On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918 the “War to End All Wars” officially came to a conclusion with the signing of the Armistice between the Allies and Germany, with all other Central Powers nations having already signed similar agreements. Europe, and the world, would never be the same as the continental empires all fell and bloody revolutions became commonplace. The number of casualties brought devastation to the nations involved: at least 17 million people - combatants and civilians - died, and over 21 million soldiers were wounded.
In the novel To Serve Them All My Days R.F. Delderfield gives his readers a glimpse into the life of one of the soldiers wounded in the war. The protagonist, 2nd Lieutenant David Powlett-Jones, is home from the war and has just been released from a hospital where he has been recovering from a leg wound and shell shock - what today is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He has applied for a teaching position at Bamfylde School, a private institution for boys in southwest England, and after a contentious interview with the headmaster, Rev. Algy Herries, Powlett-Jones is hired to teach history.
Despite the sorry state of PJ (as he became known) and the chip on his shoulder the size of the Welsh coal mine where his father and brothers toiled, the kind-hearted Rev. Herries took a chance on him because he thought that Bamfylde needed some shaking up. As time goes on PJ becomes the archetypal British school master, and, in a trope used earlier in Goodbye Mr. Chips, he becomes the headmaster in a time of need.
For all of its reliance on the standard story lines of British school master novels, the character of PJ is very modern and does not fall into the set pattern for a soldier returning from the war. He is angry that war profiteers have deprived many young men of their lives, of their bodily health, and their mental and emotional well-being, and he will have none of the military jingoism of his colleague Carter who is in charge of the school’s Officer Training Corps.
As David begins his teaching of history he asks his students to think about the present time as history in the making - challenging them to come to terms with the fact that if the war did not end soon, then they would very likely spend the next year not at Cambridge or Oxford but on a field somewhere in Europe being shot at. The boys think that PJ is some kind of crazy radical, and they joke that PJ stands for Pro-Jerry (Jerry being the English slang term for Germans).
In another class session David begins by stating the belief that history is written by the winners of wars and not the losers. He then proposes that the boys imagine what would have happened had the Royalists and not the Parliamentarians won the English Civil War.
Today, we can do the same with World War I. Rather than the obvious (What would have happened had the Central Powers defeated the Allies?), maybe taking a different angle will give insights into something more important than political alignments and economic systems. What if Tzar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George V of the United Kingdom, and Tzar Ferdinand of Bulgaria had decided that things could be settled without bloodshed, like a family might do?
This “what if” might seem far-fetched, except for the fact that these men who changed the world by their acts of war were all related to each other - and, because of the absurd racism inherent in royalty (the importance of “blood lines”) they were often related on both sides of the family.
But even more important than their family ties should have been their ties to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. These four men are representatives of Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Catholicism, respectively. What was lacking in their belief in the words of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the Peacemakers”) or to Peter in Gethsemane (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”)? What about their understanding of history made them think that this would turn out well?
Sadly, they bound themselves to neither family nor faith. They, along with the Catholic Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Hungary would pay the bitter price of war - only King George would retain his throne, and the Continent would never really recover from the wounds inflicted during the Great War.
When looking back at the time from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 up to the end of World War I in 1918, it could be argued that Hilaire Belloc was correct when he stated that “The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.” But had he been correct in a substantive rather than a nominal way, then kings and emperors might have followed a different path - that of Christ and not of Caesar. And instead of commemorating the lives of those who fell in war we might be celebrating the lives of those who stood for peace.