In December 1914, just before Christmas, a commemorative print of the painting – The Great Sacrifice – by James Clark (1858-1943) was issued in the (British) illustrated weekly publication, The Graphic. The print had an immediate appeal and became one of the key religious images of WW1. It was picked up and adapted across the Empire. For example, the basic image appears in the stained glass window in St. George’s Anglican Church at Malvern (Victoria). In this particular work a distinctly Australian slouch hat has been included.
Some idea of how influential the poster was and just how quickly it was pressed in to service across the Empire comes from the following article which appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 8 January 1915.
Special services in connection with the Empire’s Day of Intercession concerning the war were held in the Anglican churches throughout the district on Sunday last. At Yarram the pulpit was flanked with the Union Jack draped round a copy of the new painting by James Clark, entitled “The Great Sacrifice,” depicting the Saviour on the Cross, at the foot of which lies a dead soldier, in the uniform of the present-day British infantry, whose hands rests on the Saviour’s feet, as though seeking to identify himself with the “Great Sacrifice.”
Reverend Cox (Church of England, Yarram) was still employing the image of The Great Sacrifice in a sermon that was reported in detail in the paper in May 1915 (7/5/15). It is difficult for us, 100 years on, to appreciate just how influential the idea of the British or Australian soldier as a ‘soldier of Christ’ was at the time. In a far more religious Australian society and at a point in the War well before the AIF had established its own more secular ideology that represented sacrifice as an expression of ‘mateship’, it was seen as natural that religious leaders like Cox explained such sacrifice in war in terms of religious teaching. Cox stressed in this particular sermon:
“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
He was definitely not talking about secular notions of ‘mateship’ but about Christian love and duty.
For Cox, the soldier lying dead at the foot of the cross, his hand touching the foot of the crucified Christ, was at one with the Lord who had sacrificed His Life for the sins of the world and the One who would rise triumphant over death. In his death, fighting the just war, the soldier had also won his eternal life with the Saviour. The soldier’s individual sacrifice was an expression of The Great Sacrifice.
On this particular occasion Cox was also keen to emphasise that Christ Himself identified with the dead soldier. Referring to the text quoted and the actual picture of The Great Sacrifice, Cox told his congregation: I want by means of this text, illustrated by the picture, to show you Christ suffering, bleeding, dying, thereby identifying Himself with suffering humanity. For Cox, Christ in His compassion was taking the soldier to Himself. We might find all the imagery overdone – perhaps uncomfortable and even unfathomable – but for religious congregations of the time, the sermon would have been easily understood; and later in the War as death became so common, parents, families and whole communities could take consolation in such religious teaching. As tragic as the death of a soldier fighting overseas was in the bitter world of everyday reality, there was higher purpose to all the suffering and Christ would take to himself those who died in His name. These were profoundly powerful religious beliefs.
Such a religious perspective on the thousands of Australian deaths that, in early 1915, were still to come was based on several key beliefs. The first was that God was on the side of the Allies: it was a just war against an enemy that had turned its back on Christian principles and conducted war in a barbaric manner. The second belief was that there had to be both a moral and martial campaign against Germany. The War called for religious renewal because for the Christian believer it did not make any sense to see the War simply in terms of competing armies. There had to be a higher, more divine purpose to all the suffering and horror. True Christians had to turn again to God in prayer and commit to leading upright lives. The third belief was that those on the front line facing the enemy were acting selflessly to protect those at home, and their sacrifice would be recognised by God. Therefore they were under His protection. However, the significant qualification here was that the individual soldier, exercising his free will, had to stay true to his religion and live a decent life as a soldier. He could not allow himself to be corrupted, or even seduced, by the evil that war inevitably spawned. War could destroy innocence and the young and impressionable had to be both warned and protected.
All these beliefs could be seen in the sermon Reverend Cox delivered that day in May 1915. He reminded his congregation of the suffering of those in Belgium and he then added the outrages inflicted on those in Poland, alluding to the sexual predations of the German army on the women and girls of that nation. Continuing the theme of German perfidy, he turned to the treatment of British prisoners of war: We read almost daily of the treatment meted out to British prisoners in Germany of their being fed on stuff that we would scorn to give to our pigs, of their being insulted, cruelly treated and murdered in cold blood. He even gave an example of the brutality of German colonising methods, citing an incident from 1897 when a leading German colonial officer ridiculed British attempts to deal ‘fairly’ with the Massai and proceeded to shoot dead any native who challenged – even in the most moderate and reasonable way – German authority. Germans were ruthless tyrants and Cox warned his congregation that because Australia had pledged such strong support for the Empire against Germany, and had already done everything possible to exasperate the enemy, they could expect no mercy if ever Germany overcame Britain; and therefore God must always be their last refuge: If ever the enemy gets a foothold we will have to look to God for help. So for Cox, prayer – and the attendant recognition of God’s supremacy above everything – was the primary line of defence: Prayer – earnest, believing prayer. Why do I put this first? Because we are fighting not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of evil. Therefore no other weapon will avail. But as Cox saw it, people were not turning to God in this hour of national crisis and the power of prayer was not being realised. As Cox, lamenting the size of congregations, noted … it seems as though prayer has lost much of its meaning nowadays.
Faced with this indifference, Reverend Cox believed strong action was required to force people to wake to the national crisis at hand. Sacrifices had to be made and, again, football was high on his list. He declared:
And what do we see? Many a man who ought to be on the battlefield, fighting for the sufferings and honor of womanhood staying home to play football, and women and girls flocking to watch them play. I have no quarrel with football. I have played the game, I like the game, but under present conditions! no, certainly not.
