Remembering the Great and Holy War, 1914-1918

The Great and Holy War

One hundred years ago today marked the onset of what was then known only as “The Great War.”  As Philip Jenkins’ new book The Great and Holy War shows, however, perhaps we ought still to dignify it with that awful title.  Although WWII looms vastly larger in our cultural consciousness, this is due partly to its greater proximity in time, and to the much greater role that America played in the hostilities.  Yet most people would be surprised to learn that the bloodiest battle in US military history remains the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, which took place over the final 47 days of WWI, in which 26,277 perished.  And the toll suffered by US troops is immeasurably dwarfed by that of the European nations.  Jenkins puts things in perspective for us:

“The full horror of the war was obvious in its opening weeks. . . . On one single day, August 22, the French lost twenty-seven thousand men killed in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi, in what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. . . . To put these casualty figures in context, the French suffered more fatalities on that one sultry day than U.S. forces lost in the two 1945 battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa combined, although these later engagements were spread over a period of four months.  One single August day cost half as many lives as the United States lost in the whole Vietnam War.

During August and September 1914, four hundred thousand French soldiers perished, and already by year’s end, the war had in all claimed two million lives on both sides.  The former chapel of the elite French military academy of Saint-Cyr systematically listed its dead for various wars, but for 1914 it offered only one brief entry: ‘The Class of 1914”—all of it.” (pp. 29-31)

Britain lost 1.75% of its pre-war population to military deaths alone, not to mention the hundreds of thousands maimed for life; Germany, 3%; France, 3.5%.  The Western Front of WWI would claim ten times as many lives as the Western Front of WWII, a statistic borne out by the somber lists of names that can be found in any parish church in Britain. Given that Europe in 1914 was the unquestioned leader of world civilization, and still the center of global Christianity, such trauma could not fail to reshape the course of world religion as well as politics, remaking the world order more comprehensively even than its more global successor, WWII, could do.  It is this cataclysmic shift, in all its varied manifestations, that Jenkins seeks to chronicle in The Great and Holy War.

This book is extraordinarily wide-ranging, even by the standards of Jenkins’ impressive oeuvre thus far, and is difficult to summarize neatly.  This is in part due to the sense one gets that Jenkins was working to a deadline (the centenary of World War One) and hence lacked the time to fully organize the immense array of material his research had assembled.  The book thus perhaps lacks at some points the clear focus and compelling readability that has characterized much of Jenkins’ other work, though it remains a fascinating read, and one hopes any such handicaps will not prevent readers from engaging with its remarkable insights and theses.

The title of the book declares Jenkins’ most remarkable thesis: that the Great War, what we often consider the pinnacle of cynical nationalistic realpolitik, was perceived at the time as a deeply religious conflict, indeed, a “holy war,” by all the combatants.  Such a thesis strikes deeply at the roots of much modern secularization theory, which sees the de-Christianization of Europe as a long gradual process set in motion by science, the Enlightenment, and modern industry, a process very far underway by the 20th century.  On the contrary, shows Jenkins, Europe in 1914 was still steeped in religion, perhaps as much as at any point in its history—mostly Christianity of course, but even freethinkers and secularists were more likely than not to follow strange alternative religions like Theosophy, and to dabble in the occult.  Against the traditional narrative, Jenkins concludes his book with a new theory of religious development that he calls “punctuated equilibrium,” echoing the leading current view in evolutionary science: long periods of relative stasis (such as 1815-1914) followed by short periods of cataclysmic change (such as 1914-1918).  Jenkins’ thesis undermines any claim to comfortable self-assurance on the part of the modern West that technological and political progress necessarily leads to a cool scientific rationality; on the contrary, the years of the Great War were a time of superstition, apocalypticism, and mass hysteria in all the combatant nations.

However, Jenkins’ thesis also strikes deeply at any comfortable self-assurance on the part of western Christians: we like to think that our religion has long been a force for peace in the world, or at worst, essentially disengaged from the secular rationality that drives global conflict; Islam, on the other hand, is a primitive and violent religion that seeks to discern the divine will in every historical incident and to pursue expansion by merciless jihad, or “holy war.”  Jenkins neatly inverts this narrative: “enlightened” western Christianity was responsible for some of the most shocking rhetoric of holy war that we can imagine, at a time when global Islam was diffuse and relatively passive and apolitical; the events of World War One, in fact, set in motion the radicalization of Islam and its current appetite for “holy war” thinking.  Read More