‘Martyrs as really as St Stephen was a martyr’? Commemorating the British dead of the First World War

Wolffe, John (2015). ‘Martyrs as really as St Stephen was a martyr’? Commemorating the British dead of the First World War. International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 15(1) pp. 23–38.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/1474225X.2015.1000226

Abstract

Taking its cue from a phrase in a wartime sermon by the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, this article examines the tensions between Christian and more secular approaches to the commemoration of the military casualties of the First World War. An initial overview of perceptions of sacrifice, martyrdom and Christian militarism in the early twentieth century is followed by discussion, in turn, of local war memorials, of the early policies of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, and of the arrangements for the dedication of the Cenotaph and the interment of the ‘Unknown Warrior’ in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 1920. At the local and institutional level a wide spectrum of approaches between the overtly Christian and the robustly secular were adopted, but national memorialisation required compromise and consensus. Hence it was agreed that the war cemeteries should include both a Cross of Sacrifice and Stone of Remembrance, and that there should be uniform headstones engraved with a cross or other religious symbol. Similarly the primarily (but not exclusively) secular ceremonial at the Cenotaph was seamlessly linked to the Christian funeral service for the Unknown in the Abbey. At the same time non-Christian faiths were accorded significant recognition. While other belligerent powers faced similar issues, and in some respects adopted similar solutions, in Britain there was nevertheless a distinctive and particularly pronounced blending of the Christian and the national which has had an abiding legacy.

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