The local football competition in the Shire would be wound up several months later, under the relentless pressure from patriots. Cox was also keen to push the cause of temperance and hoped that many more would follow the lead of King George V who had only recently pledged to abstain for the duration of the War. There was also a passing shot at trade unionists undermining the war effort by holding up ships with war supplies.
For the young men who could enlist, Cox had the simple message that they should: Go, because your country needs you. Go, above all, because Christ needs you. As such ‘soldiers of Christ’, they needed encouragement and direction and therefore Rev. Cox was keen that young man enlisting had access to the Scriptures:
There is one object for which I would ask. The men who are going to the front are going to face death – they know it – they volunteer with that in mind, and at such times men are prepared to receive divine truth. There is then a unique opportunity presented to us of helping them. The British and Foreign Bible Society undertakes that every man who cares to have it receives a copy of the Scriptures. This requires funds, and I will gladly forward any contributions for that purpose handed to me.
The sermons of Reverend Cox were repeated from countless pulpits across the nation. Protestant churches tended to have a sharper focus on Imperial duty but the Catholic clergy definitely preached for the War. There was a collective sense of turning to God in the hour of need. God Himself was enlisted in the cause. The AIF was charged with doing God’s work to overthrow evil. And death in war was seen as an expression of Christian sacrifice.
However, the AIF – idealised as some sort of righteous army of God, with its individual members, as soldiers of Christ – could easily fall short of religious benchmarks. It was inevitable that the pressured creation of the AIF would concentrate the very anti-social behaviours – drunkenness, gambling, ‘filthy’ and blasphemous language, disrespect for proper authority, larrikinism .. – that religious leaders had railed against for years. Certainly in the early months of the War, the image of the AIF was not as wholesome as the sermons suggested.The following account is taken from The Argus of 21 December 1914. It covered one of the riots in Melbourne by soldiers from Broadmeadows. The headlines read: SOLDIERS ATTACK CHINESE. TUMULT IN THE CITY. ORGY OF WINDOW BREAKING. POLICE USE THEIR BATONS. SEVERAL ARRESTS MADE.
Little Bourke street, the scene of many a conflict, probably never witnessed such a serious disturbance as that which occurred last evening in consequence of certain members of the Expeditionary Forces acting on a desire to wreck the place. From Swanston street to Russell street hardly a window which was not sheltered remains whole, and during the conflict, which in this quarter lasted for more than an hour, many extraordinary scenes were witnessed.
The article claimed that the trouble began when a story circulated that a soldier had been treated roughly on the previous night by a Chinese shop owner. The story eventually had the soldier involved dying from his injuries in the Melbourne Hospital. There was no such death, nor possibly even any injury, but as the paper pointed out, … the indignity of having been kicked by a Chinese evidently rankled so bitterly that the story became magnified… .
The paper suggested that the attack on Chinese business along Little Bourke Street was an organised affair:
About half-past 6 o’clock last evening a number of soldiers assembled in Little Bourke street , and shortly afterwards a brick hurtled through the plate-glass window in Wallach’s furniture shop. The crowd then dispersed, but returned to the same place about an hour later, and there were then indications that the disturbance was more or less organised. Several men carried bandages and Red Cross outfits to salve the wounds of those who might come into conflict with the police, and the bugle call to assemble brought hundreds of men to the lane. The soldiers by this time had reached a state of extreme anger, and talked openly of running all the Chinese out of Little Bourke street at the point of the bayonet. It was stated on all sides that 7,000 men had broken camp, and were marching from Broadmeadows to avenge their comrade’s death.
The picture that the paper gives of the men’s sense of military discipline was not encouraging:
Major MacInerney, provost marshal, was on the scene shortly after the disturbance became general, and many of the men obeyed his command to fall in and march away. Every time, however, that a missile found its objective, the men would break their ranks and cheer vociferously. On one occasion, when being marched away from a side lane, the soldiers came upon a heap of stones and bricks which almost seemed to have been placed there for some fell purpose. On seeing them, joy filled their hearts, and they instantly broke their ranks, and made a dash for Little Bourke street, where hostilities were resumed.
It appeared that the larrikin defence of the White Australia Policy proved far stronger than military discipline.
The episode in Little Bourke Street was not the only such ‘riot’. The most serious one was the ‘strike’ at the Liverpool camp in NSW in February 1916.
Historians -e.g., Stanley, P (2010) – have written extensively of the struggle military authorities faced with the new volunteer army – made up primarily from the working class – that was the AIF. In time, however, some of the very qualities that proved so intractable at the beginning -for example, attitudes towards military authority – would come to be extolled as the distinguishing strengths of the AIF.
The larrikin soldier of the early AIF hardly appears compatible with the idealised image of the soldier of Christ, but the more important observation is that both realities were at play, in obviously complex and often contradictory ways.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Stanley, P 2010, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force, Pier 9 (Murdoch Books Australia), NSW.
For more on The Great Sacrifice see this entry in Wikipedia
For more on the stained glass window in St George’s Anglican Church, Malvern see this entry on the collection of Stained Glass in the Church.
The attached image of a memorial card based on ‘The Great Sacrifice’ was kindly supplied by the Stratford and District Historical Society. It comes from a photograph album kept by a family in memory of their son, and it shows just how common the imagery of ‘The Great Sacrifice’ was in WW1.