'The Greatest Story of All' - Easter in the First World War

As each Spring sees the supermarket shelves fill with chocolate eggs and chickens, many Christians begin to fret that the "real" meaning of Easter is being lost. Yet this fear is not new, and even during the First World War there were widespread concerns that the soldiers did not understand the story of Easter or its significance.

This was a concern to those of the Young Men's Christian Society (YMCA) who were committed to providing the young men of Britain and her empire with not only a Christian education, but an understanding of religion that was intelligible and accessible.

Religious education among working class soldiers in particular was considered to be very low and while many had a basic grounding in Sunday School stories, the YMCA was aware that many of the young men who visited their huts lacked depth to their Christian understanding. Undoubtedly a soldier would have known of Jesus' death on the Cross but may not have known the meaning behind it, or of His Resurrection on the third day.

I have written a number of times before on the YMCA's work with the soldiers during the First World War, but a key part of this connection was in bringing knowledge of the Bible into relation of the men's ordinary experience and understanding, in order that it may be made comprehensible. Specifically, such presentations of God often relied on the presentation of His human face, the personable Jesus who they could picture and emote with.

Image result for easter dawn ww1
Easter Dawn postcard
It therefore follows that the Easter story held a particular importance in the YMCA's liturgy, as the culmination of the life of Jesus. In order that soldiers may be given the whole view of the narrative, special pamphlets were provided offering an illustrated telling of 'The Greatest Story of All', which detailed 'what happened' on each day from the Last Supper to the Resurrection in contemporary language. Moreover, central concepts such as Passover, the Gentiles, and even the New Testament are defined, making this very much an entry level guide.

Such pamphlets were designed to be easily picked up and browsed as a soldier enjoyed his refreshments in the YMCA's huts, or while he waited for a concert to begin. They were also small and could be taken away if the men wanted to be reminded of biblical passages or ideas. Their distribution would have been widespread and hundred of different editions were published, covering a whole range of topics. However, quite how much they were being read by the soldiers they were published for is difficult to tell.

What pamphlets such as this do indicate, however, is the tone of the YMCA's teaching, which carried throughout their literature and also in their preaching (as far as can be told from the written sources). There was nothing complex or abstract, but was instead clear and grounded. A guide for Association speakers suggested that the approach most appreciated by soldiers was one that put ideas 'concretely, in terms of life'.

And the life at war gave ample opportunity for connection and comparison with the Easter Story. The YMCA's weekly newspaper wrote in its Easter 1916 address that 'soldiers' minds' in this season especially, 'will be directed to the great fact they are facing death', and with that 'the glorious certainty that their true Captain is the Prince of Life', meaning Jesus, who gave that certainty through His Resurrection. The editorial admitted that soldiers may not necessarily make this connection for themselves, and that therefore 'our hope is that we may help them to know Him as never before'.

This is an idea repeated often throughout the war from across the spectrum of Christian thinkers, not just those within the YMCA. Through the sense of death created by war, the soldiers would gain a new understanding and connection with the death of Jesus; a compassion for His suffering, and a hope in His Resurrection. This was discussed by the chaplain Rev. John Patten MC in an article for the YMCA's journal at Easter 1918. He talked of the 'sense of partnership' soldiers felt 'in Christ's sufferings' and concluded that it was 'the balm that heals every wound'. Now this is certainly hyperbolic, yet it indicates the comfort soldiers could derive from fellowship in the Passion.

The 1916 passage went on, 'recalling the darkest deed in human history'. The writer means here the Crucifixion of Jesus, yet it is left deliberately ambiguous so as to also draw similarities to the present period of war. Moreover, from this came 'the decisive victory of Divine light and love', and the great hope that stemmed from it was the prayer that maybe also the bloody war could end with such a victory, no matter how far off it felt in early 1916.

The Neuve Chapelle calvary, AK Yapp
Reminders of the Easter story were ever-present to soldiers serving on the Western Front through the wayside calvaries that dot the cross-roads of France and Flanders. To one YMCA contributor these were helpful symbols 'of the ultimate meaning of war', again highlighting the ultimate Victory of Jesus. Sir Arthur Keysall Yapp, the YMCA's general secretary, wrote similarly in his memoirs. He described how the cross was the 'emblem' that could remind soldiers that even if they had to take 'the way of the Cross', ie. the painful and sacrificial route, 'truth and freedom would triumph in the end'.

But while the calvaries were a physical reminder of Easter on the Western Front, in the Middle East the British servicemen met with living reminders, especially those who occupied Jerusalem itself throughout 1918. YMCA workers and soldiers alike noted with astonishment that the locals of Palestine and Mesopotamia looked just like those from 'biblical times', like those depicted in the Christian images they grew up with.

These could often seem like the only familiarities in a landscape that seemed completely alien. However, the YMCA remained determined to delivering home comforts, no matter how far away from Britain they were. During Easter 1917 they were even able to provide hot cross buns in their two canteens in Baghdad, bringing that familiar Easter touch to the Middle East.

Such was the continuous work of the YMCA throughout the First World War, that it would intertwine the provision of physical comfort and spiritual support, reminding soldiers of their homes and inspiring Christian faith. They hoped soldiers would take up the message of Jesus, through learning the meaning of the Cross and identifying with His sacrifice, yet also sought not to exclude anyone who did not wish to celebrate in the same manner. It was through this approach that they sought to uphold another of Jesus' greatest teachings: that of unfaltering love and care for one's neighbour.


The YM British Empire Weekly
The Red Triangle Journal
AK Yapp, Romance of the Red Triangle
'The Greatest Story of All', Red Triangle Press

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