Religion in the Great War

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Religion was a compelling force in the twentieth century; a time when five-hundred and sixty million Christians were located around the world, fourteen million in North America alone. When the Great War broke out, Christians looked towards religion for answers to explain the unexplainable. The unprecedented world war redefined the word “violence” and shattered any previously conceived images or ideas soldiers had of warfare. Some Christians believed this war to be the sign of a coming of the Apocalypse due to the number of dead soldiers (on both sides) and the duration of the bloodshed, a belief almost solidified by the notion that tens of millions of innocent Christian soldiers had to kill each other. Turning towards religion, the families of the deceased saw the soldiers’ death as a biblical sacrifice and/or martyrdom. This idea came to life in illustrations that were publicized throughout the Great War. An example can be seen on the next page. In the advertisement , soldiers are looking up at an apparition of Jesus Christ .Alma A. Clarke inserted a great deal of religious imagery into her scrapbook. Clarke may have shared similar feelings (like other Christians) about the war, which led her to attend numerous religious celebrations in France. Although we do not know the true reason why Clarke placed certain religious images in the scrapbook and left out others, we do know that they had a great impact on her. American men and women typically entered the fight for personal reasons, to answer the call to arms, or for a sense of redemption but this war slowly evolved into a religious crusade.

The Committee of Public Information launched the largest propaganda campaign in the United States. Religious figures were slowly incorporated into the organization’s ads due to the large volume of Christians living in America. Angels were used to portray guardians who protected soldiers and as images of the fore coming Apocalypse. The image on the previous page showcases this trend. Clarke probably included this picture in her book, because it was from the Red Cross Magazine . Since Alama A. Clarke was a Red Cross nurse, information from these magazines can be found throughout her scarp book. One of the most famous Christian figures, Our Lady of Fatima, was known to appear to appear to three children circa this time, so her involvement in posters is easily explained. Jesus Chris was portrayed on both the Allied and Central Power sides of the war, as he was a heroic leader who sacrificed himself for his people (country).

Not all religious peoples viewed the war as “just.” The Vatican was a large proponent of Christian anti-war activism. Other religious leaders spoke out against the violence of war and the Great War itself. Churches acted as tools and targets for and against the war effort. Soldiers who were assigned to be trench dwellers (also known as foxhole dwellers) turned away from religion and found solace in atheism.

One of the more powerful organizations that utilized religious propaganda was The Red Cross. The Red Cross was widely known for sending female nurses off into battle to help the wounded soldiers. In order to romanticize and spiritualize this widely known process, the organization decided to depict these nurses as angels or the Virgin Mary, Mother of God. This was not an uncommon technique. In fact, in 1915, the Belgian Red Cross portrayed a nurse with angel wings helping a wounded soldier in one of its advertisements. Apparitions of the Blessed Mother were believed to be occurring around the world (one of the more well known apparitions was at Lourdes) at this time, and because Mary is also found in the book of Revelation to be appearing before the apocalypse, her inclusion was justified.
Alma A. Clarke chose to use this image as the front piece of her scrapbook. This image was also taken from a Red Cross Magazine . Being a Red Cross nurse, the image may have affected Alma in a personal and spiritual way. So much so that she chose it to represent her experience with the Great War.

As time went on, the Great War turned into a spiritual warfare. Soldiers wrote in letters, poems, memoirs, and diaries about God’s role in the atrocities of war while also spending time reflecting on the meaning of death and the afterlife. War made the average American man in uniform feel alone and turn towards religion, along spiritual beliefs to be tested, lived, and animated. Religion also “romanticized” war and enabled soldiers to ignore and cope with all the bloodshed. The Great War became a battle between good and evil; the Allied soldiers were depicted as good Christians who were fulfilling God’s will while on the opposing side, the Central Powers were seen as the minions of Satan who needed to be stopped.

Although we do not know where this image of Jesus Christ came from, we do know that Alma A. Clarke had a theme for this specific scrapbook page. Images of an Allied soldier cemetery and a poem about the third army are found on this page. Then, the religious image contains Jesus Christ cradling a deceased Allied solider. Clarke could have been trying to depict death in the Great War or the cost soldiers had to pay for their country

Suffering was felt on both sides of the war both on and off the battlefield. Poetry was a common way for writers to express this suffering that was prevalent during this time period. One of the more famous poems that target a specific group is “The Prayer of the Women” by Sara Teasdale. The poem conveys the hurt and sorrow the mothers, sisters, and wives of those shipped off to fight in the Great War. Also, the women in the poem ask God for strength during these tough times. Soldiers were not that only ones who suffered. Even though people on the homefront were far away from the trenches and horrors present in Europe, this group too suffered just as much as those in the line of fire. Out of sight did not necessarily mean out of mind. Many people turned towards religion for comfort. People could not comprehend or cope with the violence seen in the Great War. Religion was seen as the shoulder for women on the home front to cry on and the support soldier’s on the battlefield needed.

Alama A. Clarke may have decided to include this page in her scrapbook, because it illustrates the suffering women felt during the Great War. Throughout the scrapbook, Clarke lists the names of soldiers (that she may have known) and how they died in the war. The deaths of these soldiers may have affected Clarke in such a way that she felt the need to include this image in her scrapbook.
Page 1 - image AlmaClarke_BMC_050v English WWI Scrapbook, Alma A. Clarke Papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Page 2 - image AlmaClarke_BMC_019r English WWI Scrapbook, Alma A. Clarke Papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Page 3 - image AlmaClarke_BMC_003r English WWI Scrapbook, Alma A. Clarke Papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Page 4- image AlmaClarke_BMC_049r English WWI Scrapbook, Alma A. Clarke Papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Page 5- image AlmaClarke_BMC_001v English WWI Scrapbook, Alma A. Clarke Papers, 1914-1946, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library
Jenkins, Philip. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. HarperOne, 2014.
McFadden, Paul. "American Propaganda and the First World War: Megaphone or Gagging Order?" eSharp, no. 19 (2012). Accessed November 5, 2014.
Ebel, Jonathan H. Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.
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