Preserving God’s image in the face of death: Important lessons in remembering World War 1


Clarence Rooney in his uniform

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of World War 1. The Great War involved 32 countries, more than 15 million people (both military and civilian) died, and there were tens of millions of casualties. Not to mention thousands of square miles devastated and many millions of animals, such as war horses, also dead. It was one of the largest and deadliest conflicts that the world had seen up to that point. All four of my great-grandfathers fought for the British Army during WW1 and survived. Two of them also went on to serve again during World War 2 in different capacities.

An unusual perspective

Of the four, I have the greatest affinity for Clarence Rooney, a great-grandfather on my father’s side. Due to his background, which was not known by other servicemen around him, he had a rather unusual view of the war. Clarence was born in the late 1800’s in Boston, USA. His mother was from Ireland, and his father was an ethnic German. Unfortunately a few months after his birth, his father, who was a ship’s captain, died in a boating accident. His mother brought Clarence back to Ireland where he lived the rest of his life and was raised by his aunt and uncle.

Clarence served as a sniper in the 36th Ulster Division, and fought in both the Battle of the Somme, and one of the five conflicts known as the Battle of Flanders. During his time on the battlefield, Clarence often wondered if he was engaging close family relatives, an uncle, or perhaps a cousin. Clarence also had a strong Christian faith and understood what the Bible said about each human being made in the image of God, now living in a fallen, sinful and broken world.

Clarence Rooney’s citation

An act of compassion

This was even more obvious to Clarence when he took part in the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. During the second day of the battle, Clarence destroyed a German telephone exchange by throwing grenades at it. From the remains of the exchange appeared a nervous German soldier who wished to surrender. Another soldier with Clarence, whose brother had been killed the previous day, took aim to shoot the surrendering German. Stopping this needless death from taking place, Clarence accepted the German soldier’s surrender. Upon seeing this act of compassion a further 14 German soldiers then came out and surrendered to Clarence. He was later awarded a citation for this act.

A lost appreciation

Regardless of what uniform each solder wore, Clarence fully appreciated what was underneath—an image bearer of God (Genesis 1:27). Even in the height of battle this truth remained firm as he believed in the historicity of Genesis. This is what led him to act in the manner in which he did. Unfortunately, despite Germany’s very blessed past, in relation to the Reformation in which people like Martin Luther also held strongly to this belief, the nation’s underlying philosophy had dramatically changed. Darwinism was now clearly Germany’s philosophy, which is understood to be an underlying cause in its attitudes to its European neighbours. People such as the biologist, Ernst Haeckel, a devoted Darwinian disciple, had ensured that Social Darwinism had pervaded the thinking of Germany’s military, academic and political leaders, and the populace at large. While there are other complexities to the underlying causes of WW1, the Germans’ ‘master race’ and Lebensraum (or ‘living space’) ideology, based on their Social Darwinism, was part of their justification for waging war. These same ideas were also picked up and applied in World War 2 by the Nazis.

Remembering sacrifice

On this solemn day, as we remember the horror of war and the sacrifices of those who literally gave their all at that time, it is also worth considering the greater spiritual war, and the greatest sacrifice ever made. Every Christian should be involved in God’s work, and we are called to be His soldiers in contending for the true faith. The ultimate sacrifice made for us in humanity’s long war against God was made by the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He gave his own life, shedding His blood on the cross, in order to reconcile sinners to God (Colossians 1:20). In this day of remembrance will we not remember Jesus?

“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (Revelation 4:11).

Published: 11 November 2018

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