In the line of fire
Director of Special Projects John Hamill explains how, unlike its successor, World War I saw Freemasonry tolerated, if not encouraged, by the enemy
Over the coming months we will be reading and hearing a great deal about the events leading up to World War I, its progress and final outcome. Unlike previous wars, this ‘Great War’ was the first to have a major effect not only on those involved in the fighting but also on those left at home. We all know about the Blitz during World War II, but how many today remember the Zeppelin raids dropping bombs on London and coastal areas during World War I? And, of course, the attrition in the trenches meant that there were very few families unaffected by death or serious casualties.
Regular Freemasonry has always stood apart from politics and did so throughout the war, refraining from making any comment upon it. Indeed, reading through the printed proceedings of Grand Lodge and Grand Chapter during that time, it would be difficult to realise that a major conflict was taking place. Small changes were made to the rules to enable those on active service to maintain their membership, dress codes for meetings were relaxed, and there were regular reports from the Board of Benevolence about sums donated to various relief bodies. But there was no comment on the war at all.
Such was the determination of the Craft to continue life as normally as possible that they even managed a muted celebration of the bicentenary of the formation of Grand Lodge at a special meeting at the Albert Hall on Saturday, 23 June 1917.
‘Regular Freemasonry has always stood apart from politics and did so throughout World War I, refraining from making any comment upon it.’
Honour among men
Despite its horrors, World War I has been called the last ‘gentleman’s war’ because of the way in which it was conducted and the honourable treatment accorded to prisoners of war. We have all heard of the unofficial Christmas truces in the trenches when troops from both sides met in no-man’s land to play football together. There are also examples of masonic activity continuing in prisoner-of-war camps with the passive agreement of the enemy.
The Grand Secretary must have been very surprised when, on 18 December 1914, he received a letter through the post signed by one hundred and twelve brethren who were civilians interned in a camp at Ruhleben near Berlin, sending Christmas wishes to the Grand Master and Grand Lodge. When read aloud in Grand Lodge, their letter led to immediate calls for a fund to be raised by which food and comforts could be bought and sent to them, an act of mercy that the German authorities allowed to continue for the rest of the war.
Under the terms of the Hague Convention, service personnel who fell into German hands were encamped in neutral Holland. Among them were many Freemasons. With the connivance of the German authorities, the Grand East of the Netherlands consecrated two lodges – Gastvrijheid at Groningen and Willem van Oranje at the Hague.
After the horrific debacles at the Dardanelles, there were many British and Empire prisoners of war in Turkey. Records exist of them working Lodges of Instruction at camps in Yozgat, Busia and Afium Karasia. At the British Base Reinforcement Camp at Rouen, more than one hundred soldiers of all ranks petitioned the National Grand Lodge of France to have a lodge at the base. They were consecrated on 16 December 1916 as Jeanne D’Arc Lodge, No. 5.
How different the enemy’s attitude to the Craft was at that time compared to the years leading up to and during World War II, when fascist dictators openly persecuted Freemasons, many thousands of whom perished in prisons and labour and concentration camps.