The Great War (World War I)

The Great War & Its Consequences

The Great War didn’t have to happen. But leaders of European countries had been in an armaments race since 1870 – doubling the size of the region’s armies and navies in a generation.

World War I soldier with gas maskRising nationalism was a factor, especially in newly created Germany (1871) and Italy (1871).

Political instability plagued the Austria-Hungarian Empire, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) and Russia. Alliances among countries created a potential chain-reaction effect in the event of a bilateral conflict.

The trigger – on June 28, 1914, a Serbia terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his pregnant wife,
Sophie, in Sarajevo. The Austria-Hungarian Empire issued an ultimatum, which Serbia satisfied 8 of 10 demands. The Austrians declared war on July 28. The chain reaction started.

During August 1914, numerous declarations of war were declared between the Central Powers and the Allies.

Author Steven Mintz concludes: “World War I killed more people — more than 9 million soldiers, sailors, and fliers and another 5 million civilians — involved more countries (28) and cost more money — $186 billion in direct costs and another $151 billion in indirect costs — than any previous war in history. It was the first war to use airplanes, tanks, long range artillery, submarines, and poison gas. It left at least 7 million men permanently disabled.”
“World War I probably had more far-reaching consequences than any other proceeding war. Politically, it resulted in the downfall of four monarchies — in Russia in 1917, in Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1918, and in Turkey in 1922. It contributed to the Bolshevik rise to power in Russia in 1917 and the triumph of fascism in Italy in 1922. It ignited colonial revolts in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia.”

The war also resulted in many atrocities where civilians were killed as a results of deportations, massacres, starvation. For example, there were the Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Empire (1915 – 1918) and by Turkey (early 1920s) and the Surdulica Massacre with Serbian men killed by Bulgarians.

The war also impacted Christian missionary activities throughout the world, including regions well away from the European fronts.

Chaplains & Church

In 1918, Congress passed an act that called for one chaplain for every 1200 officers and enlisted men. By the end of the war, the original 74 Regular U.S. Army chaplains and 72 National Guard chaplains had been joined by 2,217 more chaplains. Plus the hundreds of U.S. Navy chaplains, additional support was provided by chaplains from the YMCA and the Knights of Columbus.

Army Chaplain Duffy at funeralTwenty-three of the Army chaplains died in the service of their country during this conflict — 11 of them were battle deaths. Twenty-seven chaplains earned the Purple Heart, four with Oak Leaf Cluster. Twenty-seven chaplains earned the Distinguished Service Cross and 18 the Silver Star. France, Great Britain, and Belgium also decorated American chaplains.

Chaplain Coleman E. O'Flaherty, awarded the DSC posthumously, was eulogized by his commander, who said that the initial letters of the award really meant, "Died in the Service of Christ." The most famous chaplain to serve in World War I was Francis P. Duffy, a Roman Catholic priest from New York. Chaplain Duffy, whose statue stands in Times Square, New York City, was the senior chaplain of the 42nd Division.

“Once the fighting started, the sermons stopped,” noted Gordon L. Heath in "American Churches and the First World War." Chaplains, like Duffy, “traveled with the unit first aid stations and provided physical and spiritual care to the wounded and dying. They worked closely with the other noncombatants: the surgeons, ambulance crews, and stretcher-bearers.”

Established Christian denominations undertook extensive efforts to support the war effort once America formally joined the conflict.