Thoughts On Religion At The Front - Ch. 2
( Originally Published 1917 )
I CAN only venture upon a verdict after first acknowledging that it is inseparably bound up with my own short-comings. Other men of a truer devotion and love may well have grounds in a more effective ministry for challenging and amplifying it.
Further, I have to ask that allowance be made for the fact that men like myself, who have been working as C. of E.' chaplains, are not very well qualified to speak about the religion of the men. There is something wrong about the status of chaplains. They belong to what the author of A Student in Arms calls the super-world of officers, which as such is separate from the men. As a class we find it hard to penetrate the surface of the men—that surface which we can almost see thrust out at us like a shield, in the suddenly assumed rigidity of men as they salute us. 'We are in an unchristian position, in the sense that we are in a position which Christ would not have occupied.
He, I am sure, would have been a regimental stretcher - bearer, truly among and of the men. We are very unlike Him. We are often liked, and are thought good fellows, but we are unlike Him and miss what He could discover.
Our — my — verdict is not necessarily His. Lastly, all verdicts must be rough in war. The nature of war and of its effects often precludes any one from knowing exactly what is going on in the souls of men. War is a muddy business, encasing the body in dirt, and caking over the soul. It forms hard surfaces over the centres of sensitiveness. It is benumbing to spiritual faculties. That is nature's way of accommodation with war's environment. To feel things much would literally be maddening. To brood about danger, to apprehend or anticipate or philosophise may imperil nerve.'
Rather the majority of men carry on, callously, almost gaily, with mental and spiritual faculties if possible inactive. I have met an entirely devout lover of music (since killed in action) who told me that he didn't miss music out here because "he wasn't carrying on with those faculties." I have seen a man of indubitable Christian conviction come down from the cold clam of the trenches in mid-winter and take up a religious book which ordinarily would have excited him and say—" Ah ! yes, there is all that." I could almost see the surface which war had hardened over him. Beneath it in him and all the rest, who knows what may not be in process, ready to emerge when they can bathe in the solvent waters of peace ?
Meanwhile they carry on. That I think is especially congenial to the British. There is no doubt that men of our race have an invincibility, which is due in part to the fact that they do not think about or feel what is really going on. To be practically and sensually occupied with the passing moment is the way to carry on in war. It is characteristic of our men. They are remarkably void of apprehension in every sense of the word. Had the rank and file who fought the first battle of Ypres—when the whole of the British forces came to be strung out from Ypres to La Bassee in one line without a reserve — formed a general apprehension of and as to their position, they would have been rattled ' and broken. They were not beaten, in part because they did not think of being beaten. " You can't," as they sing, " beat the boys of the bull-dog breed," but this invincibility has not altogether the virtue of facts understood, faced, and triumphed over. In short, British qualities and defects of qualities are closely interwoven. But my point is, that this being so, any verdict about what is going on in British souls during a war must be humble and tentative and patient of qualification.