I am not religious, and by this, I mean that I do not believe in a God, or that any kind of one divine power has an influence over our lives. I believe that God is a construct of man; that Theology is a very human attempt to grapple with the complexities of life, to find meaning in existence and answer the questions that appear unanswerable. Through these moral explorations and philosophies, religion is able to exert power over the lives of many, and God in this sense, very much becomes real. In my opinion, there is nothing more human than to choose to believe in something for which there is no empirical evidence, in order to provide answers for the uncertainties of life.
That is just my broad view on organised religion, and though I do not believe in a God, it does not undermine the importance I place on faith and spirituality – these are things which stand apart from religion. Science for example, can be deeply spiritual, and faith can derive from any passion, experience or connection we make in life. For me, the battlefields of the Great War are more than just places of historical interest, they are something which can provide a great deal of spiritual guidance. Some people may visit the Western Front just once in their lives, a one off pilgrimage to pay respects or simply to learn a little more about the war out of interest. But many people find themselves returning time after time, feeling a pull back to certain locations or desire to visit new ones.
When I recall my first trip to the Western Front, I find myself thinking about the emotional impact, feeling those memories – not remembering the facts about the war that I learnt – this I think, is quite common. The battlefields confront us with death, and death and spirituality have always been connected. This connection is even more multifaceted than usual when we consider the battlefields for they span the beliefs of the men who fought, those of their relatives or friends who may have journeyed on personal pilgrimages in the post war years, and our own beliefs and emotional responses to the Old Front Line today.
During the war, millions of men and women came face to face with death, and were confronted with their own mortality as a result. For some, the brutality of the conflict destroyed their faith and deconstructed their pre-war values and beliefs. For others, the war only sought to reaffirm their beliefs or provide them a path to a new found faith in the divine. But whether a man took comfort in God and religion, or superstition in lucky charms or routines, the war had a profound spiritual impact on many who served. We all believe in something – even those men who took a fatalistic view, and simply ‘got on with the job’ with no particular inclination or recognition of spirituality believed in something. They believed the future was predetermined and that lifted the weight of anxiety, allowing them to get through the days. Spirituality is complex and personal, it is impacted by our environment and experiences but never destroyed. Historians have explored many aspects of the war’s impact on faith and spirituality, from the role of the Church and trench religion, to the rise of spiritualism among the bereaved or the way in which the war fundamentally changed (or didn’t) British values and society. With all this in mind, it is no surprise that the battlefields continue to evoke a deep and long lasting emotional response among people. This year has proved testing as this spiritual connection has felt so distant, with trips to the front off limits to most of us.
People have often called my fascination with the Great War and the battlefields morbid, and I suppose in a way it is, but for me the battlefields and the Silent Cities are about far more than death, in fact, they are about life. When I am struggling with direction or feel overwhelmed by the stressors and difficulties we all face in our day to day lives, the battlefields provide a perspective and comfort that is hard to find elsewhere. A weekend wandering the landscape where so much took place – physically, emotionally and mentally, for so many – provides a chance to reset. To consider our own mortality, our purpose, what’s important and what isn’t, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Without the chance to do this in 2020, people have turned to other ways of connecting with the battlefields and all that they mean – throwing themselves into local research, sharing the stories of those who fought through websites, blogs and webinars and what I’ve found most noticeable – sharing their thoughts and feelings about what really drives their passion with those around them. Not a day goes by on Twitter where I don’t see a post from at least one person commenting on how they’re missing the battlefields. It is not just a holiday routine that’s been interrupted, 2020 has interrupted a form of spiritual expression. But, it has not and cannot interrupt what drives that passion and this is true of whatever your interest is and whatever it is you are missing doing this year. That love and faith can’t ever be destroyed or stopped, we simply find other ways of expressing it and I think if one good thing has come out of this year, it is that we’ve begun to talk to each, open up and share more about the things that are important to us all.