This year brings the first of a series of centenaries for the First World or Great War. The anniversary is causing controversy in its own way and we are being encouraged, in the words of Noel Coward, ‘Let’s not be beastly to the Germans!’
Those seeking ever greater integration into Europe want to consider it as a ‘civil war’, which shows a lack of awareness of the sheer scale of the conflict fought in Europe (not just France and Belgium), Asia and Africa.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo, on 28 June 1914, set in train a series of events which led to a number of treaties being invoked and resulted in the deadliest war then known.
Britain came into it when Belgian neutrality was violated and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed to France. It was tiny in comparison with the armies of the continental powers. Even Serbia was fielding a bigger army.
The BEF consisted of two corps — 1 Corps under Douglas Haig and 2 Corps under Horace Smith-Dorrien — and a Cavalry Division under Edmund Allenby; a total of five divisions, numbering about 150,000 men, and known to history as the ‘Old Contemptibles’. They were under the overall command of Field Marshal John French.
With them went twelve Scripture Readers from the Army Scripture Readers and Soldiers Friends Society (a precursor of SASRA). A report from The British flag and Christian sentinel in February 1915 opens: ‘From the beginning of the War we have had some of our Scripture Readers with the Expeditionary Force.
‘Two of them were right in the midst of the fighting and retreat from Mons, one of them amongst the men on the Aisne, then in Flanders, and now we have twelve picked men on the front, winning the confidence of the men, listening to their heartrending stories, hearing from them how they prayed in the trenches…’
This ministry continued until 1919, including to troops of the first BAOR (British Army on the Rhine), and expanded to include ministry to the newly created Royal Air Force.
Since the Korean War (1950–1953), the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA) has been unable to send Scripture Readers into war zones, but what it has been able to do is assist chaplains in garrisons and training units.
It was in 1914 that Army Scripture Readers (ASRs) wore uniform for the first time, at the request of the Army. They have done so ever since and it has proved a good way to forge the link with service people. All Scripture Readers have served in one of the armed forces and know military culture first-hand. Their ministry is essentially unchanged — chatting, befriending and reading the Scriptures.
Scripture Readers are the church’s gift to the Army and RAF. SASRA receives no funding from public funds. It is dependent on the freewill offerings of God’s people. Since 1838, God through his people has maintained the work. Today it costs about £1 million a year to run SASRA. We greatly appreciate support and prayers. And we always need Scripture Readers.