Christ in the Trenches

I’m editing my thesis into a final version now, expanding bits that need it, and cutting out parts that don’t further the main argument. One bit that I’ve cut rather regretfully is an account of a very poor story indeed. It’s typical of the way that wartime stories battened on to religious ideas, but isn’t quite representative enough to earn a place in the thesis. Still, it might be of interest to some.

During wartime, soldiers were often described with the language of  sacrifice, and in poetry this inevitably led to comparisons with Christ’s sacrifice, as in John Oxenham’s ‘Christs All’ in which he addressed ‘Our Boys who have gone to the Front’:

Ye are all  christs in this your self-surrender, —
True sons of God, in seeking not your own.

This was an idea that resonated in verse, but the idea of a soldier as Christ was a difficult one to extend credibly in fiction, as is shown by Andrew Soutar’s attempt in The Story Without a Title (1917). This story tells of the editor of a struggling fiction magazine who receives a visit from ‘a young man of probably twenty-four, and so striking in appearance that Carson rose, instinctively, and placed a chair in readiness for him.’ This charismatic young man (called Gilead) has brought the editor a story; untitled, it is the first he has ever written. He was inspired to write, he says, because of a fellow-lodger in his boarding house, who was ‘sobbing her heart out, because that morning she had received notice that her husband had lost his life in Flanders.’  The editor (whose own son had ‘been killed while bravely leading his section out of a trench’ ) finds that the story both consoles and disturbs him, ‘especially as there was a familiar ring about it.’  Eventually, despite misgivings, he publishes the story. His main doubts are about the story’s psychology; a father watches as his son falls into the hands of the enemy:

From his place of concealment, the father saw the mass of envenomed men fall upon his boy. In their frenzy they struck at him with their fists, and with any weapon that suggested itself. Once the face of the son rose out of the dense mass of black hatred and vindictiveness; the eyes looked to where the father was concealed, and if the poor wounded body was racked by pain, the lips uttered no cry. […] Still the father kept silent. His boy was dying with resignation that ennobled him. He was teaching the whole of the sleeping army how to die.

The ‘splendid silence of the father’, Gilead explains, is the point of the story. The father could have prevented the cruelty by rousing the sleeping army behind, but chooses not to, because of the wonderful example that his son is offering. ‘Whenever men talk of it, they will feel some of the agony that he is suffering now. [….] It will awaken in the hearts of men, not hatred and vindictiveness, but a desire to prevent its recurrence.’  Bereaved readers find the tale immensely consoling, because it shows that sacrifice is not pointless. Finally, the editor asks Gilead why the story seems so familiar, and the writer explains that it is an adaptation of an older story, the New Testament. Soutar’s writer hero has adapted the central Christian narrative of redemption to define a Christian attitude to the War, which combines a commitment against the ‘envenomed’ torturing enemy with a resistance to being consumed by hatred. He does so by placing the soldier in the role of Christ, passively undergoing an exemplary and inspirational death.
He is able to suggest this equivalence only by severely limiting the representation of the soldier, whose role is central to the story, but who is allowed no solidity, being presented only through the mournful idealisations of the bereaved. The soldier is required to do nothing more than suffer in an exemplary fashion. He is not the soldier of observable actuality (undergoing disciplined training, working hard and efficiently, and probably drinking, swearing, grousing and killing) but has been reduced to the abjectly passive and the purely spiritual.
Equating the paradox of a just war (promoting violence so that good may come) with the central myth of Christianity runs the risk of making both seem absurd. The civilian reader, standing by and letting the sacrifice of the sons take place, is put in the position of God, endorsing the soldier’s suffering because of its inspirational effect on future generations. This civilian becomes noble too, through his or her vicarious suffering, but the horrors of war and the suffering of soldiers are the condition of that nobility. Soutar finally, for all his proclaimed sympathy with the bereaved, endorses the sacrifice and suffering of soldiers for the sake of its therapeutic result on civilians, a position that is open to considerable moral objection. This story demonstrates the problem faced by a writer who wants to incorporate the ideals frequently expressed in verse into a narrative genre that depends on realism.


  1. Posted April 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    When the Great War broke out there were all sorts of people on both sides who justified the fighting on christian themes, and even invoked St Augustine’s idea of the just war. The Pope condemned them, and called for peace, but at that time, just as now, many people don’t listen to the pope.

    There is a character of suffering which is redemptive, but inflicing suffering on others through warfare is not what Jesus taught in the gospels.

  2. Posted April 26, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    David – another way of looking at it is that Benedict XV failed to speak out against German atrocities, thus setting a precedent for Pius XII during the Second World War.

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