Hostilities ceased on the morning of 11th November 1918 as the Armistice was signed and came into force at 11am. The war was finally over. Peace had come. But the price was high. It is hard to know exact figures but it’s estimated that across the globe about 15-19 million people died and about 21 million people were wounded, making it amongst the deadliest conflicts in human history.
For all the celebrations, some found peace unsettling. Colonel Thomas Gowenlock, an American military leader wrote of differing responses at the front – from excitement about going home to ‘bewilderment by the sudden meaninglessness of their existence as soldiers… What was to come next? Their minds were numbed by the shock of peace.’
Peace terms were agreed at Versailles the following year, set out in 440 articles setting out how the German nation were responsible for the war, and the territorial, military, financial concessions they would make. The hope was that the harsh terms would put an end to German aggression, but we now know it had the opposite effect. The Versailles Treaty was greeted with shock and disbelief in Germany and in many ways contributed to the subsequent rise of Nazism and the Second World War.
The Allies wanted peace terms to be tough. And they were. Some have suggested that the British should have learned from their experience with the Boers a few years earlier in the Boer War of 1899-1902, where the Boers were encouraged to thrive in a close relationship with Britain, which was so successful that the South Africans fought alongside the British in the Great War and the subsequent Second World War. Instead, Germany was to pay.
So there was little forgiveness on display at Versailles. As a result, winning the war did not mean winning the peace. British military theorist BH Liddel Hart famously said that ‘the object of war is to obtain a better peace’ but it’s easy to forget that at the end of a tiring conflict. The desire to punish and not wanting the enemy to rise again was understandably strong. At the end of the Great War, that was the aim of the Allied peace.
But there is a better way of peace. It’s shown in having mercy. ‘Mercy’ is a biblical word, meaning not getting what you deserve. It’s about showing compassion and forgiveness towards someone over whom you have power to punish. Christ-followers know that God treats us like this, with great mercy. That’s why he sent Jesus – not to treat us as our sins deserve, but to forgive and empower us for a new start.
Jesus presents a model of peace that is easily overlooked but when seen, it arrests your attention. I was reminded of this just yesterday, as I shared bread and wine with other members of our York Diocese and heard the Archbishop of York pray these words in prayer to God:
‘For you are the hope of the nations,
the builder of the city that is to come.
Your love made visible in Jesus Christ
brings home the lost,
restores the sinner
and gives dignity to the oppressed.
In his face your light shines out,
flooding lives with goodness and truth,
gathering into one in your kingdom
a divided and broken humanity.’
In today’s fractured society, leaders in our church and nation – in business, education, the arts, technology and media – would do well to consider afresh the merciful kindness, forgiveness and unity found in the person of Jesus Christ.
The solution to our war-scarred world has been displayed for us in human history in the person of Jesus Christ. Yet so often we forget.
What’s needed is not retribution, but mercy.