One hundred years on
This month marks 100 years since the guns of World War 1 fell silent in Europe. By the time that day came, approximately 10 million men had fallen, and millions more were permanently maimed. Some 7 million civilians lost their lives, whilst the physically broken and psychologically scarred were beyond counting. It was the most brutal war the world had ever seen. ‘When it was all over, torture and cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific Christian states had been able to deny themselves,’ wrote Winston Churchill, ‘and these were of doubtful utility’. On average roughly 6,000 men were killed every day of the war. About half the British soldiers fighting in France became casualties. Shocked by its magnitude, its duration, and above all by its staggering human cost, contemporaries labeled the conflict simply "The Great War."
Most of you reading this will have heard of family members who never returned from that war, or who did return but as broken men. It was a war whose devastation is inscribed on countless war memorials that stand in silent tribute amidst most communities around our land.
Yet out of the horror came not only the searing pain of loss, along with despair and cynicism and bleak hopelessness felt by many, but for others, there began a renewed search for spiritual reality. Did you know that the road to Narnia began in the trenches of France during World War I? C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles, returned as a casualty from the war, and yet the unspeakable horrors he witnessed led him on the path which would eventually bring him to Christian faith.
On the morning of April 15, 1918, however, Lewis was a long way from the Christian faith. In fact, he was an avowed atheist. His battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry, had come under German bombardment at the French village of Riez du Vinage. After five months in the trenches, he had had enough of war: “the frights, the cold, the smell of high explosive, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles.” His poetry during this period rails against a silent and indifferent universe: “Come let us curse our Master ere we die / For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.” Lewis might easily have joined the ranks of anti-war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
During the bombardment, a shell exploded nearby, obliterated his sergeant and wounded Lewis with shrapnel. His war was ended. He was dragged from the battlefield and taken to hospital near Étaples. He wrote to his father: ‘I could sit down and cry over the whole business and yet of course we have both much to be thankful for….. if I had not been wounded when I was, I would have gone through a terrible time’
Yet the war and its aftermath seemed to have stirred Lewis’s spiritual longings. Whilst being transferred by train to a London hospital to recover from his wounds, Lewis was seized by a sense of the transcendent, as he beheld the natural beauty of the English countryside, ‘I think I never enjoyed anything so much as that scenery - all the white in the hedges, and fields so full of buttercups that in the distance they seemed to be of solid gold, ‘ he wrote to a friend. ‘You see the conviction is gaining ground on me that after all Spirit does exist. I fancy that there is Something outside time and place. You see how frankly I admit that my views have changed.’
Nevertheless, Lewis said that he had no intention falling back to the Christian faith of his youth, which he continued to dismiss as ‘superstitions’. He was in good company. The mechanized butchery of the war instigated a mood of doubt and disillusionment in many. For T.S. Elliot, the post war world was a wasteland of despair. ‘I think we are in rat’s alley,’ he wrote ‘where the dead men lost their bones’.
Eriq Remarque’s All quiet on the western front’, written from the German soldier’s point of view, saw a generation of men ‘weary, broken, burnt out, rootless, and without hope.’There was a spirit of bleak despair in the hearts of many after the war.
On return to Oxford, the academically-brilliant Lewis joined the faculty of English literature as a tutor and forged new friendships, not least with J.R.R. Tolkien, himself a veteran of the Somme. Tolkien successfully challenged Lewis’s materialistic outlook and the avowed atheist began to conclude, as he reflected on the Christian faith, that ‘there must be something in it.’ Through time Lewis discovered in the Gospel a vision of the grace of God, and became the man of faith we now celebrate. Yet it is worth remembering that his spiritual journey began in the trenches.
The First World War was an unspeakable tragedy that visited untold suffering on countless numbers of people. However, out of that darkness could be found the light of hope. Whilst some returned from combat experience deeply disillusioned and without hope, for Lewis his wartime involvement ignited a spiritual quest which led to faith in Christ and the writing of many books, not least the Chronicles of Narnia. By creating imaginary worlds, as Lewis did in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, or Tolkien did in ‘Lord of the Rings’, they gave us imaginary glimpses of heaven —which helps prepare us for the real heaven. These celebrated volumes of literature came, in large part, out of the war.
What Lewis discovered was something the Great War nearly destroyed for him; an explanation for his deepest longing, the desire for joy. What he learned, from his own careful study of the Gospels, helped him cast off his previous doubts.
The grief and horror of combat was punctuated by acts of decency, compassion and heroism. The intense experience of war helped Lewis imagine the mythical land of Narnia, a kingdom that bears the wounds - and the consolations - of a world at war. Its noble king, Aslan the lion, is both a warrior and a peacemaker. ‘This is my real country!’ Lewis wrote in The Last Battle ‘This is the land I have been looking for all my life, although I never knew it till now’
As we remember the horrors of the First World War, let us not stop with the darkness, but remember that for some who endured the horrors, out of that darkness came the light of Christ. Indeed, the experience of darkness seems to have whetted their appetite, not for hopeless despair, but for the One who alone is the light of the world.