Elizabeth Amias’s research into the community of St Martin’s church during the First World War breaks down the overwhelming statistics of millions of dead and wounded into stories of individuals one is able to tentatively comprehend. It offers an extremely moving insight into a community which was affected way beyond those who actually went to war.
In the past 30 years there has been a plethora of research into the role of trauma, triggered by the toxic impact of the Vietnam War on survivors and their relations at home after the war. The emerging picture shows that physical and psychological trauma and its physical and psychological implications have long been vastly underestimated and their pervasiveness and detrimental impact on individuals and relationships is enormous. Trauma has been linked increasingly firmly to altered brain chemistry and physiology, auto-immune diseases as well as to a multitude of coping mechanisms, among them addiction and compulsion, deprivation behaviour, auto-immune diseases, prostitution, sexual and physical abuse and crime (cf. Bessel van der Kolk: The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. London, Penguin 2014).
During the First World War ‘Shell Shock’ was first recognised and due to the numbers affected soon suppressed as a diagnosis. I am struck by the amount of suffering caused directly or indirectly by this war – beyond the dead and wounded themselves it shows how relations and families were affected over years. The unusually high number of divorces, alcoholism and suicides highlight the impact of the war many years after its end and gives an idea of the burdens people carried for years.
The Church’s role in all this is ambiguous. The research shows jingoistic rhetoric and uncritical support of the war effort, the shaming of people into financial giving and volunteering. It shows care for Belgian war refugees and vital support for prisoners of war, sacrificial help and selfless pastoral care as well as a genuine desire to be with people in whatever situation they find themselves.
The biographical notes and the exhibition will hopefully enable many a hundred years on to remember the war generation with greater compassion, help us to value what has been achieved in the past century and guide us in how to face the challenges of today.
The Reverend Canon Dr Johannes Arens, Canon Precentor, Leicester Cathedral