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The Open-Air Mission in World War 1

November 2014 | by Andy Banton

We have heard much about World War 1 recently. It certainly fills us with great sadness to know the awful carnage that took place on many a battlefield, resulting in so many lost lives. What joy it should give us, by contrast, to hear of many who actually ‘gained’ their lives during the Great War!

A number of Christian societies were involved in sharing the gospel with soldiers, seamen and, latterly, airmen (the RAF was formed in April 1918). Among them was the Open-Air Mission (OAM), which at that time had twelve full-time evangelists and 631 associate workers.

By December 1914, only three months after the outbreak of the war, the OAM mission committee realised the unique opportunities presenting themselves for reaching masses of servicemen with the message of salvation.

Soldiers’ Welcomes

They made a decision to ‘authorise the erection of an “Open-Air Mission Soldiers’ Welcome” in the camp at Belton Park, Grantham, and the purchase of furniture and fittings for the work’.

Over 20 other barracks around England, Scotland and Wales were to see either such halls erected or, at least, large tents during the next four years. They were usually just known as Soldiers’ Welcomes, and provided a centre from which the mission’s efforts could reach over a whole camp.

They also afforded residential quarters for the evangelists, who were thus enabled to live on the spot amongst teeming masses of men. The mission always operated under direct official sanction, which provided ready access to thousands of soldiers.

OAM’s 1915 Annual Report describes what the huts were like and how greatly they were used by the Lord: ‘They are comfortable and bright places of Christian hospitality for the troops, where a tired soldier may rest and read, write letters, or obtain a simple meal; and where, night by night, the glorious message of redeeming love is delivered.

‘Hundreds of warm-hearted testimonies, from the men and from their relatives, bear witness that the blessing of God is richly outpoured on this great work’.

Gospel emphasis

A mission evangelist who was in charge of one of the Soldiers’ Welcomes wrote of the camp inspector who paid a visit. Afterwards he reported that it was ‘the cosiest and cheeriest place in the camp’. However, spiritual rather than social work was always the priority.

Whether military or civilian, Christians regarded these venues as a great blessing to them as a rallying place. Even the troops came to describe them as ‘the place where the boys get converted’. The wife of one of the men who had been saved at the Welcome said, ‘How I thank God for this place! It has proved my husband’s deliverance’.

The following was noted in the Annual Report in 1916: ‘The quiet social comforts provided for the troops who throng them have not caused any lowering of our flag. In not one of them has a secular song been heard, or a worldly entertainment given; in not one of them has an unconverted worker been employed; in not one of them has the Lord’s Day been dishonoured by the selling of even a penny-worth of goods. Instead, the soldiers who attend our Lord’s Day services are regularly given free tea or later, an evening meal’.

‘One came into the sitting room saying how miserable he was. Then, falling on his knees, he cried, “God answer my father’s prayers tonight”. Upon showing him John 1:12, he bounded into the light’.

A lovely description is given of an open-air meeting in Bedford, where 20,000 soldiers were based. ‘We held meetings in the market square each evening, and many stood while the gospel was being preached and sung. As many as thirty soldiers came forward for Gospels each evening.

‘The presence and power of God was manifest in all these gatherings, and it was delightful to see dear fellows who had joined the forces riveted, convicted and converted, and made, by the grace of God, ready to live and ready to die’.

Many impacted

An account is given of an occasion in Portsdown Hill camp in Hampshire: ‘We started in the midst of the camps and sang “Rock of Ages”. There were just three of us, but in a few moments we had between 200 and 300 around us, till we could hardly move, and there were quite a number in tears. God was in our midst.

‘When we finished two of the men carried the harmonium right down to the tram for us, and we used that walk to advantage. One of the men was a backslider and the other deeply under conviction’.

Having visited Gravesend Barracks, a worker gives the following report: ‘I went first into the prison cells, where there were nineteen men. Several of them, after a loving, straight talk, just broke down and knelt with me while I prayed. I felt the hammer of God’s Word break the prison doors of the hearts of several.

‘As they went back to their lonely compartments, how subdued they seemed. I find nothing like the story of a Saviour’s love to penetrate the heart’.

Many military hospitals were frequently visited as well. An evangelist describes a visit to the one in Woolwich: ‘I found many new patients, and many sad cases of suffering. I spent a little over two hours among them, gave booklets, and had a few words with each and prayer with some.

