How the Bible was used in the First World War

KS2RECross-curricular links
This activity looks at people's attitudes to the Bible during times of war, with special reference to the First World War, and looks at some key Bible verses on the subject of war and peace.

Introduction

For centuries, Christians of all nations have taken comfort and inspiration from the words of the Bible, so when war beckoned in 1914, many continued to find solace in its pages. In Britain and Ireland, pocket New Testaments were made available to the troops by charitable organisations, distributed via chaplains such as Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (otherwise known as 'Woodbine Willie' - see Unit 8 of the teachers' resource book What Price Peace?) There was a whole new mythology of pocket Bibles 'stopping bullets' - The Wipers Times even featured a spoof ad for a pocket Bible with an enemy bullet inserted in its pages 'for the benefit of maiden aunts'.
But what effect did this have on troop morale or Christian spirituality? It all depended on one's view of how 'scripture' was meant to 'work'.

Background for teachers

To give an example: from 1911, Winston Churchill had just assumed the high rank of First Sea Lord at the Admiralty. While pondering the armed might of Imperial Germany, he turned the pages of a bedside Bible at random, stuck his finger in at Deuteronomy 9 and read:

Hear, O Israel: Thou art to pass over Jordan this day, to go in to possess nations greater and mightier than thyself... Understand therefore this day, that the Lord thy God is he which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire he shall destroy them... (Deuteronomy 9:1-3, KJV).

Afterwards, Churchill reflected: 'It seemed a message full of reassurance.'

This kind of approach to using the Bible (similar to fortune telling) is probably representative of many at the time. The first military chaplains in the field were astonished to discover high levels of religious illiteracy among their new flock, many of whom (like Churchill) had a simple 'God on our side' mentality - hoping the Almighty would look after his own, which they hopefully were by being British. As time wore on and the number of casualties mounted, this lapsed into a fatalistic resignation or cynicism - after all, the Germans seemed to be equally convinced that God was on their side too.

But some Christians found the Bible could still speak deeply to their situation. Second Lieutenant Huntley Gordon of the Royal Field Artillery describes how the imagery of the psalms made a great deal of sense to those 'digging for their lives' into the dirt to hide from enemy shellfire:

In this strange world, the psalms can be a very present help in time of trouble; particularly as they were written by a fighter who knew what it was to be scared stiff. It's really amusing to find how some of them literally apply to life in the Ypres salient in 1917.

'I stick fast in the mire where no ground is' (Psalm 69)

'The earth trembled and quaked: the very foundation of the hills shook' (Psalm 18)

'The clouds poured out water, the air thundered: and the arrows went abroad' (Psalm 77)

'Thou shalt not be afraid of any terror by night: nor for the arrow that flieth by day...' (Psalm 91)

but David was obviously whistling to keep his courage up. Well, there are moments when it's something to be able to whistle at all. But this is surely to regard God as your lucky mascot: and that won't do nowadays.

But which Bible passages could inspire soldiers to do their duty? Major-General Sir William Thwaites, speaking at a soldiers' dinner after the war, recalled an address he made to some chaplains:

I told them on one occasion that I wanted a bloodthirsty sermon next Sunday, and would not have any texts from the New Testament.

The Old Testament certainly contains a wide range of 'battle texts' dating from a time when God's kingdom on earth was most definitely enforced at the point of a sword in defence of his people. But this doesn't fit well with the Jesus of the New Testament, whose comparative non-violence (except in the 'cleansing of the temple') appears worlds away from the earlier accounts of bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.

In the Barnabas teachers' resource book What Price Peace? we recount the story of how Woodbine Willie's understanding of God changed with his war experiences, to a point where the only way he could understand God was to imagine him suffering on the battlefield alongside the wounded and dying - in No Man's Land. This was the only way he could understand the Jesus he knew - whose redemptive suffering and death pointed a way through and beyond the current horrors.

Nowadays, Christians in places of conflict continue to be divided over the rights and wrong of warfare, and still read their Bibles selectively - as they did a century ago. But pacifism and peacemaking can also be inspired by Bible texts - the words retain their power.

Preparation

The key passages listed in the Exploring war and peace through Bible verses download are all used or alluded to at some point in the teachers' resource book What Price Peace? These can be used in a variety of ways with your class, cutting and pasting or using them all together.

Check the passages and select those appropriate to the abilities of your class, ensuring that each group of children has the opportunity to read about three or four of them. (For alternative translations in English and other languages, see www.biblegateway.com.)

You could also use the passages to reflect the opinions of both soldiers and those protesting against the war, but you need to be selective in choosing your passages. Of course, you may know of other passages that you could used instead of or in addition. One way in which they could be sorted is as follows:

  • Pro-war? - 2 Kings 6; Ephesians 6:10-17; Psalm 18
  • Anti-war? - Jeremiah 1; Isaiah 2; 1 Samuel 8; Matthew 5:3-11; Matthew 26
  • Both? - Psalm 46, Psalm 23, Psalm 55, Matthew 6.25-34

Development

Explain how British soldiers were often given Bibles in the First World War as they went off to fight - and many of them had a great deal of time to stop and read these whether they were serving on the battlefield or resting away from the battlefront.

Sort the pupils into small groups, giving each group three of four passages of Bible text. Explain that they have to imagine they are soldiers on the battlefield, waiting to go out on a raid across No Man's Land. Some of them may not come back alive.

  • Which of these passages might be the most or least encouraging for them?

Just like athletes preparing for that once-in-a-lifetime contest, they know that a verse of 'scripture' can inspire them to fight harder, to find their focus, control their fears and think clearly. But which bit of the Bible is it going to be?

Firstly, pupils should read through the passages themselves, highlighting difficult words or phrases and agreeing on their meaning. Then they should choose the most suitable, copying it out and illustrating it using motifs and images from the First World War, for use on the lid of a tin of chocolate biscuits to be sent to soldiers at the Front, but also explaining their choice as clearly as possible.

  • Why these words?
  • What effect might they have for the soldier?

As a contrasting activity, set the same challenge but this time get them to imagine that they are peace protestors about to go out on a dangerous march through a busy town, protesting against the war, and they know they are going to face a lot of opposition, especially from families whose brothers or fathers have gone off to fight. And there may be soldiers 'on leave'. The peace protestors could be about to face verbal abuse, violence and even be arrested for 'disturbing the peace' or being unpatriotic.

  • Which Bible passages would be the most inspiring for these protestors?
  • Which verses might they write on their protest banners and placards?

Finish by designing the protest banners or placards.

You could split these two activities so half the class works on one task while the other half does the other.

  • Do any passages end up on both lists, without any prompting from you?

Acknowledgements

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash