Atheists in the Trenches: Loss of Faith among Canadians in the Great War

By Elliot Hanowski

Did the horrors of the Great War cause Canadian soldiers to lose their faith? Or is it true that there were no atheists in the trenches? The war has generally been seen as a powerfully disillusioning experience. Books such as Paul Fussell’s widely influential The Great War and Modern Memory portray the war as the origins of modern skepticism and cynicism. The idea of a “lost generation” of disillusioned Anglo-American vets is a widely accepted one. The situation in Canada, however, is a little more ambiguous. In his study of the war’s impact on Canadian culture, Death So Noble, Jonathan Vance argued that most Canadians refused to accept a cynical interpretation of the war. Instead, he writes, they constructed a mythology of righteous valour and Christ-like self-sacrifice to justify their suffering and the deaths of their loved ones. Of course, Vance has not had the last word; the debate around the existence or non-existence of a “lost generation” in Canada is complex and ongoing. This post will focus strictly on religious doubt, with the goal of offering insight into this broader question.

This image of Canon Fred Scott appeared in his 1922 book, The Great War as I Saw it. It is from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Canadian_Army_Chaplain_Corps#/media/File:Canon_Fred_Scott_(from_his_book).jpg

First of all, how much faith did soldiers have to lose? Even though Canada was a predominantly and explicitly Christian nation in 1914, we must remember that that most Canadian soldiers were not in fact highly committed Christians. The war was promoted from many pulpits as a crusade in defense of Christianity, but mass enlistment did not create a mass revival.[1] The young men who filled the ranks were drawn from one of the country’s least religiously committed populations, in a time when church-going was seen by many men as a feminine pursuit. Duff Crerar’s Padres in No Man’s Land surveys research by other scholars done on the British and Australian armies, and finds that only a small minority of enlisted men, perhaps as few as ten percent, were strongly devout. A great many (perhaps even a majority!) were hostile to religion and to the chaplains, while the remainder were lukewarm or ambivalent in their feelings. Based on his own research, Crerar estimates similar proportions among the Canadians: a small contingent of faithful Christians, a large number of “sceptics and cynics,” and a third group, the largest, which was “uncommitted and disillusioned but not entirely irreligious.” We see something similar in the memoir of Thomas Dinesen, a Danish atheist who enlisted to fight alongside the Canadians. Dinesen found that many of the soldiers with whom he talked were skeptical of organized religion. On the other hand, most also refused to accept his brand of hard-edged atheism; it seemed rather too extreme.

Army chaplains were aware of a wide-spread lack of Christian commitment. A Baptist chaplain interviewed a number of returned soldiers when they came back to Canada through Quebec City. David Marshall summarizes the chaplain’s findings: “Few of the soldiers expressed belief in any particular creed, and they did not express their religious beliefs in biblical language. Moreover, many claimed to hold no religion.” This observer attempted to put a positive spin on the situation by claiming that the soldiers nevertheless displayed Christian character through their actions. A fellow Baptist took issue with this interpretation, arguing that the chaplain was moving the goal posts. The men in question were “unbelievers,” not Christians in disguise.[2] Presbyterian chaplains surveyed near the war’s end likewise complained that soldiers exhibited “an amazing ignorance of the Bible” and the Christian creeds. These clergymen had to confront the fact that even before the war many Canadian men had had only a vague and shallow relationship with the church.[3]

What then was the impact of the war itself on soldiers who did consider themselves Christians? Jonathan Vance, who generally argues that the war did not increase cynicism among Canadians, acknowledges that many who served came to view “the entire edifice of organized religion more sceptically after four years of war.”[4] While veterans may have found the language of sacrificial-soldier-as-Christ deeply satisfying, Vance admits that this did not necessarily entail reverence for the organized churches or belief in an providential God.

The idea that there was a benevolent God who directed the course of earthly events was difficult to square with the chaos and carnage of war. Cyril Martin, a Baptist from Edmonton, began to doubt God’s goodness while serving in France. Seeing children with missing limbs deeply disturbed him. It “really got to me,” he later recalled. “I thought, if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t he stop this war? And it was quite a while afterwards before I got [my faith] back.” Martin eventually returned to Christian belief by reinterpreting the war as a sin, a revolt against God’s will.[5] Others never did return. Recalled one Canadian of a grandfather who fought in the Great War, “I don’t think he ever got over what happened to him in the war. He used to say that the church told him God wanted him to go to war. What he saw in the war made him believe there was no God. He never wanted to be a hypocrite—so he never went back inside a church. He wasn’t willing to pretend something that wasn’t real for him anymore.”  The veteran in question had been the son of Anglican priest, and had previously been very active in the church. After his loss of faith he would not even attend the weddings of his children and grandchildren because they took place in churches.[6]

Not even the strongly devout were necessarily immune: many of the seminary students who served overseas chose to give up on the ministry upon returning to Canada.[7] A majority of the students from Queen’s Theological College who had enlisted dropped out after the war. Similarly a significant percentage of Methodist chaplains and probationers completely cut their ties to the church after the war.[8] Some of these may have lost their faith, while others may not have been able to reconcile their actions with their view of Christianity. Pierre van Paassen, who had been in training to be a Methodist minister, left the seminary to become a journalist. He wrote that he saw his blood-stained hands as being utterly unworthy of approaching the Lord’s Table.[9] Paassen did however retain his faith and eventually became a Unitarian minister.

While accounts of disillusionment dating from the war years themselves are relatively rare, the 1920s and ‘30s saw a crop of memoirs and autobiographical novels by Canadian vets which strongly expressed these sentiments. In Peregrine Acland’s semi-autobiographical novel All Else is Folly, published in 1929, the main character, Alexander Falcon, finds himself alone with a kindly Anglican priest who asks if Falcon would take Communion with him:

Falcon was embarrassed. He had been brought up a sound Anglican, but he had long since lost his belief in orthodox Christianity. He had, now, no religion… except a love for his fellow man. And his being here, as a soldier, was the absolute negation of that. He couldn’t, however, explain all these things to the Canon.[10]

For some, war was a blasphemy; for Acland, it destroyed not only faith but whatever secularized ethics remained after faith was gone.

The Canon mentioned above is likely a fictionalized version of Canon Frederick George Scott, who earned a good reputation among Canadian soldiers for his tireless efforts on behalf of the enlisted men. James H. Pedley’s 1927 memoir Only This also mentions Scott with great respect. But he makes it clear that in his opinion Scott was an exception when it came to chaplains. Before Pedley met him he assumed the man was simply another “highly successful fakir.” Pedley’s feelings were not limited to a general anticlericalism but, as with Acland, extended to theology. Later in the book he mulls over one of the horrific injustices of war and asks, “Is there a God? … Must this kind of rough-and-ready justice be ascribed to all-seeing Deity, or to sportive chance? Who will dare to say?”[11]

Similar sentiments are found in George Godwin’s autobiographical 1930 war novel Why Stay We Here? The book concludes with an affirmation of the soldier-as-Christ and holds out hope for an eventual resurrection, but most of the text has a more skeptical tone. When the main character Stephen and his comrade Piers wander over a battlefield where “sixty thousand Frenchmen” were killed earlier in the war, they reflect bitterly on faith. Piers concludes,

Well, personally, I’ve given up speculating about that sort of thing. I don’t know, and I don’t much care whether there’s a God or no. This place is enough evidence that He returns the compliment. If He exists at all, then He must be an impersonal God who doesn’t care a hoot about mankind.

Stephen concurs, “Exactly what I feel lately.” The two contemptuously discuss the unquestioning faith of their commanding officer, Major MacDonald, who, in their opinion, kept his Presbyterian God locked up safely in one section of a compartmentalized mind. When the Major holds a church service, Stephen thinks about the fact that the Germans were also holding them and silently rages, “The idiocy of having church parades, religious ceremonies, on active service. The absurdity of it! The damnable hollow sham of it! … What a pain it did give you in the fundamental. Was God going to take sides in this filthy business? It was rank blasphemy.” Similarly, in his 1919 memoir, Canadian sergeant L. McLeod Gould recalled that “Church Parades on active service, especially when called in the Forward Area, were the grimmest and ghastliest of Service jokes, and were provocative of more blasphemy and discontent than any active operation.”[12]

Walter Redvers Dent’s 1930 anti-war novel, Show Me Death! is even more harsh in its treatment of faith. The book is based on Dent’s own wartime experiences and follows a soldier from Toronto named Lionel Thor. After a series of horrific experiences and injuries, Thor begins to see God as a “malignant being” that is deliberately tormenting him.[13] He begins to curse this loathsome God regularly and methodically, an inverted form of prayer. After losing a leg and being terribly disfigured, Thor thinks with grim satisfaction that he has survived the worst God can do to him. All that remains is death, which would be a relief, not a punishment. When Thor returns to Toronto his mother collapses and dies after seeing his injuries. The experience of war has transmuted the idea of a kind, providential God into something malevolent and demonic.[14] In the concluding chapter Thor rather suddenly makes his peace with God, after hating him for much of the book. He comes to see the Deity as good but not omnipotent, having given up some of his power when he chose to create the world and give humans free will. This theodicy, not uncommon today, would have been viewed as heretical by many contemporary Christians.

Perhaps the best-known (or most notorious) novel about the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) is Charles Yale Harrison’s Generals Die In Bed, first serialized in 1928 and then published in book form in 1930. Harrison served in the CEF from 1916 to 1918. Of Jewish descent, he seems to have already been an unbeliever before the war. Harrison was born in Philadelphia and spent much of his life in the United States, so his work may not be entirely representative of the disenchanted Canadian. The author was, however, observant of his Canadian comrades, and the book illustrates the critique of religion that was common in anti-war literature of the period.

The book opens with a scene of new recruits returning to their Montreal barracks after visiting assorted brothels. Anderson, a middle-aged Methodist lay preacher from northern Ontario, sits on a bunk reading his Bible. He attempts to tell the younger men about the sinfulness of their actions but is shouted down. “Shut up, sky pilot!” yells one drunken teenager. The narrator’s own attitude to Anderson is not clear at first. As the book progresses, however, we see that Anderson represents something larger than himself: the old-fashioned religious and rural point of view which seeks to justify the war in terms of Victorian evangelical piety. The character also tries to predict the war’s end using chronological calculations drawn from biblical prophecy. In response, his younger comrades heap mockery and abuse upon him. When Anderson tells the young men they should not curse, the narrator muses:

To think we could propitiate a senseless god by abstaining from cursing! What god is there as mighty as the fury of a bombardment? … How will we ever be able to go back to peaceful ways and hear pallid preachers whimper of their puny little gods who can only torment sinners with sulphur, we who have seen a hell that no god, however cruel, would fashion for his most deadly enemies? Yes, all of us have prayed during the manic frenzy of a bombardment. Who can live through the terror-laden minutes of drumfire and not feel his reason slipping, his manhood dissolving?[15]

Religion here is for irrational women and feminized men who have lost their wits. Harrison goes on to condemn the religiosity of those supporting the war in Canada: “Back home they are praying too—praying for victory—and that means we must lie here and rot and tremble forever.”[16] When Anderson begins praying during a battle a comrade “turns on him in disgust” and says “For the Lord’s sake, Anderson, don’t tell God where you are or we’ll all get killed.”[17]

In literary terms, Generals Die in Bed and All Else is Folly are often cited as the most original and realistic of Canada’s Great War novels, alongside a third text, God’s Sparrows.[18] Written by Philip Child and published in 1937, the book was based on Child’s own experience of the war. The protagonist, Dan Thatcher, is a relatively steady sort who maintains his faith throughout the novel, but much of the text’s emotional energy centres on two other characters, the mystic Dolughoff and Dan’s philosophical cousin Quentin. Dolughoff is convinced that he has a message from God which will bring an end to the war. Overcome by the horror of battle, he runs out into no-man’s-land and in God’s name orders both sides to stop. When they ignore him and continue to slaughter one another, Dolughoff shoots himself in the head, terrified of what the “indifferent and empty” sky implies.[19] Quentin, meanwhile, is a sensitive man who doubts that he has a soul or that any providential God is watching. The emotional climax of the book comes as Dan dreams of a dead Quentin wandering a bureaucratic, mechanized afterlife in search of a “Commander-in-Chief” that he never finds. Dan goes on to experience a moment of intense joy as he loses his soul in an all-encompassing “immortal kinship” with eternity, before he wakes and goes to fight in the book’s climactic battle. He is able to retain the faith that torments and eludes Dolughoff and Quentin, but it has moved some distance from orthodox Christianity.[20]

Duff Crerar has argued that such interwar novels and memoirs overstate how cynical and disillusioned soldiers were about religion during the war itself. He suggests that it was in the 1920s and ’30s, as Canadian veterans grappled with a harsh economic situation and a difficult transition back to civilian life, that their mood soured. They could not help but notice that the Kingdom of God on Earth preached by optimistic chaplains failed to materialize, and began to question if their sacrifices had really been worthwhile. Crerar suggests that during the war soldiers were somewhat more idealistic than they later recalled.[21]

Idealistic or not, Crerar’s own findings, and that of other historians, suggest that most Canadian soldiers were not devout Christians even at the war’s beginning. And as we have seen, a significant minority came to reject belief in a providential God directing the destruction of the war. If, as Vance argues, most Canadians refused to become disillusioned and instead constructed a comforting religious-nationalist mythology around the slaughter, most veterans who lost their faith would have had to keep this fact largely to themselves. As we have seen, however, such atheistic sentiments were expressed in interwar literature – not just because it was suddenly fashionable to do so but likely because it had become acceptable to utter beliefs that had been held for some time. In the interwar years some veterans were able to admit that for them God had been a casualty of the trenches. It is not hard to imagine Canadian soldiers in the Great War, particularly those who were already not very devout, coming to the same conclusion that Andy Mulcahy did during the Second World War. Mulcahy was not a particularly religious person, but he did have a habit of praying “for one half-hour more.” He lost even “that talisman” after a particularly fierce engagement near Belgium’s Leopold Canal. After being pinned down by enemy fire Mulcahy awoke the next morning at dawn to see the corpses of German soldiers and to hear the moans of wounded men nearby. “Out of the blue,” he later recalled, “it occurred to me that there was no such thing as a god. I didn’t mention it to anyone at the time because I thought they already knew. I didn’t want to look like a fool. I had been late giving up on Santa Claus, too. It all made sense now.”[22]

