Presbyterians of the Past

J. Gresham Machen, France 1918 Part 5, War Ends

If you have not read the previous articles in this series you may want to do so by visiting the first post, “J. Gresham Machen, France 1918, Part 1″ and then continue through the sequence of articles using the link at the end of each article.

At eleven in the morning of the eleventh day and eleventh month of 1918, a Monday, the First World War ended. One might think this conclusion of the conflict an odd quirk of historical coincidence with its trio of elevens, but the ceasing of hostilities was planned for that time when the armistice was signed in Marshall Ferdinand Foch’s rail car at Rethondes at five that morning. It follows that the commanders would order the artillery breeches closed and weapons packed away because the war would officially stop in six hours. But that is not what happened. The war continued until eleven with additional wounded, maimed, and dead added to the lengthy casualty lists of the nations at war. The obvious question is, “Why?” One answer is that the commanders of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) wanted to retake as much land as possible from the Germans before the end at 11:00, but military action to recover land was not needed because the armistice required the Germans to withdraw and cede all the land taken during the war. Joseph E. Persico’s Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour provides another answer in his extended account of the last days of the war. His perspective is not original to him but instead has its source in the days immediately following the war. Persico said the commanders’ pride and quest for glory led them to prosecute the war to the last second to show Germany their superiority. Further, despite considerable changes in the technology of war, the officers lived with a nineteenth-century concept of the art of war. He quoted one AEF commander’s comment “I believe the value of the horse and the opportunity of the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse” (397). Images of a Cavalier brandishing his sabre atop a galloping steed come to mind as he charges for glory in the face of tanks. Even though the quote provides the opinion of only one officer, it shows the military’s reticence to adopt innovation, its sense of security in tradition, and its hope for glory. The mindset of World War I French commanders was brought to the screen in 1957 with Stanley Kubrick’s excellent but emotionally distressing film, Paths of Glory, in which the character portrayed by Kirk Douglas was baffled and angered by the indifferent attitude of his commanders regarding the lives of their troops. Regardless of the answer to the question why, the war ended one hundred years ago tomorrow at 11:00 in the morning Paris time. Veterans’ Day is tomorrow and it was initially named Armistice Day to remember the end of the Great War and its multitude of casualties. Andrew Myers of Log College Press has provided a nice brief piece for Veterans Day titled “World War I, in Remembrance.”

It seems particularly appropriate to remember the centennial of the end of the war on the Lord’s Day. Machen had experienced difficulty with locating acceptable worship services while working with the YMCA in France. He commented at one point that it was often impossible to distinguish the Sabbath from any other day of the week even though he tried to remain faithul by attending Roman Catholic services and listening to the priests’ homilies, or joining the services led by military chaplains, but he found the discourses of theological liberals empty. When organized worship was not available, he pulled out the Scriptures, gathered up anyone who would attend, and led his own little meetings. So, now one hundred years after Machen celebrated the end of the war he is enjoying the Sabbath of eternity with no more war nor need to seek corporate worship because it is a way of life.

With the war over Machen could not restrain himself. He was normally a reserved, careful, and thoughtful writer of letters showing deliberate and controlled emotion, but three days after the war concluded he ecstatically expressed relief. Note that he mentions the book of Psalms, which he found particularly comforting during the fighting.

The Lord’s name be praised! Hardly before have I known what true thanksgiving is. Nothing but the exuberance of the psalms of David accompanied with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings could begin to do justice to the joy of this hour. “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” It seems as though the bells must break forth into singing. Peace at last, and praise the Lord!

Unfortunately, citizens and their governments often forget the horrors of war, and this manifestation of selective memory was also true of the First World War. Despite restrictions requiring Germany to manufacture only non-war products after the war, the negligence of many allowed the nation to rise once again and become a well-armed and oppressive world power. In just two decades the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler would lead the Germans into another world war.

Following a trip to rest in his family’s cottage in Seal Harbor after his arrival to the States in 1919, Dr. Machen returned to Princeton Seminary and his duties teaching, but what had been routine before the war was viewed afterwards with a greater sense of his place in God’s purpose. Before the war, Machen had been a studious academic, preacher, and dedicated Christian, but after the war he continued in his calling not only doing his best work but also having a keener sense of the breadth of what being Christian means. Several years after the war Machen wrote in “The Claims of Love” that “service is comparatively useless unless it comes from the heart; true service is not a substitute for love, but the expression of love.” In 1921 Machen was honored for his YMCA service with the médaille commémorative de la guerre by the War Office of France for serving more than six months in the combat zone.

If you are interested in reading more about J. Gresham Machen, the biography by his good friend and seminary colleague, Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir, provides a personal and informed perspective with considerable use of Machen’s correspondence and it is available from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in a recent reprint. The standard scholarly but engagingly written book for biographical information with an emphasis on his work during the religious controversies of the nineteen twenties and thirties is D. G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America. If you want less detail and an easier but not simplistic read, including illustrations, see Stephen J. Nichols’s J. Gresham Machen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Biographies on Presbyterians of the Past about some of Machen’s family include one for his cousin, LeRoy Gresham, and another for his maternal grandfather, John Jones Gresham. For a history of the YMCA in World War I, see the set of books edited by former President William Howard Taft and Frederick Harris, Service with Fighting Men. An Account of the Work of the American Young Men’s Christian Associations in the World War, 2 vols., 1922.

Barry Waugh

Sources–The full information on Persico’s book is, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918. World War 1 and Its Violent Climax (New York: Random House, 2004). The image of the first page of Psalms is from The Holy Bible, 1595, as on Internet Archive.

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