This November marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, also known as the Great War.
As I write this, it is October 1. Exactly 100 years ago today the world changed forever. The war had gone on for four years, and Germany’s final offensive had stalled. The toll of casualties mounted to unbelievable heights, and the German losses could no longer be sustained. It was on this day that Australian soldiers and Arab fighters captured Damascus. This led General Ludendorff, Germany’s military commander, to conclude that the war was lost and an armistice should be signed right away.
It would be over a month, however, before the armistice was actually signed. At 5:10 a.m., in a railway car at Compiègne, France, the Germans signed the armistice which was effective at 11 a.m.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was a war that utterly changed the world forever—socially, politically, philosophically and spiritually. The years following the Great War would shape all facets of life in the coming century. We feel its effects today in Europe, the Middle East, and here in the U.S. This war would be a prequel to the Second World War and set the stage for the modern Twentieth Century.
As we remember the Great War this next month, we consider it to be one of the avertable tragedies of the Twentieth Century. The sheer volume of those who died is staggering: It’s estimated that over 16 million soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war.
As I have personally reflected on this war, I have a deeper sense of two realities. First, as Christians we can explain the “worst of times.” While grieving the terrible suffering around us, we can make sense of the evil in the world. Its root is in the garden with the seed of the serpent. The Great War started long before 1914–it started in Genesis 3 and continues today. The result is that all of us face death.
C.S. Lewis, at the beginning of the Second World War, said,
War threatens us with death and pain. No man—and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane—need try to attain a stoic indifference about these things, but we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.
What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.
Does it increase our chances of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.
Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would?
Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it.
This leads to the second reality: hope. We also know that the seed of the woman has delivered a death blow to the seed of the serpent. Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman, dealt Satan a fatal blow on the cross.
Indeed, remembering the Great War causes us to once again remember we will face death. “For just as in Adam all die.” But we will not face a final death as “in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). It’s in the resurrection where we find hope to believe that Christ will restore all things. “‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55).
The Great War has been raging since the garden and will continue to rage until the reigning Christ puts all his enemies under his feet, and the last enemy, death, is destroyed.
Lewis, C.S. The Weight of Glory and Other
Addresses. New York: Harper Collins, 1949.