In December 2018, Melbourne Pastor Murray Campbell and his family visited the blood-soaked WW1 battlefields of Western Europe. They were on a pilgrimage of sorts, to see where Campbell’s great grandfather, William Campbell, fought for King and Country as an ANZAC soldier. Their pilgrimage took them to the battlefields around Ypres and Messines, where over 100 years ago William Campbell fought with the 35th Battalion of the 3rd Division, in some of the fiercest fighting on the Western front.
Murray Campbell writes about this journey and combines it with theological and historical reflection in his recent short book, Symphony from the Great War.
As a Christian and a history buff, I read through Campbell’s book with great interest. While he guides us through the regrown battlefields and cemeteries of Allied soldiers, we’re also transported back in time, to a foreign world. A world filled with the horrors of trench warfare: mud and machine guns; mustard gas and artillery. A world in which death and fear are constant companions.
Campbell asks the question of what it would have been like for young men like his great grandfather, who volunteered for this awful war. What would have gone through their minds, as they endured endless artillery? As they prepared to rush into no-man’s land to attack the Germans? As fought and won battles, like at Messines, in 1917?
Messines was a famous victory, and my Great-grandfather was part of it. We know the path he trod, but we have no record of his precise involvement. We cannot be sure how he reacted with the day’s closure. Was it triumph and joy? Was it desperate tiredness and relief? Standing on this soil a century later I asked myself a hundred questions, trying to catch a moment of what he may have felt, while knowing that the task is an impossible one.’
A Bigger Picture
And yet as important as it is to ask these questions about our particular forbears, and how they experienced such historical moments, Campbell takes a step back and reflects on the way history teaches us, and impacts us — to this very day:
History intrigues us and causes us to ponder the axis upon which the globe moves… the past has a way of repeating messages and teaching us of the best and worst of humanity’s soul. History not only informs us, but it forms who we are today. The past grows roots and branches from which today’s twigs and flowers burgeon.
And while the carnage of World War 1 can seems so remote to us comfortable 21st century Australians, Campbell reminds us that war has been a near-constant companion to our nation:
Australians found themselves at war for 26 years in the 20th century; that is one year in every four. In the 21st Century, the percentage is even higher, with our troops being involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making up almost the entirety of the 19 years that have so far completed their course.
How Could Such Horror Happen?
The great irony of World War 1 is that it was fought by the most cultured, educated and advanced nations on the planet. Both western Christians and western secularists entered the 20th century with high hopes for the future of humanity. Prior to World War 1, serious people were saying that war in Europe was impossible. And yet, on the vicious battlefields of World War 1, these hopes were brutally dashed (followed by an even brutal war 20 years later).
How could these nations engage in such conflict? Campbell explains this seeming paradox:
The paradox of the human condition bewilders: such inexplicable worth and wonder and yet constant and repeated reproach. The height of creative prodigy with the ability to love and to show kindness, and yet in our DNA are also traits that stick like the mud of Flanders, and which no degree of education or scientific treatment can excise. At the best of times, we contain and suppress such things, and at the worst, we can explode into a public and violent confrontation.
The First World War wasn’t human madness; it was calculated depravity. It was genius used in the employment of destruction.
Genius used in the employment of destruction.
Although it’s been a while since we’ve experienced the carnage of a World War, where humanity employed its genius for destruction, this doesn’t mean humanity has ‘progressed’:
We mustn’t make the error in thinking that today we are somehow better suited to the task of humanity. This is an anthropological fallacy of cosmic repercussions. The bloodletting has not subsided; it’s just that we exercise our barbarity with clinical precision or behind closed doors.
It’s a depressing thought, but as we look at the news headlines it’s hard to deny. From a polarised and divided America, to a belligerent China flexing its muscles, fighting via trade and cyberspace (and threatening war). Oh, and a pandemic that’s disrupting our world. Our children are growing up in a world where volatility is the new normal.
And theologically speaking, it’s the Christian doctrine of total depravity that explains how human beings are capable of such bloodletting. Sin runs deep. But our world doesn’t want to hear this explanation, even as it stares them in the face:
The world sees the doctrine of total depravity but cannot accept the veracity of this diagnosis of disease because doing so would seem to be leaving our children destitute, without hope for a better tomorrow.
To face our inherent human sinfulness, without accepting the Saviour, is too great a weight to bear. And so, our western world denies our inherent depravity, insisting evil behaviour is a result of external conditions such as poverty etc.
Real Hope in the Midst of Carnage
As depressing as these reflections on the human condition are, Campbell doesn’t leave us in a state of despair. If anything, he says, such despair should cause us to look beyond ourselves to a better hope:
And yet surely wisdom causes us to look outside ourselves and beyond our institutions and authorities to find a cure for the disease that ails every past and future generation?
It’s a cure found in God’s Son, who will one day bring peace to a world torn apart by war. As it says in Isaiah 2:4,
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
Campbell’s short book is a personal journey into this complex and brutal history. As we feel the brutality, and taste the despair of war, we’re chastened of any progressive dream of utopia and peace on earth this side of eternity. Instead, we’re encouraged to look to the only source of true and lasting hope — to God’s risen Son, the Prince of Peace.
Come, Lord Jesus!
 Murray Campbell, Symphony from the Great War (Kindle Edition, 2020), 29.
 Campbell, Symphony, 7-8.
 Campbell, Symphony, 30.
 Campbell, Symphony, 43.
 Campbell, Symphony, 44.
 Campbell, Symphony, 44.