What Lewis found was something the Great War nearly destroyed for him: an explanation for his deepest longing, the desire for joy. What he discovered, from his own careful study of the gospels, helped him cast off his doubts: a vision of God’s grace as well as his holiness. Here, in the life and teachings of Jesus, was “the only comfort” as well as “the supreme terror.”
In the spring of 1918, Germany and the Central Powers staged a final massive offensive that threatened to overwhelm British and French forces along the Western Front. Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force in Europe, issued the order: “Every position must be held to the last man. . . . With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each man must fight to the end.”
One of the young soldiers with his back to the wall was Second Lieutenant Clive Staples Lewis. A confirmed atheist at the time, C. S. Lewis would survive the storm and steel of the First World War. But the experience of war would transform him, launching him on a spiritual journey that culminated, years later, in his conversion to Christianity. He would earn worldwide fame as a Christian apologist and author of a series of children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia, which tell the story of “a great war . . . with all the world looking on,” a battle between the forces of Light and Darkness.
On the morning of April 15, 1918, however, Lewis was a long way from the religion of the Bible. His battalion, the Somerset Light Infantry, had come under German bombardment at the French village of Riez du Vinage. After five months in the trenches, he had had enough of war: “the frights, the cold, the smell of high explosive, the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles.” His poetry during this period rails against a silent and indifferent universe: “Come let us curse our Master ere we die / For all our hopes in endless ruin lie.” Lewis might have joined the ranks of anti-war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
He might just as easily have been killed. A shell exploded nearby, obliterating his sergeant and wounding him with shrapnel. Lewis was dragged from the battlefield and taken to a hospital near Étaples. “I could sit down and cry over the whole business: and yet of course we have both much to be thankful for,” he wrote his father. “If I had not been wounded when I was, I should have gone through a terrible time.”
It was a terrible war, the most brutal and destructive conflict the world had ever seen. “When it was all over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves,” wrote Winston Churchill, “and these were of doubtful utility.” On average, roughly 6,000 men were killed every day of the war. Before it was over, 9.5 million soldiers lay dead, millions more wounded. About half of the British soldiers fighting in France became a casualty of some sort. Lewis lost most of his closest friends in the final year of the conflict.