Today we commemorate two very different things: the centenary of the day Britain found herself at war with Germany — the Great War for Civilisation as it was called, which left 17 million dead — and the feast day of St John Vianney, popularly known as the Curé d’Ars, patron saint of parish priests and a man singularly well-acquainted with the deceptions of sin and the frailty of human nature.
St John Vianney himself had a peculiarly tangled relationship with the military. Although a student for the priesthood, he was drafted into the French army in 1809 because Napoleon was anxious for troops to fight in the Peninsular War. Within two days he was ill in hospital. When sent to rejoin his company at Roannne, he stepped into a church to pray and fell behind the group. The guide he secured led him deep into the mountains where he lived as a deserter for fourteen months until there was an amnesty.
I daresay a psychologist might explain the illness and the falling into some kind of trance in church as an expression of St John Vianney’s deep-seated desire to become a priest and not to fight. One must certainly allow for the fact that the moral and spiritual revulsion St John Vianney felt at the idea of war had profound effects on his mind and body. He became incapable of fighting because of his strong desire not to fight.
A hundred years ago today, this country was deeply divided about war with Germany. There were many ties of blood and friendship between our two nations, and although Kaiser Wilhelm was widely regarded as a crackpot, not everyone was convinced of the duty to defend ‘plucky little Belgium’ with military action. When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, and the terrible carnage began to mount up, the division at home became quite bitter. The forcing of white feathers on those perceived to be cowards because they were not fighting was shameful, but it was a mark of how twisted minds can become under the pressure of war. You must be made to think as I do. Anything else undermines the war effort, and that must be avoided at all costs.
Today, when war is convulsing so much of the world, and the West seems incapable of brokering even a lasting ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, let alone encouraging warring nations to make peace, it can be helpful to reflect on the experience of the last hundred years and the number of wars in which we have engaged — at least partly, perhaps even principally — because we believe others should think as we do. We have a tendency to dress our actions up with fine sentiments about liberty and democracy, but who would not admit that we have sometimes deceived ourselves? I am certainly not saying that war is never justified, or that all the wars fought during the past century have been waged on unjust or insufficient grounds, I am merely asking a question that I suspect St John Vianney, and many of those who took part in World War I, asked themselves with great earnestness of spirit: why am I doing this, and is it right? It is a question we must answer as individuals as well as nation states.