- The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt among British and American Great War Soldiers
Over the last few years we have come to learn a great deal about the lives of British soldiers in the First World War. Historians have explored subjects such as morale and discipline, relations between commissioned officers and other ranks, and the experience of battle. Fewer studies have appeared on their American counterparts, but nonetheless some interesting work is being done. However, the role of religion in both armies has been somewhat under-researched. Richard Schweitzer's The Cross and the Trenches is thus particularly welcome.
Schweitzer deals with a number of interesting issues concerning the religious history of the war, such as the reasons why the revival in faith that many anticipated did not occur. However, the book's subtitle—religious faith and doubt among British and American Great War soldiers—neatly captures his main focus. The core chapters deal with the experience of individuals. He has consulted a variety of sources, both published and unpublished, [End Page 252] including a large number of manuscripts at the Imperial War Museum in London, as well as collections elsewhere, including the U.S. Army Military History Institute. Since it was rare for even devout soldiers to write very much about their faith, Schweitzer has had to work through a mass of writings, often picking up snippets of information on religion. In spite of the obvious drawbacks, this method, given the size of the sample Schweitzer has used, is surprisingly effective. It is a shame, therefore, that in his discussion of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig's religious faith, he relies on published sources rather than the British Commander-in-Chief's letters and diaries.
Schweitzer's ultimate conclusion is that "in sincere prayer or sacreligious defiance, the name of God was on the lips and in the writings of . . . soldiers and civilians more often than previously published accounts of their experience would lead us to believe" (p. 264). This is perhaps an exaggeration. British soldiers in particular were noted for their profanity. Many years ago, Eric Partridge and John Brophy, two British war veterans who collected and analysed soldiers' songs and slang, noted the number of songs that were parodies of hymns. Moreover, Schweitzer sometimes misreads his evidence. He quotes a British officer describing a Tommy "praying aloud 'with real fervour'" for God's help in getting a recalcitrant mule to move, which Schweitzer cites as an example of the way in which "God was worshipped in the ranks." However, this incident, taken from a book co-edited by your reviewer, is surely an example of the British sense of humour in action, or an example of the common practice of using blasphemy as a form of swearing. Either way it has nothing to do with the worship of God.
While this book is not the last word on the subject, it is a useful addition to the literature. The Cross and the Trenches contains some important insights into soldiers' attitudes to Christianity. Schweitzer provides a nicely nuanced picture that enriches our understanding of the culture of the ordinary British and American soldier on the Western Front.
Watchfield, Wiltshire, United Kingdom