‘The life in the trenches is decidely on the rough side but could be a good deal worse…we are now used to leaving the shave and wash. While actually in the trenches we do not sleep ’, wrote William Hopkirk from ANZAC, Gallipoli to his minister James Gibb, of St. John’s Wellington in November 1915. ‘At times snipers make us bob our heads & when the high explosives come over it is time to ‘duck’. A few of our fellows have already been hit. I am sorry to say some of them either killed immediately or fatally wounded. When things like that happen one begins to see the real meaning of war, though I understand that it is when an advance is in progress that the worst of the whole business appears.’ It was such an advance that William Spottiswood Hopkirk’s short life of 24 years ended 1 June 1916 in Armentieres, France. His last letter of April 1916 spoke of looking for signs of the end of war and would if he could ‘about double’ and make for New Zealand. He felt however that he must do his ‘little bit’ but God willing, ‘we will be back some day’.
Will, as he called himself, was one of the many committed St. John’s Bible Class men who exited the congregation to participate in a ‘war that would end all wars’. The Bible Class Roll of Honour has some 120 names and in August 1918, 61 members were on active service. The death of men who showed such promise as Will Hopkirk disturbed Gibb considerably and was a contribution to his ‘conversion’ from a ‘zealous patriot’ to an ardent pacifist.
Gibb’s ability to influence the war effort through his sermons, patriotic addresses to numerous organisations, magazines and newspapers led him to comment in the 1930’s that he ‘was as good as a recruiting agent during the war’. His militarist fervour was supported by many but there were those who did not let his comments and statements go unchallenged even from the service men he wrote to.
The correspondence that has survived from the soldiers reflects their individual doubts as to the outcome of the war as much as it does their sense of responsibility to fulfil the reason they were participants in the first place. Ian Gow questions the mysterious movements of God when to those at the centre of action the question was how could the ‘things they see everywhere possibily make for good’? Gow believed that war itself was a scourge which human beings brought upon themselves. ‘The mystery is too great for me’ he writes, ‘far from it being a purifier, the war merely burns the dross deeper into the national soul and so one asks, why should an all-loving God allow such a state of affairs?’
Gibb did not appear to directly respond to this reflection by one of his ‘boys’. But in a letter to W. Howard Johnson in July 1917, one year on from the death of Will Hopkirk, he gave some consideration to God’s intent. An outright victory did not appear a possibility for either side he surmised, and that maybe the intention of the Divine Providence: ‘to open the eyes of the nations to the fact that war was not only a crime but an insanity.’ This is in sharp contrast to his jingoism of mid-1916 when Gibb could say ‘we are pledged to this conflict, to see that Germany’s insensate pride, … merciless cruelty … be brought reeling and crushing to the dust.’
By the end of the war he was appalled at the lose of so many good men and the list of wounded published made ‘doleful reading’. The long list of wounded and those who lost their lives from St. John’s grieved him greatly. He noted to a critic that his hope and prayer would be for the human conscience to be aroused to recognise that modern warfare led ‘to waste and woe and horror multiplied upon horror.’
Gibb slowly came out so to speak and publicly declared his abhorrence for war and from the 1920s on established a League of Nations group within the Church and was President of the New Zealand branch. He spoke out against compulsory territorial training and conscription, supported the peace movement and was an advocate for disarmament. He challenged the Church in 1935 to take a stand against war. If the church refuses he wrote, ‘men will leave the Church in order to be Christians.’
The Rev. Dr. James Gibb died on 24 October 1935. Five years on the Church he so loved would once again be praying for victory in war.