“It’s difficult to say ‘thy will be done’, but God plans all these things for the best, so I must be brave, along with other mothers and wives, who have lost in this dreadful war.” So wrote Bessie Walker of York in November 1918. Her husband of only six weeks had died in the final weeks of the First World War, one of the 11 million servicemen on all sides to lose his life.
The letter is one of 120 discovered at Ormesby Hall, Middlesbrough, and newly published through a partnership between Teeside University and the Heritage Lottery Fund. They were addressed to Mary Pennyman, secretary of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers widows and orphans fund, in response to letters of condolence to the regiment’s bereaved wives and mothers.
What painful reading those letters are. Through an age in which it must have seemed as though He had averted His eyes from the earth, the grieving constantly rededicate themselves to God and the ideals they believed themselves to be fighting for. “You will see my sorrow is heavy, but by the help of God I will try to cheer myself by nursing others,” Agnes Septon, another widow, wrote. Only after the ordeal of war did that commitment disintegrate under the weight of the sacrifice made to it.
It is hard to explain what the Great War did to Europe and Christian civilisation once it had passed, other than to say that it was like a rape. The violence had been appalling, the body had suffered dreadfully and now the mind suffered still more. The Europe that survived the war had lost the faculty of trust. It became sensuous, sad and careless of itself, and has remained that way.
The war is never far from my mind in this tough old country. How can it be when each church and every cross on the green cries out for its dead inscribed? When almost every town in the country mutely transcribes in its buildings the collapse of the faithful vitality of the Edwardian age into the cheap brutalism of the late 20th century? When to pick up a book from that era leaves you haunted by what was and what is, and the unbridgeable distance between the two?
One of the main ways in which the collapse of faith in the old values came after World War I was the gradual retreat from the demands of adulthood. Many modern adults want desperately to be children: they dress in plimsolls, play with electronic toys and live the life of sensation which is properly left in infancy. They have a child’s moral sense: easily outraged, wholly subjective and yet ignorant of sin and the need to protect themselves from it.
This state of affairs is not conducive to a strong Church or society, both of which rely on public duty and personal restraint. What can the Church do about it? In a general sense it can call us back to the life and teachings of Christ. It can illustrate the Beatitudes by conveying the full horror of a world without peacemakers, and should play a more vocal role in opposing the bloodlust of Whitehall’s desktop generals.
There is also something more specific. The tragedy of the war was that it took the best of our men and women and sacrificed them on the least of our causes. Vera Brittain wrote in her Testament of Youth that “Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves … to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal.”
After the war, that public purity was replaced by an affected irony which remains prominent in our culture. Yet the emotions of the volunteer soldier – faith, self-sacrifice, idealism and the will to protect and preserve – still represent the best bloom of youth. The path to adulthood lies in fulfilling these emotions, not glazing them over with cynicism.
Next year marks the centenary of the Armistice. What a fitting tribute it would be were the Church to mark the occasion by organising itself to give a positive outlet to those emotions for our younger people today. A year of service with Catholic charities at home or overseas, living independently and working to a common end, would transform many lives and help ensure that the next generation attains an adulthood for which many of their elders still grasp.
Activities of this sort already exist – the Vincentian Volunteers programme, for instance – but placing them into a single coordinating programme and using the centenary as an opportunity to publicise and fund-raise through special second collections at a diocesan level would bring these to a new scale. How fitting it would be if, 100 years after the butchery of youth in service of age, those of us who are older were able to provide for these children the path to an adulthood which has eluded so many of us.
TA Pascoe is a writer from south-east England
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