sewn into their trench coats as well as chains with her picture. The convent was deluged with letters about her miracles and requests for relics which were said to have stopped bullets from mortally wounding soldiers. Even German soldiers carried pictures of Therese on them. Therese was beatified by the Pope in 1923 and canonised in 1925, but had been venerated as a de facto saint well before this. Her permanent memorial is the beautiful Basilica at Lisieux built between 1929 and 1954 funded entirely by donations.
However, another WWI story of divine intervention on the battlefield is almost certain to have been fiction confounding fact. In September 1914 the Welsh author Arthur Machen published a story in the ‘The Evening News’ entitled ‘The Bowmen’. It described phantoms from the Battle of Agincourt summoned by a solider calling on St George, destroying a German army. Machen had created the illusion of a first-hand account. As a result a number of versions of the story appeared; editors of parish magazines requested permission to reprint them. Other similar accounts were published and one involved the miraculous intervention of angelic figures on the side of the British at the Battle of Mons in 1914. Despite Machen’s attempts to prove that his and other stories were fiction, the genie had been let out of the bottle and such stories became an important aspect of war time propaganda. Military intelligence may well have promoted tales to help in the fight for moral superiority.
Even such fictions demonstrate that faith was a powerful force in WWI, more so, some have noted, than in WWII. A study of American soldiers has shown that they scribbled lines of scripture on their gas masks and read poems that compared them to the heroes of the Old Testament. These men and women used their religious faith to face the war and their own personal beliefs were strengthened in the process.
Therese had written “I want to spend my time in heaven doing good on earth.” Many soldiers on both sides who survived the war and probably countless who did not, fully believed that her intervention was a reality and one which was worthy of commemoration.