According to conventional wisdom, if the Great War didn't actually kill God, it did him great injury. But now, in a new Radio 3 documentary, writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, whose credits range from Coronation Street to the London Olympics opening ceremony, argues that the First World War might actually have been good for religion
In Sunday Feature: God And The Great War, Boyce explores the impact of the First World War on religious belief and practice both on the military front and at home.
Here, Boyce gives Jonathan Wright a sneak preview…
Q: How did the documentary come about?
A: I wrote a play called God On Trial, which was about some rabbis who debated whether God is guilty for the Holocaust. That idea of faith and conflict and suffering really interests me. The producer Rosie Dawson saw that and came to me, and said, “Would you be interesting in doing something about where God was in the First World War?” Because there’s a general feeling that God died in the First World War.
Q: You challenge this idea God died?
A: Yes, and that’s an easy thing to challenge. But it’s interesting to see what did happen to religion, because religion did change in the First World War, in various ways.
For instance, there was a sudden rise in interest in spiritualism and the dead. Suddenly, all these wayside shrines sprang up, which was really interesting for me and very modern – if you pass anywhere now where there’s been a traffic accident there’s an improvised shrine.
Q: White bicycles… [memorials for cyclists who are killed or hit on the street]
A: Exactly that, yeah, that way people improvise new rituals and new ideas is interesting. And of course in the Anglican Church there were never prayers for the dead, which were kind of outlawed because of the Reformation.
From the First World War onwards, they become a kind of centrepiece. Remembrance Sunday is the day everybody’s eyes are on the church again, so it’s gone from something that was completely outlawed to something that’s a bit of a flagship.
Q: We reinvent God?
A: Yes, we do.
The thing that interested me was that something that was quite a tough theological line [praying for the dead] moved for reasons of tenderness really, pastoral reasons. Just because so many people were dead, that whole idea of judgment, hell and heaven, all seemed to go on the backburner.
[Religion] changed its complexion and tone – it’s really interesting watching that happen because it happens from all sorts of different directions.
Q: What about non-Christian troops and Remembrance?
A: There are lots and lots of troops we didn’t remember – the troops with turbans on, we just don’t remember them at all, they’re not in the popular iconography, they’ve been written out of the picture. That’s an interesting thing about Remembrance – who do we remember?
Q: The documentary also looks at the role of women in the war
A: This is also about who we remember and who we don’t remember. There’s a little section about the ‘Devil’s Porridge’ [cordite]. There was this huge factory in Gretna, 11,000 girls worked there at one point, 90 per cent of them unmarried and doing this incredibly dangerous work making cordite, which was the propellant for artillery shells.
It’s basically cotton wool soaked in nitroglycerin, and it’s incredibly dangerous – physically immediately dangerous in that it could blow up, but also immensely damaging to your health. They lost their teeth and their complexions went really weird. They threw themselves into this work, for the war effort, for our boys and they’re kind of unremembered.
Sunday Feature: God And The Great War will air on Radio 3 on Sunday 9 November at 6.45pm. To find out more, click here.