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Happy anniversary?

The start of the First World War (4 August 2014)

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage students to consider what exactly we might be celebrating on 4 August 2014 (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and three readers.
  • Be prepared to supply the birthday of a celebrity for the ‘Assembly’, Step 1 if no students have a birthday on the day it is held.
  • Have available the song ‘War’ by Edwin Starr and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


Leader  Does anybody have a birthday today?

Take responses, but mention the back-up birthday of a celebrity if no students have a birthday that day.

Happy birthday to you!

This may give rise to a spontaneous burst of singing!

If we were in France, we’d say, ‘Joyeux anniversaire’. A birthday is the ‘anniversary’ of the day we were born. It’s a happy occasion, full of joy. A time for celebration. A time for remembering with pleasure.

Not all anniversaries are like that, though. The 4 August marks the hundredth anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany and her allies – the start of what we call the First World War. It’s a day that’s being celebrated with events up and down the country, as well as across mainland Europe. There will be pageants, bands playing, all kinds of special events. In the midst of all this it seems important to ask the question, ‘What are we celebrating?’

Reader 1 A lot of people will see it as a day of national pride. They will say that 4 August  1914 was the day when the British government showed it would not be pushed around by any other country. In 1914 that country was Germany, which was clearly trying to become the major European power. By declaring war, the British government at the time was showing that, to use the words of a well-known song, ‘Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.’

Reader 2 Others will see it as a celebration of an act of justice. Britain had signed a treaty with Belgium – one of the weaker countries in Europe – ensuring its right to independence and protection. When Germany attacked Belgium, the British government was honour bound to declare war in order to protect Belgium. To many, therefore, this was a ‘just war’, fighting for the weak against a powerful bully. For these people, 4 August 1914 is an example of a war that needed to be fought. It was right and just.

Reader 3 Some, however, will see the events of 4 August 1914 as an act of failure. On the one hand, they’d say it marks a failure of governments to properly negotiate. It seems that everyone acted far too impulsively, rushing into a fight without thought for the alternatives. It’s been described as a domino effect, with one impulsive reaction after another. On the other hand, some will say that there was a clear failure to consider the consequences of war. Few people seem to have realized how many deaths there would be and how much damage might be done to the economies of the countries involved. Both sides thought it would all be over quickly.


Time for reflection

Leader  So what might our response be on this day of national celebration? It really depends on how we feel about a number of issues.

Reader 1 First, how do we feel about being British? Do we want Britain to always be the winners, to be the ones who come out on top against everyone else?

Reader 2 Second, how do we feel about justice? Must wrong always be opposed and the guilty caught and punished?

Reader 3Third, how long are we prepared to try to find a negotiated settlement? How important is it to us that we stay away from the pain and suffering a war will always cause?

LeaderIt’s not an easy matter to decide, is it? We may have some contradictory feelings about these issues.

We probably find ourselves reflecting on how we feel about the wars that Britain is involved in at the moment. On the one hand, there’s so much injustice in the world. Can we simply let it continue without doing anything about it? Can we allow the bullies, whether they be countries or terrorist organizations, to continue their acts of violence and oppression?

On the other hand, can we justify the heartbreak we see on the faces of the families of those killed in Afghanistan, the deaths, injuries, poverty and refugee crises that are caused in war zones?

All of these matters are brought into focus as we consider the outbreak of a war that began 100 years ago.

War is never an acceptable way to act. The price is always too high, the consequences are always too damaging. The First World War illustrates that very clearly. Yet wars are very easy to start.

Jesus talked about a constructive alternative. He said that it was the peacemakers who really knew what they were doing. To be a peacemaker means finding ways in which justice and freedom can be achieved by other means. It’s not quick, rarely easy and may mean compromise. It may mean we have to take second place at times. It may mean some injustice goes unpunished as peace and reconciliation are built, but, hopefully, it will mean the pain and suffering are hugely reduced.

What might have happened in 1914 if we’d listened to the peacemakers, I wonder? 

Dear Lord,
Thank you for the peacemakers – those who mediate between enemies.
Thank you for the medics who try to mend and heal.
Thank you for all who try to avoid war.
May we be among them.


‘War’ by Edwin Starr

Publication date: August 2014   (Vol.16 No.8)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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