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The Great and Holy War: How World War One changed religion forever

Symon Hill

Philip Jenkins
Lion, 438pp

In 1916, the Bishop of London told British soldiers to kill Germans: 'Kill the good as well as the bad. Kill the young as well as the old. Kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded'. The Bishop, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, used such language throughout the First World War. He insisted that all who died fighting the Germans were martyrs. Meanwhile, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Vorwerk was calling on God to save the German people: 'Help us in this holy war . . . Smite the foe each day'.

Not everyone employed such rhetoric. Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson was careful to portray the war as a regrettable necessity. But Philip Jenkins lays out sufficient evidence to make clear that the language of 'holy war' was common in all combatant countries and not confined to any one theological outlook. Most of the ground-breaking liberal German theologians of the time, notably Adolf von Karnack, gave their enthusiastic blessing to Germany's role in the war. This is a fascinating book in which Jenkins convincingly argues that we cannot understand the war without understanding religion. As he puts it, 'Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world's Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war'.

His first chapters are full of stories of angels, ghosts and divine interventions on a level that would have been inconceivable even 20 years later. These stories are absorbing, amusing and alarming in equal measure. In 1914, Arthur Mache wrote a fantasy story about ghostly soldiers appearing to help British troops at the Battle of Mons. The story became so popular that Mache found himself meeting veterans of Mons who claimed to have seen the spectral bowmen. Later he was accused of being unpatriotic for telling everyone that he had invented the story.

Jenkins goes on to explore how events in the war affected the development of religion after it. Belief in spiritualism rocketed. Conversions to Catholicism became more common, as soldiers found comfort in Catholic imagery. Protestant chaplains were horrified to see soldiers using their Bibles as talismans, keeping them somewhere special in the way Catholic soldiers did with crucifixes, but never reading them. There was a saying in Germany: 'Luther lost the war'.

It seemed strange to me that Jenkins didn't mention that it was during World War One that the Church of England first issued prayers for the dead (to the outrage of evangelicals). Then I realised that I have become used to reading histories of the war that focus on Britain, whereas Jenkins does an admirable job of keeping his book international.

We read much about the Middle East, where Jerusalem was conquered by British general Edmund Allenby. He struggled to play down the messianic associations given him by an ecstatic British press - who identified him with Richard the Lion heart - and US fundamentalists such as Cyrus Schofield who saw the conquest as a fulfilment of biblical prophecy. The Armenian massacres and the post-war Allied carve-up of the defeated Ottoman Empire broke up mixed populations in the Middle East, with Christians and Muslims geographically divided as never before.

Baptist minister John Chilembwe led a revolt against British rule in Nyasaland (Malawi), triggered by the war and inspired by biblical images of liberation. African Christians who had been marginalised and controlled by colonial churches drew on the parts of the Bible the missionaries preferred to ignore, which often described a world of spirits, dreams and visions. World War One was a key time for the blossoming of African Christianity.

Jenkins summons academic evidence without sacrificing readability. It is hard to read for more than a few pages without being fascinated or surprised. In particular, he does a rigorous job of showing how many of today's disputes are rooted to varying degrees in the First World War. The war's promises and counter-promises, made for temporary gain, continued to reverberate long after those who made them were dead. When British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour made the famous declaration named after him, guaranteeing Jews a home in Palestine, he had already offered the area to at least two other groups.

Jenkins covers a broad range of topics in admirable detail. But there is an oddity in his choice of subjects. Why, when there are chapters on Judaism and Islam, is Hinduism mentioned only in passing, despite the war's impact on India? Even Philip Jenkins can't be an expert on everything, but an explanation might help.

I have only one major criticism. Jenkins virtually ignores those religious groups who opposed the war. Quakers are mentioned twice; Mennonites and Jehovah's Witnesses once each. These groups, whose members mostly refused to fight, were changed dramatically by the war. But Jenkins writes that opponents were 'scarce and exceptional', a disappointing claim from someone who readily picks up evidence in other areas. In Britain in 1916, the leading underground anti-war newspaper The Tribunal had 100,000 readers, while anti-war feeling played a major role in revolutions that toppled the Kaiser and the Tsar.

Nonetheless, this book is well worth reading, not least because it reveals that some of today's problems are older than they seem. A hundred years ago, wishing to undermine the Ottoman Empire by dividing Muslims, the UK allied with Wahhabi leader Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and effectively created Saudi Arabia as a state for his family to rule over.

A century later, British policymakers have still not got out of the habit of forming alliances with despots for short-term gain, regardless of the long-term consequences.