In the years immediately following Armistice Day the war was frequently described as having destroyed militarism – an external enemy. It was defeated by the Christian valour of British soldiers who wanted nothing more than a world without war. Missing from this explanation was any effective critique of the military and patriotic values used to achieve this.

The view that the war had been futile was rarely heard and, if articulated such views were roundly criticised. G A Studdert Kennedy, a wartime padre affectionately know as ‘Woodbine Willie’ by the troops, attacked the prevailing consensus at a meeting on Armistice night in 1922. He claimed that the war had been futile and that ‘we lied as a nation and besmirched our honour’. On the same platform was Canon HRL Sheppard who 13 years later founded the Peace Pledge Union. Dick Sheppard, as he came to be better known, took issue with Kennedy. He ‘expressed the hope that no mother who had lost a son or wife her husband would go home with the impression, as he feared they might, that those lives had been given in vain’. He said he could think of many reasons why the sacrifice was worthwhile. Sheppard eventually changed his views on the war but he would always try to validate the ‘sacrifice’.

From Bishops to vicars, Christians of all denominations consoled their flock by explaining that their men had fought and died for a higher purpose, their sacrifice served a noble end. Secular voices concentrated on the virtue and value of patriotic duty for King and country; in practice the line between the secular and religious was often blurred but the essential message was the same.


Fear of revolution and the growing strength of organised labour created tensions in Britain which men like 'Woodbine Willie' attempted to defuse by preaching the gospel of 'Christian Socialism' at mass meetings across the country.


The well-intentioned wish to give comfort to the bereaved by giving meaning to the death of their loved ones also served the government and the war ‘s supporters very well. Anyone criticising the war and pointing to the futility of sending men into the face of machine gun fire would quickly be accused of heartlessness. Few dared to tell the grieving women that the death of their men served no purpose. Telling the thousands of returning soldiers without arms, legs or even faces that there was no purpose to the war that disfigured them and foreclosed their future was unlikely to improve their lot. In the turbulence of the post-war years, as revolutions were raging on continental Europe, telling the returned able-bodied soldiers that they were made go through years of hell for no discernable purpose did not seem wise.

Powerful criticism of such 'consoling' views was made by Wilfred Owen.

| next page