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The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt Among British and American Great War Soldiers.

The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt Among British and American Great War Soldiers. By Richard Schweitzer (Westport, Ct.: Praeger, 2003. xxxiii plus 311 pp.).

This book places the role of religion within the dichotomy in Great War studies between "traditional" and "modern" cultural responses. Scholars such as Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory) have argued that the shock and novelty of the Great War created an entirely new culture that stood at such variance to traditional culture that it is appropriate to think of post-war culture as entirely new and "modern." More recently, Jay Winter (Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning) has led a rethinking on the subject. Winter argues that when faced with the need to deal with such tremendous trauma, Europeans fell back on coping mechanisms with which they were familiar. Traditional religion formed a critical part of these mechanisms. Many of the exhibits in the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne make the same point.

Schweitzer places religion squarely into the traditional category and argues that religion formed an important method of coping with the war for British and American soldiers. The author, who freely admits that his own religious beliefs is a great deal less devout than those of many of the men he studied, contends that religion served as a motif for both religious soldiers and for non-believers. Accordingly, the book is organized into sections labeled "Faith" and "Doubt." We thus get a more complete picture of religion than we would from an exclusive focus on the pious. A coda argues that the post-war vision of Woodrow Wilson are best understood within the framework of Wilson's own piety and his image of himself as the divinely-appointed "prince of peace."

Schweitzer argues that the religious convictions of soldiers were far too complex to be labeled simply as religious or atheistic. Instead he places the piety of Great War soldiers along a spectrum that accounts for the infinite ways in which human beings worship. This spectrum thus includes men whose wartime experiences led them to reject organized religion, but not their belief in the existence of God, as well as Anglicans who converted to Roman Catholicism. Religion could variously impel men to join a war that they believed served God's will, or to avoid service in the belief that war ran contrary to that same will, or it could make men religious only in the times of severest stress. For every soldier whose life was saved by a bible that stopped a bullet was a soldier who saw the war as evidence that no just and caring God could allow such suffering to continue. Schweitzer thus meets the challenge of covering a wide and diverse range of people's spiritual beliefs.

War could, and did, lead to an increase of religious thought among many soldiers, although many kept their spirituality private. Schweitzer contends that many soldiers saw Roman Catholicism serving the spiritual needs of British soldiers better than Anglicanism for two reasons. First, most Roman Catholic chaplains ignored the British Army's ban on chaplains going into the trenches because of the need to administer sacraments, most notably Extreme Unction. As a result, Roman Catholic chaplains shared the soldiers' experience of war through direct participation. Anglican chaplains, most of whom were uncomfortable with the class chasm that separated them from British soldiers, were less likely to be seen at the front. Second, Catholicism's emphasis on suffering and sacrifice fit the battlefield experience of most men better than did Anglicanism.

Still, Schweitzer must answer the question of why the war did not lead, as many believed it would, to a religious revival. The war, he argues, emphasized man's fundamental material needs, such as food, cigarettes, and alcohol. An emphasis on spirituality struck most soldiers as inappropriate as a mechanism through which to understand their experience. Soldiers and chaplains who tried to force religion on their comrades thus often faced ostracism. The war did not lead to a religious revival on the home front either, despite the comfort that many civilians drew from believing that the men in the army were religious and that the dead had had their souls saved. As Vera Brittain, whose own religious beliefs waxed and waned over time, noted, "Surely there must be somewhere in which ... the hearts broken by War may be healed. It is all so hopeless otherwise" (150). Religion could thus provide comfort even to people who questioned their own faith.

The Cross and the Trenches is well researched and solidly grounded in the growing secondary literature on the cultural history of the Great War. Schweitzer based his original research on the letters, diaries, and memoirs of soldiers from two nations. He has consulted all of the major archives, including the Imperial War Museum in London and the United States Army Military History Institute. The only oversight is his failure to consult the literature on religion in war more generally. Gerald Linderman's Embattled Courage, for example, would have provided a relevant comparison to American soldiers in the Civil War.

Schweitzer has taken on a tremendous challenge. He has attempted to use documentary sources to understand religion, an aspect of life that many men, especially soldiers, have traditionally kept private. As such, it is hard to know how genuine men were when they wrote home to their families about their faith and how it was sustaining them in the trenches. Clearly, however, religion provided men with a set of responses to help them rationalize their suffering, their guilt, and their dramatic shattering of the commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Religion has largely been absent from discussions of soldiers and their lives. Schweitzer has provided a corrective to this view and has thus enhanced our understanding of the Great War and the men who endured it.

Michael Neiberg

United States Air Force Academy
COPYRIGHT 2004 Journal of Social History
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Author:Neiberg, Michael
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Words:974
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