Snapshots From the Front: Celebrating Easter during the First World War

Bytes: Vintage Easter Cards

This Easter is unlike one we have experienced before. As we stay home to stay safe, we are without many of the holiday's traditions, with even churches being closed. Naturally enough, this got me thinking about how Easter was marked in the First World War as people experienced the day in new ways and heard the Easter message in a new light. Here's a snapshot of Easter Sundays from throughout the war, both on the home front and overseas:

London, England (1915)

For the first Easter of the war, the Church was faced with reconciling the Easter message with the circumstances of the day. Easter's themes of hope and overcoming death were understandably pertinent for a time of war, but clergy still had to explain how such a lesson of peace could exist in a world in conflict. Dean William Inge took the Easter Day service at St Paul's Cathedral in 1915, delivering a Sermon based on the line 'Thy dead shall live' from the book of Isaiah. To those in the congregation who had loved ones fighting overseas, or for whom had already lost sons and brothers, this would have given them an almost tangible hope; a promise that they would again see their loved ones again, in the heaven proven in the Easter Story.

Inge claimed that for soldiers who died in battle their bodies would be 'consecrated for ever by the cause for which he died'. This was a powerful message throughout the war, albeit not without controversy for valourising deaths in battle. Yet, for Inge, any fear of materialism was overcome by 'the spirit of heroism and self sacrifice' of the soldiers, clearly connecting their deaths to that of Jesus. He believed that the dying soldier was effectively 'the martyr-patriot', imbuing their suffering on the battlefield with a saint-like heroism that conflated religion and patriotism.

This Easter message of 1915 was fairly typical of the manipulation of religion to support the war effort, especially early in the conflict. In his sermon, Inge read Rupert Brooke's famous poem The Soldier, demonstrating both the power and popularity of these ideas at this time. However, such aggrandising sentiments would not necessarily last the war, or at least not to the same extent.

Poperinghe, Belgium (1916)

The following year, Rev. Philip 'Tubby' Clayton was preparing to celebrate his first Easter at Talbot House, his haven for soldiers in Poperinghe. Clayton had no idea how many men to prepare for at his services, but later exclaimed that Easter 1916 was 'the happiest of my ministry'. The day had 'far surpassed our hopes' with a constant stream of men attending the house's Upper Room chapel. Such was the demand for communion, that Tubby 'could do no more than Lift and Break and Give without pause from 5:30 until after noonday', in total serving 400 soldiers. He described how as he led one service, the next congregation would gather downstairs, awaiting their turn.

Talbot House is one of those places that always seems very emotive of the soldiers' war spirit, yet the atmosphere of the house on that first Easter must have been something special.  Clayton had filled the house with spring flowers, bringing brightness and themes of renewal into the house and described how the Easter message he preach 'lifted our hearts' through sacrifice 'both human and divine'. Like Inge, Clayton made comparisons with the war, but at least from his description his lessons were more of hope and aspiration, supporting soldiers, without a wider comment on the war at large.

Arras, France (1917)

In 1917 the Battle of Arras began on Easter Monday (9th April). Private Victor Polhill later told the Imperial War Museum that he believed it to be a 'funny time to start an offensive'. To him, there was something wrong about planning a battle for Easter; a time of holiday and celebration. This, of course, mattered little to those planning and commanding a battle, and so it was that thousands of soldiers spent Easter sheltering in the tunnels below Arras as they awaited Zero Hour.

Throughout the day several services were held for the soldiers. These combined the celebration of Easter with a final communion before battle. The emotion of these services must have been incredibly powerful; the resurrection of Jesus combined with the soldiers' own preparation for potential death. The fear of death would have been immediate to men's minds as they sought pre-battle comfort.

One of the most well-known of these services was that of Chaplain GC Danvers with the 2nd Suffolks. It was documented in this sketch by Lieut Allum, which was later reproduced in the Illustrated London News. The altar is make-shift, the congregation just stood round. Yet one can only imagine the power of the hymns that were sung here, echoing in the caverns of the Wellington Tunnels.

Ottoman Empire (1918)

While the First World War undoubtedly made Christians think of Easter in a new way, for those stationed away from Western Europe, it also made them experience Easter in a new way. For Capt. Thomas White of the Australian Flying Corps, Easter 1918 was spent imprisoned at Afion Kara Hissar camp in Turkey. He wrote about this experience in his diary, focussing little on the theology on Easter, but instead prioritising his experience. Most notable to him were the Orthodox traditions he saw for the first time, including the decorated hard boiled eggs which they gifted one another.

However, the biggest shock to him was the Easter tradition in the churches of having to kiss everyone in the congregation. This would have been fine, he claimed, if your 'neighbour in the pew was a pretty girl', but he didn't much fancy having to kiss the 'white whiskered old priest'! Easter was then "properly" celebrated in camp with a variety show, comprising of performances by several prisoners. White observed that the star of the show was Lieut Cartall who sang several songs in his 'fine tenor voice'. Despite the circumstances of their being in Turkey, it seems from White's diary that they were able to enjoy a fun and happy Easter together, using the occasion for an opportunity for celebration despite the hardships both of war and of the prisoner camp.

Wishing you all a safe and happy Easter,

Tubby Clayton, Tales of Talbot House,
Diary of Thomas White,
Recollections of Victor Polhill,
GC Danvers' service,
William Inge's sermon,

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