‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them’.
The memorials in every city, town and village, engraved with lists of the names of local people who died, starkly bring home to us the reality of ‘the war to end all wars’!
One hundred years on, we feel deep gratitude for the sacrifice of a previous generation whose losses laid the foundation for our freedoms. It is right to remember and reflect on the war that changed the world.
- The global war, centred in Europe, began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918.
- More than 70 million military personnel were involved, of whom 60 million were Europeans.
- More than 9 million combatants were killed. 27 million were wounded.
- 8 million prisoners of war were taken, usually as large units surrendered en masse. POW’s survival rates were higher than that of their peers on the front.
- Only 50 ‘thankful parishes’ in the whole of the U.K. welcomed home all their sons alive at the end of the war. Human beings, like disease, had become deadly at destroying people.
- Technological advances led to enormous increases in the lethal nature of weapons, without corresponding improvements in protection or escape.
- It was the first war which used bombing from aeroplanes.
- The war was triggered by the assassination on 28 June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, by a Serbian atheistic and nationalistic student in Sarajevo.
- For most of World War I, Allied and German forces stalled in trench warfare. There were over 5,965 miles of trenches meandering between the North Sea and the Swiss border with France.
- Entrenchment in those disease-ridden, lice- and rat-infested trenches, as well as machine gun fire, barbed wire and artillery inflicted severe casualties on both sides of the war.
- As the Great War came to an end, Germany and Russia were no longer imperial powers, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires ceased to exist.
- The war had unleashed the evil forces of Nazism and Bolshevism. Both acknowledged the influence of Charles Darwin’s idea that humanity was evolving into something better.
- On 1 July 1916, the British army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
- The entire Somme offensive cost the British army almost half a million men.
- The Germans used poison gas for the first time in war.
- Tanks were first used in combat by the British during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, and a year later the French introduced the revolving turret.
Infamous theatres of war
Behind the statistics are dreadful stories of human suffering. There were widows, fatherless children, broken-hearted parents and spinsters who never married, because of the shortage of young men.
Infamous theatres of war still send a chill down the spine of those who have read of them. Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Passchendaele were dark, dreadful scenes of humanity at its worst. Thinking of this, war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote: ‘I died in hell (they called it Passchendaele)’.
With gratitude we remember ‘our glorious dead’, but the human toll of destructive, gory carnage stands as a memorial to societies that want to divorce themselves from God and his commands.
Soldiers and others asked how God could allow such suffering and misery. Yet it was self-inflicted — humanity against fellow humanity.
God’s Word to the world (the Bible) speaks of the rottenness of human nature: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked’, and ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you … you kill and covet because you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight’.
World War 1 — as one cartoon portrayed — was the world seeking to silence Jesus. Not only did he teach us to love our enemies, but demonstrated God’s love for our rebellious world by going to the place called Calvary, where he was crucified.
There he became the substitute-sacrifice, taking on himself the sins of the world. But World War 1 appeared to be the world turning its back on such love.
Jesus suffered as he took on himself the darkness of this world, for when he was crucified the sin of us all was laid on him.
We are, by nature, part of the humanity that perpetrated the atrocities of World War 1 and every other war. Jesus died to save men and women from the power of sin and from hell itself. He did it by paying the penalty for everything that has cut us off from God.
How could the millions who had a rendezvous with death simply ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile’?
People everywhere felt the trauma of having seen friends butchered. Nations lost their sons and daughters, parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, lovers, workmates, neighbours and friends. The inscription on the graves of unidentified soldiers buried in war cemeteries is, ‘A soldier of the Great War, known unto God’.
In the long, hot summer of 1914 the world destroyed the optimism of the Edwardian era. Young men were rushing to recruiting offices, standing on tiptoe and sticking out their chests to appear older, but that was soon replaced by horror and cynicism. Someone has called this war ‘the winter of the world’.
On the eve of Jesus’ going to Calvary, the place of his crucifixion, he said, ‘Greater love has no one, but that a man lay down his life for his friends’. He too, as a young man, was going to a place of unimaginable suffering and death.
We were made to live in harmony with God and those around us, but history and our own consciences scream at us that we have failed and fallen short of our true purpose.
God loves you and me so much that he would not turn his back on us, even though we have all deliberately turned ourselves away from him.
As Jesus hung alone on the cross, his suffering was even worse than anything experienced in trench warfare. On the cross, Jesus was paying for the wickedness of war crimes, as well as the everyday sins of our lives.
He was forsaken by his own Father God, as he was ‘made sin’ in our place. He was forsaken, so that we could be forgiven and never forsaken by God. When he had fully paid the price of our sin, he called out, ‘It is finished!’
World War I ended in victory for the Allies, but the outcome was only going to pave the way for the beginning of the Second World War, 21 years later. It proved impossible to overcome the hatred of the defeated enemy.
Jesus’ victory was complete when three days later he rose again from the dead. There is no grave for Jesus and no tombstone for him, because he is alive. The risen Jesus is God’s way to rescue men and women.
Every believing Christian is, in effect, a living memorial to the battle Jesus fought and won. Christians have come to a time in their lives when they turned from going their own way, to trust Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
Thanking him for dying for them, they have asked him to forgive them and bring them to know God. He helps us to follow Jesus and live for him. Christians know that one day they will be with God for ever in his heavenly home.
Do you know this? Are you certain of heaven when you die? There is nothing more important than to ask Jesus to become your Lord and Saviour today, and start to follow him who gave himself for you.
Oswald Chambers was born in Aberdeen in July 1874. A brilliant artist, he became a Christian walking home after hearing the gospel of Jesus preached.
He became the founder of a college in 1911, but four years later it was closed ‘for the period of the war’. Oswald Chambers then sailed for Egypt to serve as a chaplain to Commonwealth soldiers who were facing the terrors of war.
He could draw large crowds of soldiers as he spoke to them of Jesus who died and rose that they might come to know God. After two years service, he died of complications from appendicitis aged 43. His writings have become international best sellers.
He said, ‘Jesus Christ was born into this world, not from it. He came into history from the outside of history. He did not come from the human race; he came into it from above. He is God incarnate … God coming into human flesh, coming into it from the outside. Our Lord entered history by the virgin Mary … so too he must come into us from outside’.
This article is taken, with kind permission, from a tract by the author, distributed by Day One and 10 Publishing