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Question of Faith (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

The picture acts as a drop cap for the text. Purple letter Q with a laurel wreath, representing the A to Z Challenge blogging event. Text below the logo says 'Blogging from A to Z April Challenge' and 'a-to-zchallenge.com'

Not surprisingly, the Great War was a test of faith for all believers in the trenches and on the homefront.

The relationship between religion and the people who lived through the Great War is more complex than it may appear at first glance. 

Faith could be a great comfort for both the soldiers in the trenches and the family and friends at home. But faith could also be tried beyond the mark of acceptance in the trenches, as well as on the homefront, as people wondered in their hearts why, if God existed, He allowed such horrible carnage to happen. 

On the other hand, religion was often used in propaganda, and parishes and their priests were mobilised to support enrolment. This, too, proved to be double-edged since it was indeed, on the one hand, a very powerful call to arms, but on the other, as time passed, people started to wonder about God and about the Church. 

Faith in and out of the trenches during the Great War

Pinterest pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Question of Faith." The black-and-white picture shows a war chaplain standing in a trench, leaning on a staff and wearing a helmet.

There’s an ongoing debate on the topic of whether WWI caused a majority of people to lose their faith. In fact, an answer in not easy to give. 

First of all, how much faith did people at the beginning of the 1900s have to lose?
This generation wasn’t strongly religious, to begin with, which was true for the male population in particular. Religiousness tended to be considered feminine. Men weren’t very engaged in religious practices. 
Yet, the majority of the people involved in the war, whether soldiers or their family and friends who stayed home, did consider themselves Christians, and the violence and horror of the mechanised war did affect their beliefs. 
The soldiers in the trenches, who saw daily body damage and disintegration, naturally wondered why a benevolent God would allow such carnage. And indeed, many lost their faith, or their faith was heavily tested in that environment. 
For others, their belief was a comfort. The Christian discourse of sacrifice actually made sense of what was happening to them. The war was horrible, but there must have been a higher reason why it was happening and why it was happening to them. 

Different was the relationship with the Church and even with battlefield chaplains. 
The position of the Church both on the battlefields and on the homefront became ever more tricky as the conflict wore on.
Religious discourse became entangled in war propaganda almost from the beginning. Perishes were mobilised to urge young men to enrol, as the enemy was depicted as an antichrist (this would become heavier and heavier as time passed) and the national army as the righteous force that would defend all good people. 
But all the major actors in the war were Christian nations, therefore the same discourse happened on all sides. Battlefield chaplains called for the protection of God before battle on both sides. Of course, soldiers started to wonder. However, it was not necessarily their faith that faltered, but rather their faith in the Church. This population was sceptical towards the institution of the Church from the beginning. The war often deepened this feeling. 

Besides, the more the war lasted, the more people – soldiers, but also their families – saw the suffering, death and destruction and started to wonder why the Church supported such a thing, especially when the comfort of one’s belief became an insufficient consolation when a loss happened in a family. 

Question of Faith (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – Not surprisingly, the Great War was a test of faith for all believers in the trenches and on the home front #WWI #history Share on X

Visionaries and mediums

Therefore, people started to find comfort elsewhere, away from the Church and sometimes even from religion, though most alternatives were indeed perceived as coexistent rather than in conflict with religion. 

Visionary mystics and mediums became very popular on the homefront. Even when operating in a non-Christian capacity, they still connected to Christianity in their practices and appellations.

The black-and-white picture shows four people, two men and two women, around a small table with their hands on it. The table is up in the air. By their fashion, it's clear this is the 1910s.

Visionary mystics were individuals (usually women) who claimed to have visions of the future and could prophesy what would happen.  
Some of them, like French Claire Ferchaud and German Barbara Weigand, became extremely popular and influential in the early phases of the war. However, these mystics prophesied events at the beginning of the war that didn’t come to pass, and consequently, their influence waned as the war went on. 

Medium were instead individuals (again, most often women) who claimed to be able to talk with the dead and connect their loved ones to the war-fallen. 
Since families and friends often had extremely (sometimes no) information about how their loved one passed, being able to talk to their spirits provided great relief. 

Many of these mediums operated in an environment of Spiritualism resurgence. Spiritualism was a practice that verged on belief that had been very popular in the mid-1800s. At the turn of the century, it was on the decline, but the carnage of WWI and the millions of bereaved families brought that practice back.  
Spiritualism has always been a diverse phenomenon whose practitioners ranged from true believers to curious observers, the mentally deranged and schemers attempting to defraud the gullible. Séances became commonplace and numerous both during the years of war and immediately afterwards. Revived spiritualistic societies brought the discussion back into the public sphere. For a brief time, even science considered the possibility that Spiritualistic practices could truly connect the dead with the living. 

The Lost Generation’s attitude towards faith

People’s attitudes towards religion and beliefs varied both during and after the war, but when it comes to the Lost Generation, especially those who expressed their feelings through their art, things become a bit more homogeneous. 
Disillusionment is what more often comes to mind. 

The Lost Generation was lost because they lost faith in numerous things, and this includes faith in God.
An essential inner void, missing a purpose and a vision of the future, also came from the conviction that no higher power could help. The Great War clearly showed that.  


RESOURCES

Owen Davies, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 2019

International Encyclopedia of the First worlds War – Religious Mobilization and Popular Belief
Active History – Atheists in the Trenches: Loss of Faith among Canadians in the Great War


Horizontal banner for the book "The Great War". On the left-hand side is the photo of a group of soldiers standing in a WWI trench. A Yellow button reads, "Go to Shop". On the right-hand side is a picture of a stake of two books, of which only the spine is visible, and the cover of a book standing upright, with the same group of soldiers standing in the trench. The stake of books stands against an olive green background. A big title in yellow reads "The Great War", and a smaller text reads "The updated ebook".

5 Comments

  • D.A.Cairns
    Posted April 19, 2024 at 22:52

    Nice, balanced presentation of the issue. I’ve never experienced war so I have no idea what impact it would have on my faith. I hope of course, that it would provide comfort and strength to endure, but the things those men must have witnessed and experienced are beyond my imagination.
    https://dacairns.com.au/blog/f/a-to-z-blogging-challenge-q

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 21, 2024 at 19:42

      JRR Tolkien, who was a devote Catholic his entire life, showed doubt when he lost two of his best friends when they were all at the front. An experience like the Great War must have been a terrible test. I’m not surprised that some lost their faith. But also, I’m not surprised that, for others, faith was what helped them get through.

  • Kristin Cleage
    Posted April 19, 2024 at 23:33

    It might make for belief in a God less concerned on a personal level.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 21, 2024 at 19:43

      It might. And it truth, it is a very personal reaction. One – a think – people had no power to direct.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted May 14, 2024 at 13:20

    It must have been difficult to lose so much, including faith.

    Ronel visiting for Q: My Languishing TBR: Q
    Quake Before the Sluagh

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