 

[1] See Jonathan Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997) 35-36; Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. (New York: HarperOne, 2014); Gordon L. Heath, ed. Canadian Churches and the First World War. (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2014.)

[2] David B. Marshall, Secularizing the Faith: Canadian Protestant Clergy and the Crisis of Belief, 1850-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 173. For a slightly different interpretation see Michael A.G. Haykin and Ian Hugh Cleary, “‘O God of Battles:’ The Canadian Baptist Experience of the Great War,” in Heath, ed., 190-191.

[3] Marshall 177-178; Brian Clarke also argues for theological ignorance and disenchantment among veterans: Roberto Perin and Terernce Murphy, eds., A Concise History of Christianity in Canada (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1996) 340.

[4] Vance 71.

[5] Michael A.G. Haykin and Ian Hugh Cleary, “‘O God of Battles:’ The Canadian Baptist Experience of the Great War,” in Heath 186.

[6] Quoted in Wendy Fletcher, “Canadian Anglicanism and Ethnicity,” in Paul Bramadat and David Seljak, Christianity and Ethnicity in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) 145-146.

[7] Duff Crerar, Padres in No Man’s Land: Canadian Chaplains and the Great War (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University, 1995).

[8] Vance 71.

[9] Marshall 173-5, 185.

[10] Peregrine Acland, All Else is Folly (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1929) 251.

[11] James H. Pedley, Only This: A War Retrospect (Ottawa: Graphic Publishers, 1927) 99-100, 271. Similarly, after noting Canon Scott’s popularity, Wilfred Kerr’s 1917 memoir Shrieks and Crashes continues: “But few Chaplains were like him; most kept well out of danger, made friends only with the officers, knew nothing of the men, they who ought to have acted as a link between the commissioned and the non-commissioned ranks with the confidence of both. The chief interest of some seemed to be in getting themselves promoted or moved back to England or the base; such conduct was viewed with disgust and regarded as entirely unworthy of the men’s profession.” This is not outright religious doubt, but it is indicative of anticlericalism. Wilfred B. Kerr, Shrieks and Crashes: The Memoir of Wilfred B. Kerr, Canadian Field Artillery, 1917 (Ottawa: CEF Books, 2005), 105.

[12] George Godwin, Why Stay We Here? Odyssey of a Canadian Officer in France in World War I (London: Allan, 1930) 74-77, 126. L. McLeod Gould, From B.C. to Basieux: Being the Narrative History of the 102nd Infantry Battalion (Victoria: T. R. Cusack, 1919), 34.

[13] Walter Redvers Dent, Show Me Death! (Toronto: Macmillan, 1930), 260.

[14] Dent (1930). It is also worth noting that at one point in the novel Thor beats a fellow soldier to a pulp because the man is a very proper Methodist.

[15] Charles Yale Harrison, Generals Die in Bed (New York: Morrow, 1930), 41.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Harrison, 74.

[18] “War,” in W.H. New, ed., Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 1189.

[19] Philip Child, God’s Sparrows (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1937).

[20] Marshall notes that the spirituality and superstitions of many soldiers came to bear little resemblance to orthodox Christianity. Marshall 173.

[21] Crerar chapter 8. Crerar makes a similar argument more pointedly in Duff Crerar, “Dismissed: Military Chaplains and Canadian Great War History,” in Heath, 241-260. Marshall also points to the disillusionment resulting from the discrepancy between an over-inflated optimism about a “war to end all wars” and bitter post-war realities. Marshall chapters 6 and 7.

[22] Andy Mulcahy, “Slouching Towards Secularism,” in Nancy Swartz, ed., Stories of Secular Humans (Victoria: Victoria Secular Humanist Association, 2007).

——
Elliot Hanowski earned a PhD in history from Queen’s University in 2015. His dissertation, which focused on unbelief and religious controversy in interwar Canada, is being revised for publication with McGill-Queen’s University Press. He currently works for the University of Manitoba Libraries.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.  We welcome new submissions.  Contact Nathan Smith at: nsmith241@gmail.com

 

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