CS Lewis--Birthday in the Trenches
It was November 29, 1917, Jack’s nineteenth birthday. It was also his first day of trench warfare. A grim birthday party, indeed. Later he wrote about that day. “The first bullet I heard ‘whined’ like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear… a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.’”
One day he had been a fresh young college student; now he was a soldier. After a hasty few months of training he was dubbed a Second Lieutenant in the Somerset Light Infantry and shipped off to France. Near Arras he heard that first of many bullets. When not dodging those bullets, he wrote down reflections on his experience.
The war—the frights, the cold, the smell, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet… I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead… I came to know, and pity, and reverence the ordinary man.
April 15, 1918 at Mont-Bernenchon, near Arras, France, an artillery shell whistled louder and closer than the rest. Then it hit. Erupting in a deafening explosion, the shrapnel instantly killed Jack’s friend, who had been a father figure to him. And it hit Jack. He wrote, “The moment just after I had been hit… I found that I was not breathing and concluded that this was death.” Perhaps at the field hospital at Etaples, perhaps at a convalescent camp back in England on the Salisbury Plain, embittered by his experience, Jack began writing a poem:
Come let us curse our Master ere we die,
For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.
The good is dead. Let us curse God most High.
Laugh then and slay. Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth—
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.
Jack was his nickname. His real name was Clive Staples Lewis. The lines above appeared in his first book, Spirits in Bondage, a collection of poems Lewis wrote while a young atheist and that he described to a friend as “mainly strung around the idea that nature is diabolical and malevolent and that God, if he exists, is outside of and in opposition to the cosmic arrangements.”
Perhaps after suffering the horrors of WWI, his bitterness and cynicism is more understandable. There were horrors aplenty. On the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, 20,000 young men’s lives were cut short, many of them so mangled by artillery shells, by the tramping feet of advancing and retreating soldiers, the debris, mud, and carnage that in the five-month battle more than 72,000 soldiers’ bodies were so obliterated that they have no known graves. Between 1914 and 1918, an average of 5,600 young men died each day of those four-plus years, more than 18 million lives in total. No wonder Lewis penned the cynical lines “laugh then and slay.” [the above is adapted from Bond's book STAND FAST In The Way of Truth]
Wars and rumors of wars: it is the history of the world. Greed and ambition of the powerful few results in another generation sacrificing its 18-25 year olds in the field of battle. So it has been and persists in being in a badly broken world, regardless of the creative and sophisticated ways we try to tell ourselves to just be nice to one another and it will all go away. History tells a different tale.
I'm reflecting on this on Lewis' burthday, thinking back on the horrors of WWI commencing August 4, 1914. I'm thinking back the Armisitce Centenary Tour I led in 2018. I'd been before, of course, but one of our major objectives of this centenary visit was to go to Mont-Bernenchon where C. S. Lewis tells us he was wounded in The Great War 100 plus years ago. It was a tiny little place, and not even the museum curators I questioned about it knew of its connection to Lewis; we had to find it on our own. The cluster of houses that make up the village are new-medieval, rebuilt to look like the Old World dwellings they used to be before The Great War flattened them all. Only the 18th century church survived. And not a single person in the village that I spoke to had even heard of Lewis, forgivable since he was English and they are all French. "The war to end all wars" was a Great War, if greatness can be measured by body count and futility: opening day of the battle resulted in a horrific 60,000 casualties, with average daily body counts in excess of the Bubonic Plague. A Great War, the grand achievement of irreligious modernism, but a war that did not remotely end all wars.
The scope of destruction and devastation is hard to fathom. One day while in France we explored the twelve mile limestone network of tunnels at Wellington Quarry, dug by New Zealand troops. 24,000 men were hidden in these tunnels, who then broke out on July 1, 1916, to the astonishment of unsuspecting German troops a few yards from the break out point. Initial victory was followed by a well-supplied reinforced German army; eventually only 800 of the original 24,000 men survived the conflict.
We paused at the St Vaast war cemetery where 44,800 Germans are buried. Then we stopped and gazed at the sea of stone markers at the Cabernet Rouge cemetery where nearly 8,000 allied soldiers are buried, more than half, "Known only to God." That is one of the unique and deeply troubling dimensions of this war, so many men were just obliterated, either their bodies never found in the mud and rubble and chaos of battle or there was no possible way of identifying the mangled human remains.
After exploring the trenches and more underground passages at Vimy Ridge where Canadian troops took heavy losses valiantly driving back the Hun, we paused to survey the 42,000 crosses marking the final earthly resting place of fallen French soldiers at Notre Dame de Lorette, national necropolis of France. We rounded out that day by an evening visit to Thiepval, where JRR Tolkien was wounded, and where the British commemorate the over 72,000 men whose bodies were so scattered and obliterated by the grinding machinery of war that no remains were ever recovered--not even a tooth.
Just recalling it all, I feel numb. The scale of devastation is too much to take fully in. All this in a war that snuffed out the life of 18 million average age 20 year old young men. When I attempt to envision how many crosses or gravestones that would be my imagination is exhausted. I simply cannot or don't want to get an accurate picture of the loss in my mind.
Then I am struck by the virulence of the irony. We war and hate, kill and destroy, why? Because we are intractable rebels against the God of love, life, and justice who created us. We think we're far better off on our own and resent his will and way. We think we can handle things better on our own. And then when we are forced to stare at the resulting destruction our devotion to secularism has caused, we cast about for someone else to blame; and so we turn around and point the finger at God and religion. We're certain that if people would just stop being so certain about their beliefs there'd be no more wars like this one--truly we're absolutely certain, beyond a doubt, about it all being God's fault and those who believe in him.
Such absolutist conclusions are ironic on many levels, not the least of which is that it was our devout devotion to Modernism that set the stage for this war to end all wars. Modernism said that we human beings could solve our problem by our economic strength, by our technology and scientific knowledge, by education, and by our military might. Its champions declared that "Success is the only measure of a just war." Modernism was a ticking time bomb that exploded in our face 100 years ago, August 1914. And nobody paid for the enormous miscalculation more than the young people of that generation--the millions of young men who died before they could marry and have children, and the millions of young women for whom there were simply no young men to marry. Following our will and way produces barrenness, a wasteland; self-worship always has and always will. Cursing God, as then-atheist Lewis did in 1918, won't fix the problem. Cursing our neighbor and pitching our hope in national and military superiority in war won't fix it either. There is only one hope for a bludgeoned, broken, and barren world.
"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God." Jesus himself, the Son of God, was the ultimate peacemaker, the "Prince of Peace." Sacrificing 18 million sons on the alter of national pride and ambition did not produce anything close to peace. But peace did require a sacrifice, a far costlier one even than those 18 million sons. God the Father made peace by sacrificing his only Son Jesus on the cross for hopeless sinners. In this benighted, war-torn world, it is only the way of the gospel of Jesus Christ that will restore all things to love, beauty, and peace. Jesus alone has accomplished what is needed to turn this God-forsaken wasteland into the God-glorifying eternal garden of heaven; he alone turns swords into plowshares. Come Lord Jesus, Prince of Peace!
Douglas Bond is author of War in the Wasteland, set in teen, atheist, 2/Lt CS Lewis' platoon--and author of more than thirty other books. He is a speaker and teacher, and leads tours in Europe. Join him on the Rome to Geneva Tour, June 17-27, 2023, and, aspiring writers or Lewis' enthusiasts, join my in Oxford, April 8-15, 2023, but space is almost full, so don't delay.