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The Prayer of a World War I Soldier PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, May 31 2005 19:00
“Lord, you have not listened to our prayers.
Here, there are skies filled with unmoving fog.
Each day, the weight of our misery lies heavy on us
And we sometimes doubt, Lord, that there is any light.”

The author of these lines, here translated from the original French, was Sylvain Roye, a soldier in the Great War, as it used to be called. Born in 1891, Roye disappeared May 24, 1916, lost on a liaison mission near the town of Donaumont, France, during the eleven months long battle of Verdun.

Visiting the Verdun area last week, I stopped at the fort where the French dug in against the German invaders. A deep underground emplacement, this fort was strategically sited on a hill that seemed impregnable. However, it ultimately took only a relatively few Germans to surprise the defenders, come up from behind the fort, and capture the crucial height.

Looking at the iron turrets that still remain in place, one can almost feel the grinding quality of that war which killed so many hundreds of thousands of Europe’s young men. What misery the French, English, German, and, ultimately, American soldiers endured, even those fortunate enough to escape death or injury!

The contrast between fields now beautiful with green grass and graceful trees, and the ruined environment of the war years strikes a visitor’s eyes. Traces of trenches remind one of how men and machines chewed up everything in their path.

As the prayer indicates, the physical world was turned into a vision of hell. Clouds of dense smoke hung over the fields and blotted out the sun. When it rained, these same fields became seas of mud. Living under such conditions meant, for the soldiers, living like animals.

In addition to the physical suffering of the soldiers, their spiritual agony must have been grievous. After all, most of these young men had marched off to war filled with illusions about easy victory. When hit by the reality of trench warfare, they must have felt terrified and have been shaken in their most fundamental beliefs.

The prayer from which four lines are quoted above indicates one person’s depth of suffering. So agonized is he that he confesses doubt about God’s very existence; he feels abandoned to a world of horror and meaningless killing.

Tasting man’s inhumanity to man on a massive scale, this young Frenchman is plunged into the dark night of the spirit. How can God whom he has been brought up to turn toward as a loving father, allow human beings to be reduced to the level of animals in the wild?

Roye makes bold to accuse the Lord of not having heard his prayers and those of his comrades in arms. Ironically enough, this complaint suggests a deep faith in God, a faith so heartfelt as to allow the believer to find fault with God. It sounds much like the prayers of mystics who sometimes bitterly complained about God’s treatment of His friends.

For a battlefield visitor like me, this terrible war that began almost 100 years ago raises other troubling issues. How could modern nations, boasting great cultures, engage in such massive destruction of human life, civilization, and the environment for reasons so flimsy? Is this all that human life is worth?

These are the questions that make a person wonder about forces controlling the destinies of human beings. If you were born male in the 1890s in England, France, Germany, or perhaps America, your chances were excellent of being thrown into mortal combat. You may have been brought up to trust in God’s love, but that belief would not preserve you from an awful fate.

Presumably, many embittered soldiers would have felt the cynicism expressed by the World War I poet Wilfred Owens who rejected the classical dictum “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”(It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) and called it “That ancient lie.”

And yet, in the mysterious ways of God’s world, these same young men made what is commonly called “the supreme sacrifice.” For them, the Great War, awful as it was, offered the opportunity to give themselves entirely to God. Deep within their hearts and souls, they were called to surrender to a fate they could never have wished for themselves, but that nonetheless could have become, in some mysterious way, a response to God’s love.

Richard Griffin