‘I then sat down with five or six others, who are getting better, for a little friendly talk and a word for the Master. It is a privilege to speak to these frost-bitten, shattered, sick and wounded, of him who was “wounded for our transgressions”.’

After visiting one of the billets among the 9th Royal Scots, in the Bruntsfield Schools in Edinburgh, one worker records: ‘As I talked to a few men at one table, I was invited to share tea and bread and marmalade — the soldiers’ fare. The audience increased in numbers; then I was bombarded with questions.

‘Having answered them, it seemed to their satisfaction, there came a favoured opportunity. These men listened most patiently and attentively to the Word of God for an hour or so. It was delightful. Here was work worth living and dying for — to stand before a company of men, shortly to face danger and possible death, and to be enabled to present to them a life-giving message’.

Scottish blessing

From Dunfermline, an evangelist reported: ‘A large crowd gathered, and never have I seen men listen more earnestly to the gospel message. Many came forward for Gospels, and one dear young fellow accepted Christ on the spot.

‘It was a great joy to meet some who had been converted during our former visit a few weeks since. Their testimonies were so bright. It was simply glorious to see the Spirit’s work’.

While in Luton among 8000 Scottish soldiers, one worker’s report says, ‘I have had a splendid day in Luton, as many soldiers professed to receive the Lord Jesus. A fine opportunity opened to speak to the men, first individually and then collectively; and a young fellow, who seemed really anxious, trusted in Jesus straightaway. No pressure whatever, and then on and on through the day. Six men could have been employed’.

A Welcome Home was opened in Ripon in November 1915, and was instantly crowded by a great influx of troops from all over what was a vast camp. From 1000-1500 Highlanders visited the hut each day, to enjoy its restful comforts and to find it indeed a ‘home away from home’.

The evangelist in charge wrote: ‘Among these, a great number have already found the Lord. Quiet personal conversations have yielded much fruit in the salvation of men, while the nightly gospel services, the prayer meetings and the Bible classes, are attended by many earnest seekers, and are seasons of much blessing’.

A piece of paper was put under a Welcome Home door late one night. It said, ‘God abundantly bless you for all you have been to us since we have been in this camp. From four bad lads, but now washed in the precious blood of the Lamb through your influence. We shall meet in the “better land”.’

During 1917 at a camp in Plymouth, one evangelist reported: ‘Between the showers, we sat down somewhere in the lines. One of the men responded to all that was said. “Are you on the Lord’s side?” I asked him.

‘”Yes”, he replied, “but it is only a week ago tonight. After you left us last week, I felt I was utterly lost, and I sought peace on my knees and found it in believing, and, oh, the joy I have! I should never have believed it”. This testimony was given before about fifty men, and created a profound impression’.

Allied soldiers and POWS

In early 1915, a Welcome Hall was put up at Halton Park camp in Buckinghamshire. It has been an RAF base since the end of the war. One description is given of what went on there: ‘Very large open-air services, with many hundreds of troops, conducted outside the hut. Successive bodies of troops, many thousands strong, have heard the gospel in the open air’.

Based in Britain for a time were allied soldiers from France, Belgium, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. Troops from all these nations heard the challenge of the gospel while preparing to cross the Channel.

Not only that, but there were huge numbers of prisoners of war, literally thousands from the German army and navy. From a camp in Frimley near Aldershot it was recorded: ‘Colonel Douglas-Jones interpreted the secretary, as he preached to over twelve hundred men. The prisoners themselves provided a platform, bringing a trestle table for that purpose. The hearing was truly wonderful. At the close, huge numbers of Testaments were distributed. The gratitude of the prisoners was profoundly touching’.

Another report stated: ‘The Holy Spirit has been manifestly at work, subduing, melting and awakening. When, at the termination of this terrible conflict, these prisoners return to their own land, not a few among them will re-enter Germany as servants and witnesses of Christ’.

One final quote, which aptly summarises the great things the Lord was doing: ‘Day by day, with scarcely any break, souls have been gathered in from among the young soldiers who have thankfully crowded the Hall. Scenes have been witnessed which have recalled the days of the church’s great revivals’.

As we read of such tremendous gospel blessing in the lives of literally thousands of young men, should we not be much in prayer for those of the present generation. Should we not be boldly going to them as well, sharing the very same gospel, which is able to give them life for evermore!

Andy Banton

The author is the general secretary of the Open-Air Mission

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