Even at its best, war must always be an ugly and brutal business. But, owing to the ideal of chivalry, humanity in a war was possible in the Middle Ages in Europe. In those old days, a battle was a matter of personal hand-to-hand combat and was fought mainly by knights. A Christian knight was bound by the laws of chivalry. He had an ideal of conduct, set before him, and took solemn religious vows of devotion to God, loyalty to his king, personal chastity, courtesy to women, honor, truthfulness, and justice; and he swore to protect the weak and oppressed, and never to use his sword in an unrighteous cause. Such conduct was called “chivalrous”.
The need of humanity:
A true knight would, of course, fight bravely and fiercely in a battle against his foes, and would do his best to conquer or kill them. But he observed certain rules of honor in fighting. As a good sportsman observes the rules of the game he plays. These rules included the spring of noncombatants, mercy to a fallen foe, and courtesy towards and protection of the women of the enemy. No true knight would maltreat or insult women, or slay innocent citizens, or hit a man when he was down.
Of course, all knights were not true knights, for there were many who broke the laws of chivalry; but such were considered to have disgraced themselves by their unknightly conduct. All this does not, of course, mean that old time warfare was without the cruelties and horrors incident to all war; it was often savage and barbarous enough, but chivalry did do something to modify its worst excesses.
But modern warfare is a very different thing. For one thing, battles are no longer hand-to-hand conflicts; for modern guns have made war the wholesale scientific slaughter of a distant and often unseen enemy. And high explosives shells, bombing aero planes and poison gas have turned war into the “mass massacre of civilians”, of noncombatants far behind the fighting line. In the Great War, thousands of innocent men, women and little children were destroyed in their own homes by these diabolic weapons. What would happen if war broke out again? It would be far worse than the horrors of the last Great War, owning to the perfecting of the modern weapons of destruction.
The only trace of humanity in modern warfare is the work of the Red-Cross ambulances and hospitals. They collect and care for the wound of friend and foe. In the Great War British doctors and nurses made no distinction between British and German wounded men. And it was the same in German hospitals and ambulance work. In this, the spirit of humanity did what it could to mitigate the horrors of war.