Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War
reviewed by Margaret Spratt, PhD

Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War
by Jonathan H. Ebel
Princeton University Press, 2010

Chapel, U.S. St. Mihiel Cemetery
When one visits an American military cemetery abroad, one is struck by not only the beauty of rows upon rows of sparkling white markers against a background of green lawn but also the sense of reverence visitors demonstrate as they walk among those pristine and orderly resting places. To some, they represent a view of heaven on earth. To others, these peaceful cemeteries are the antithesis of the hell that the soldiers endured before their untimely deaths.

Having just returned from France where the graves of American soldiers dot the rural landscape, Faith in the Fight helped me sort out the philosophical contradictions of total war. As historians learn very early in their educations, actions are relatively easy to understand compared to motivations. The role that religion played in the lives of American soldiers and war workers is crucial to an understanding of that generation’s commitment to an unprecedented war effort.

The author, Jonathan Ebel, recognizes that individual expressions of faith as well as descriptions of wartime experiences are a messy lot. But he observes that "War made a soldier feel alone and, alone with this faith, led him to draw on the elements of faith that were of the greatest importance to him, and in which he found the greatest comfort." Using wartime narratives and articles from the Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper of the AEF with a circulation at its peak of 522,000 copies, Ebel has attempted to analyze the oft-romantic words of the soldiers and war workers as they faced adversity unknown to their family and friends at home.

Order Now
This is a challenging study that succeeds in sorting through the personal and public uses of religion as motivation and justification for going to war. Certainly Christianity was used by propagandists and clergy to explain the need for masculine involvement, and the spread of muscular Christian organizations such as the YMCA played a role. The author believes there was a deeply established religious foundation in America that dated well before 1917. An enthusiastic populace responding to the call to arms with religious zeal exemplifies that belief, but this book is much more than an exploration of religious justifications.

The author looks at two groups whose motivations and experiences differ from those of white males. One chapter is devoted to black soldiers’ war experiences. He points out that the desire to end racism and the hope that exemplary military service might lead to that event contributed to the hope of religious redemption.

Ebel also looks at the meaning of womanhood and the roles women played during the war in a separate chapter. He assigns women to three groups: War Wives and Mothers, Sisters in Arms, and New Woman Warriors, believing that these categories help to place women within the context of war. However, he is quick to point out that women always served within a domestic sphere even as they drove a truck filled with medical supplies to an aid station close to the front.

In two different chapters, Ebel uses the soldiers’ own words to examine how they made sense of death. He discovered that “the suffering and bleeding, writhing and dying. . .were modern forms of martyrdom. . .which brought salvation to the fallen.”

Certainly the emotion one feels walking about in an American military cemetery in France echoes that sentiment. Images of sacrifice and martyrdom dominate the memorials and chapels that see few visitors but stand as testaments to the fallen.

Chapel, U.S. Meuse-Argonne Cemetery

The author cannot resist the temptation of comparing the role of religion in the Great War to wars across time, but he clearly points out that the Great War was not a war of religion. However, when speaking of the soldiers and war workers he states, "Religion informed their sense of duty, gave them the language, narratives, ideas, and symbols to frame the conflict and to understand their part in it." Religion helped them cope with the possibility of death of their comrades and themselves and, perhaps most important, justified “the greatest sacrifice of war: the sacrifice of one’s unwillingness to kill.”

Although Faith in the Fight was published six years ago, its relevance has not diminished. It is an important part of the intellectual canon for what it says about the Great War and also for what it says about ALL war.

Margaret Spratt, PhD


  1. Great review, Margaret.

    I've long been fascinated by the role religion plays in encouraging and sustaining violence. What are the comparable works on Europeans combatants and religion in WWI?

  2. Echo the comments about visiting the various ABMC cemeteries in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK - they profoundly move me and cause one to reflect. They are also a tribute to the dedication and hard work by all of the employees (both US and local nationals) of this very, very small Federal agency - simply superb people.

  3. I haven't gotten around to reading this book yet, but 'the Great and Holy War' by Philip Jenkins (2014) addresses the subject of religion and the Great War ...

  4. Most interesting and atypical of most WWI chronicles. Brings to mind the great Father Francis P. Duffy of the Fighting 69th.

  5. I've often thought, when I've visited military cemeteries in the US and abroad, that battlefields were a nexus of Heaven and Hell on earth. Thank you for Dr. Spratt's review of Ebel's book on this subject.

  6. You might want to check out John Broom's "Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War." Though I haven't read it, I've heard others who have enjoyed it.

  7. Another intriguing one. Thank you, Connie R.

  8. One would like to think that there is a god that takes the souls of the glorious dead into his care. Especially after the horror and terribly violent deaths. But one is left to look upon the Germans and Austrians who started the conflagration and their seal with the holy crown circled with "GOTT MIT UNS"... Wars are the purview of man.