Plato? Michel de Montaigne? Hannah More? C. V. Hibbard? Warren J. Clear? Ruth Straub? William Thomas Cummings? Ernie Pyle? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When exposed to extreme peril many people reflect on the spiritual or supernatural dimension of existence. The following saying has been particularly popular during times of war. Here are two versions:
- There are no atheists in the trenches.
- There are no atheists in foxholes.
Would you please examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The first saying circulated during World War 1, and the second saying spread during World War 2. The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “The Western Times” newspaper of Devon, England in November 1914. A speaker at a memorial service for a fallen soldier held at St. Matthias’ Church, Ilsham read from the letter of an unnamed chaplain serving at the front. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The writer further said, “Tell the Territorials and soldiers at home that they must know God before they come to the front if they would face what lies before them. We have no atheists in the trenches. Men are not ashamed to say that, though they never prayed before, they pray now with all their hearts.”
The adage does not have a clear origin, and anonymous is the most reasonable ascription. Yet, some popularizers have been named and citations given further below do list some individuals. Unsurprisingly, non-believers who have served in the military disagree with the adage.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1914 November 6, The Western Times, Col. Burn’s Late Son: Torquay’s Expression of Sincere Sympathy, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Devon, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