As we mark 100 years since the end of World War I, there are still lessons to be learned to help make today’s world a better place.
From our vantage point in history it is hard to understand the vast impact that the ‘war to end all wars’ had on every facet of society, and the way in which it changed the world. This conflict was truly the first worldwide war.
For countries such as the United Kingdom, it meant almost an entire generation cut down in the flower of its youth, left lying in foreign fields or returning bearing physical and mental scars. It would forever influence the nation’s future and irrevocably alter many of its chief institutions and values—nothing would ever be the same again.
For The Salvation Army, the outbreak of war provided perhaps the greatest challenge to its existence since its founding, and shaped its direction for decades to come. In a conflict marked by nationalistic fervour as nations were pitted against one another it raised the question, how could an international movement remain true to its belief in a Gospel that transcended race and creed?
A little more than a decade earlier, The Salvation Army had faced a similar situation during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) between the United Kingdom and the South African republics. The Army was already an international movement, with a strong presence in South Africa. General William Booth—the Army’s founder and world leader at the time—found his heart “torn asunder” at the thought of Salvationist fighting Salvationist and the suffering that war would bring.
His response was to take a position of organisational neutrality, and to remind Salvationists that war did not diminish their calling to improve the lot of the poor and continue with evangelism—and that it was more important than ever to remember Jesus’ commandments, writing:
“Remember, that the success of British arms, however desirable it may appear to you, must and will involve great suffering, wounds and death on both sides... Even if you have a feeling that this people are in any sense in the wrong, or are your enemies in this matter, you are bound to love them, to pray for them, and do your utmost to promote their well-being.”
He saw The Salvation Army’s true work starting when the fighting ended, helping those dispossessed and affected by the horrors of the war. While politicians argued over treaties, The Salvation Army was working to provide assistance to both the Boer and English wounded, coming alongside their families as they tried to pick up the pieces.
With his father’s example to guide him, General Bramwell Booth (pictured)—The Salvation Army’s second world leader—knew the importance of staying true to the vision that the Army stood for. But the sheer scale of the conflict that engulfed the world made a neutral stance almost impossible.
While Bramwell tried to keep the organisation itself above politics, individual Salvationists needed to follow their own conscience. Many fought on both sides, and The Salvation Army suffered its share of losses. Others became conscientious objectors. Though recognising these diverse convictions, Booth saw one value as non-negotiable—that war could not be allowed to dehumanise those on the other side and cause us to forget the call to love one another.
Writing in The War Cry, Bramwell warned his readers that war “will do its utmost to kill our sympathy with suffering...to destroy our pity for the wrongdoer...to close up the fountains of our compassion for those who injure us, and to silence our prayers for those who despitefully use our people”.
As the war dragged on, it was sometimes a difficult balance to maintain, and it was natural that many Salvationists found themselves caught up in the patriotic fever around them. But there was a genuine desire to stay true to the principles the organisation was built on and not be drawn into hatred for others.
Salvation Army relief workers
War could not be allowed to dehumanise those on the other side and cause us to forget the call to love one another.
The belief endured that even in the midst of hate love could, and would, survive. It was seen in the countless chaplains who ministered to soldiers in the trenches of Europe or the hills of Gallipoli, in the support provided to returning soldiers and the families of those who never returned, and in the way Salvationists across the world remained united in their shared faith rather than divided by nationality.
A century since the guns fell silent we take a moment to remember those who fought for what they thought right, and truly believed that great conflict must surely be the ‘war to end all wars’. There was a genuine sense that after seeing the pain and suffering it had brought to so many that future generations would learn its lessons and find a better way.
We know now that was not to be the case, and that the intervening years have seen bloodshed on a scale that outweighs even the horrors of World War I. We seem no closer to a world without war, and it is hard to believe that we can make a difference and break the cycle of conflict.
But each of us can bring about change if we continue to show love in the face of hate, and work towards a world where we see every person as God’s creation, equally valuable regardless of who they are or where they come from. The more we can do that, the closer we can come to a world without war—and by doing so honour the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the hope that we might know peace.