Ultimate Sacrifice: the Crucifixion and the First World War

On Good Friday, Christians across the world and throughout history remember one of Jesus Christ’s most pivotal acts; his crucifixion. Hanged from the cross between two prisoners, He sacrificed his life for that of humanity. He fulfilled his promise, the New Covenant, to forgive sin and offer salvation for all.

It is upon this sacrifice that He bore the sins of the world and for which He is remembered as mankind’s saviour. The image of the Cross, the Calvary, the Crucifix became Christianity’s most pertinent symbol.

While this is true throughout Christian history, the Crucifixion took a particularly prominent role in the ministry of the First World War. It is not difficult to see why. The concepts of pain and sacrifice resonated with soldiers, and the teachings of God’s Plan and salvation were employed as succour for those desperate for answers and reason in conflict.

At its simplest, this can be seen in the widespread popularity of Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ in wartime services. In my entirely anecdotal survey of such services, chaplains’ recounts and hymnals, this is the most popular hymn, perhaps second only to the National Anthem. The lyrics recount Jesus’ sacrifice, of the ‘sorrow and love’ of the act of Crucifixion. Sung in the circumstances of war, whether in a bombed out church or a YMCA hut, it is difficult to imagine someone not to be moved by the final two lines of ‘Love so amazing, so Divine/ Demands my soul, my life, my all’, which appealed to the soldiers’ sense of duty and responsibility.

The ‘Wondrous Cross’ intrinsically linked the duty and responsibility of the soldier with that of Jesus, creating a sentiment of kinship. This method was particularly employed in the ministry of the YMCA, with General Secretary Arthur Keysall Yapp presenting Jesus deliberately as that ‘Friend’ – Jesus Christ – ‘who will never fail him nor forsake him’. Here, Yapp is quoting Moses telling Joshua to ‘Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.’ However, he manipulates the sentiment to apply directly to Jesus: the human face of God.

Image result for easter greeting ww1

If God was to be the ‘Friend’ who stood by and guided a soldier in the trenches, the easiest presentation of this was through the face of Jesus, especially given the low levels of religious education with which chaplains had to work. Jesus could be visualised, his stories shared, and a spiritual relationship developed. Given the pain, loss and sacrifice of wartime, the Passion of Christ became a recurring motif. Chaplains had to confront issues of death and theodicy, and these conundrums had to be answered without complex theological arguments. Moreover, this was important not only for maintaining the soldiers’ connection with Christianity, but also for the benefit of their morale and to avoid the dreaded undercurrents of fatalism.

William Soothill, a Christian writer during the war, identified that the preoccupation with the Crucifixion was because soldiers were ‘facing Death and they know it’, and thus easily connected with the situation of Jesus’ death on the Cross. The connection is clear. Jesus is shown as the Personal God, exposed on the Cross in his human body, unable to avoid pain and death for the benefit of mankind. AH Gray connected the two experiences in a theological pamphlet, describing them as examples of ‘perpetual endurance’.  One side of this was a shared sacrifice, but the other was the need for ‘quiet strength’ and ‘consummate bravery’, by both Jesus and the soldiers, amid the strain and suffering of conflict, or life’s ‘burden’ as Gray described it.

At the ninth hour, Jesus also makes a very human exclamation.  ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ (at least in the reporting of the Gospels) would certainly have resonated with those suffering in the First World War. While there is no great trend of soldiers losing their faith between 1914 and 1918, many certainly questioned their faith in times of pain. For Jesus to have done the same, further creates kinship between the two experiences, as well as reassurance to the Christian soldier that they were allowed to question and doubt their belief. For the Christian knows that Jesus was not forsaken, and thanks to His sacrifice, neither will the believer.

WW1 Catholic Chaplain

Connotations of the Crucifixion were also employed on a more abstract and longer lasting level. The use of the term ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’ in reference to military death draws an automatic comparison to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross to anyone religiously minded. Of course, the death of the soldier for King and Country is not coequal to the Sacrifice of Jesus, yet similar linguistic tools are employed. Perhaps this points to our reliance on the Biblical language to explain and understand our lives, but it also suggests an imposed significance and sacrility on the deaths of soldiers in the First World War.

While discussion of Crucifixion was an important feature of wartime ministry, particularly that aimed at the layman without a complex biblical understanding, some theological scholars believed the act of war itself indicated a lost connection with the true meaning of Jesus’ life. One such writer, John Proctor, in a pamphlet written for clergy working with the YMCA, observed that ‘the need for the Sacrifice of Christ is abundantly demonstrated’ amid the sin of war. He highlighted the presentation of the crucifixion as Jesus ‘who was delivered for our offences’, in a quotation from Romans. It was this sacrifice for our sins, which Proctor considered to have reinvigorated pertinence in the context of war which was ‘revealed in all its native ugliness as an exceedingly hateful thing’, in much the same way as Pilate’s murder of the innocent Jesus. It is certainly difficult to argue that Jesus absolved the world of sin, given the acts of evil across the battlefield.

However, Proctor is less convincing when he says that ‘such appeals’ about Jesus’ atoning death were ‘all too rarely made by those in touch with our brave fellows’ and encouraged further preaching and education about the crucifixion through the YMCA. As discussed above, chaplains and clergy in touch with the active fronts made continual reference to Jesus’ death and sacrifice, albeit often limited by the understanding of their audience. Nonetheless, despite his negativity, Proctor’s pamphlet reinforces the significance of the Crucifixion narrative in the understanding of experiences of war in the early Twentieth Century.

Chaplain Lyman Rollins

Some clergy, such as Reverend James O Hannay, believed that men were ‘learning the meaning of the Cross of Christ’ as a direct result of the war, as per his analysis of wartime preaching published in 1917. This suggests that, at least to some extent, Proctor’s plea was being put into action (inadvertently or otherwise). As I have discussed above, this certainly seems to have been the case. The singing of Jesus’ ‘love so divine’ that he gave his life, in a sacrifice for the benefit of humanity, definitely carries many salient points for the soldiers of the First World War. Understanding may not have been thorough, many men may not have been aware of Jesus’ personal doubt, yet the basic concepts of the selfless death and the confrontation of fear would have been all too common for those fighting on the front line.

What is striking is that for all the talk of the Crucifixion during the First World War, comparatively little – if any – attention is paid to the Resurrection. I cannot pretend to have the answers for this and it is an area of personal interest. Good Friday does not stand alone, but gains its significance from Easter Sunday, when Jesus overcame death and proved himself as the Son of God. One indication of why this could be lies in the emphasis placed on Jesus as the Personal God, with a physical body, in presentations of the Crucifixion. Servicemen felt kinship to this God, to Christ who had to face death as they did, but who did so for all humanity. Such empathy would have been more difficult to connect with the resurrected Spirit, who overcame death.

However, it is in the Resurrection that Jesus demonstrated his power. He was the son of God who conquered the great evil of death. There are certainly many references made to Heaven during the First World War, most notably in the epitaphs of the fallen. However, such a connection and celebration that ‘He is Risen!’ does not feature anywhere near as often in the writings of clergymen, or the recordings of services and sermons from the War.

I am more than willing to be proved wrong on this. Discussion of the resurrection and what it meant for Christian society at war almost certainly would have been ongoing during the First World War, whether merely between clergy or with the soldiers themselves. However, with the pressures of warfare and the varying levels of religious education among both soldiers and non-combatants, it makes sense the it was to the message of Good Friday that Christian teaching during the First World War so regularly returned. After all, it is the Cross which is the symbol of the Christian faith, and which potently marked so many graves of those men who had paid their Ultimate Sacrifice in war.


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