The Corner

Trenches and Foxholes

In Goodbye to All That (1929), which is mostly a memoir of World War I, Robert Graves wrote:

Hardly one soldier in a hundred was inspired by religious feeling of even the crudest kind. It would have been difficult to remain religious in the trenches even if one survived the irreligion of the training battalion at home.

Even taking into account Graves’s strong anti-religious bias, this statement, if true, would seem to contradict the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes,” which became current during World War II. Yet there’s really no conflict.

A foxhole is a temporary shelter dug hastily to provide some protection during an active battle. A trench is a large-scale fortification where, in World War I, soldiers lived for long stretches, surrounded by mud and rats and corpses and desolation. In the former situation, when the hole’s occupant is under direct fire, it’s natural to scrape together whatever faith one can muster and beg for divine assistance to get through the next few hours. In the latter situation, as month succeeds dismal month, it’s natural to feel abandoned.

A poignant example of religion interacting with war can be found in The Economist’s year-end issue, which contains an article about the deaths of Britain’s last two WWI veterans. One of them, Harry Patch, recalled not long before his passing how his beliefs had evolved on the battlefield:

Mr Patch, in the thick of battle, automatically recalled the lessons heard on Sundays: Moses on Mount Sinai, the Good Samaritan. But surrounded as he was by “devils coming up from the ground” and “hell upon this earth”, he soon lost all his faith in the Church of England. What he clung to in the end was his memory of a young Cornishman, torn open by shrapnel from shoulder to waist “and with his stomach on the ground beside him”. He asked Mr Patch to shoot him, but died first, murmuring “Mother!” It was not a cry of despair, but of surprise and joy. He had seen her; she was there. Death, of which Mr Patch was scared “all the time”, was apparently not the end.

So perhaps coming face to face with death every day makes one less likely to embrace the rituals of religion, but more likely, like Mr. Patch, to embrace its fundamental truths (for divine or evolutionary reasons, take your pick). Faith takes different forms under different circumstances, but it always seems to fulfill a deeply felt need.

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