An American Army Chaplain leads worship from a Renault tank during the Meuse Argonne Campaign in October 1918

Fear Not the Darkness: WWI and the Centennial of America’s Greatest Battle

The First World War was a clash that forever changed the world. As a result of the war, four once powerful dynasties ceased to exist (the Ottoman Turks, the Russian Romanovs, the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs and the Prussian Hohenzollern. New nations arose from the ashes of these empires, resulting in a completely redrawn map of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The upheaval and carnage in the after math of the war exceeded imagination. Leading the charge to upend entire nations was a radical blend of social Darwinists mixed with atheists that would sweep away the Russian Czar and replaced him with a morally unencumbered mob that made those who perpetrated the atrocities of the 18th Century French Revolution look like rank armatures. By the time the atheist fanatics completed their reign of terror in the 20th Century, more than 100 million people were left dead in their path. Thus was the legacy of the First World War.   

Rising out of the conflict and clashes of World War One were new nations, and nation’s regaining independence. Many of today’s areas of conflict and tension go back 100 years. The map of Eastern and Northern was redrawn and in the Middle East, Iraq, Jordan, Syria and the borders of Lebanon were created by the French and British from the dust of the Ottoman Empire (based upon an earlier agreement in 1916 to divide up the region per the Sykes-Picot Agreement). The idea of a rebirth of Israel gained material momentum, in a territory Biblically and historically known as Samaria and Judea, but the British named “Palestine.”     

Much of this, however, could not happen until the Allies, together with the United States (which was an “associated power”), defeated Imperial Germany. The plan to win the war actually commenced 100 years ago September 26. On this date, the Americans, together with the French launched a massive attack known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  The Meuse Argonne Offensive remains America’s largest military campaign, encompassing nearly 2 million men. It was part of a larger plan to launch a series of four major attacks across the Western Front to win the war in 1918. The plan worked brilliantly, with the American Expeditionary Forces playing a key role in this victory.

Yet, the victory was costly and hard fought, with the Americans suffering up to 20,000 casualties per week during the last 47 days of the war. The problem was that a generally inexperienced American Army faced a battle-tested foe, terrain that favored the defense and weather that made life unbearable. This, combined with an army leadership (under American General John J. Pershing) fixed on applying antiquated tactics in a modern war, was a recipe for disaster. Yet, in the midst of the storm, and despite the overwhelming odds, common men rose up to accomplish uncommon feats of bravery and heroism. 

Among these heroes of 1918 was Major James Rieger, from Kirksville, Missouri. Rieger’s commanding general tried to fire Rieger merely because he was a sincere and practicing Christian. Not having a just cause to remove Rieger from service, the general told him that he would not amount to anything and was “hopelessly useless.” Thankfully for Rieger, God has a habit of using the “hopelessly useless” to change history. The Bible is rife of examples that include Rahab the Harlot, Gideon, Moses, Esther, Jonah and even King David, who was the least among his brothers by outward appearances.  In I Samuel 16:7 the prophet visited Jesse to anoint one of his sons king. When Samuel saw David’s oldest brother Eliab, he was sure that this was the man God had appointed. “But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”          

Not unlike the heroes of old, Major Rieger found himself facing unimaginable obstacles, but this servant the High King rose to the occasion and accomplished so much that the French dubbed him “the Hero of the Argonne.” Thus is what God does with a life submitted to Him. The saga of the Meuse Argonne is rife of tales in which Christians rose to the occasion to literally change the course of history.  

During the opening days of the Meuse Argonne Offensive, the Germans launched a series of counterattacks that threatened to break the American line. In the midst of the crisis, the regiment’s three chaplains literally stood in the gap and brought order to the chaos and turned the tide of battle.  One eyewitness wrote,

“It was interesting to see [Chaplain Hart] suddenly become Division Headquarters.  ‘You area Captain,’ he would say to one doughboy. You are a Lieutenant, to another, take charge of these men. ‘” The unit’s commander had been “no lover of chaplains” was amazed by the bravery of these Christians and said, “Well Chaplain, I thought I had three chaplains, but I have not.  I have three SOLDIERS!”

The legacy of Christians who stood in the gap during the darkest hours of war echoes across the generations to us a century later. They were called forth for “such a time as this” and changed history. We too face times “which tries the souls of men” as the nation is writhing from a radical anti-Christian cultural shift. The question is will we likewise stand “for such a time as this?” What is clear is that God calls Christians to rise up and stand in the gap and to fight the good fight. The heroes of 1918 answered the call 100 years ago. Will we likewise do our part in fighting the good fight and fear not the darkness? 

 

(Photo Caption: An American Army Chaplain leads worship from a Renault tank during the Meuse Argonne Campaign in October 1918)

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