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Reaching soldiers with the gospel during World War 1

November 2014 | by Ian Dobbie

When war was declared in August 1914, the Soldiers’ Christian Association (SCA) had 2000 serving members and 2000 associates (see ET August 2014 for earlier article).

It is appropriate to ask how the missioners who staffed the SCA huts went about their task of endeavouring to help men come to faith in Christ. The following account, which involves Mr H. M. Ward who was one of the SCA missioners in France, will give some idea of the way God used these men.

The Front

Mr Ward had been asked to see that a registered letter was sent to his people at home by a young soldier belonging to a kilted Canadian regiment. ‘I’m on draft for the next batch going up to the Front’, he said.

‘Are you going up as a Christian?’ asked Mr Ward, with that directness which was welcomed by so many of the men to whom the question was put, in those days of danger and coming death.

‘No,’ said the lad, ‘I haven’t the pluck for that. I’m a forlorn hope in that direction. I’ve tried heaps of times, and failed. I can’t stand to my guns when under fire’.

Here was a lad, firm of face, square of chin, massive limbed and broad shouldered. Yet he, with an honesty which could only come from one of strong will, confessed his weakness.

‘Did you fail when you tried to be a soldier?’ asked Mr Ward.

‘There is no trying at that game. You enlist, and the army does the rest’, came the reply.

‘But if you fail when once you have enlisted, then you are no longer a soldier?’

The soldier smiled at so strange a suggestion. ‘Not likely. Once you’ve signed on, the army undertakes to lick you into shape. There’s no such thing as failing or trying. The thing is done. You’re a soldier the moment you join up’.

‘Before you’re trained?’

‘You are trained because you are a soldier. They can do nothing with you until you put yourself into their hands. Then you are no longer your own. You put off civvies, and put on the King’s uniform, and do as you are told. You are a soldier. The thing is done. That’s all. The soldier’s life comes afterwards’.

In Christ’s hands

‘Quite right’, answered Mr Ward. ‘And the same is true of the Christian. You are not a Christian by trying to be one. You put yourself in the hands of Christ. Then you are no longer your own. You belong to Him. He will train you.

‘Once you have accepted his call you are a Christian, just as when you responded to the call of your king you became a soldier. The Christian life comes afterwards. There is nothing in the King’s Regulations about trying or failing to become a soldier. And there is nothing in the Bible, from cover to cover, about trying or failing to become a Christian.

‘There is this difference. The army rejects some who offer themselves. But Christ says, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out”. Now, let me ask you again, will you go up the line as a Christian?’

The lad waited a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘I should only fail, and that to me would be worse than all’.

That night this lad was one of those who came to the SCA meeting in the hut. He stayed behind, and entered the enquiry room. He was not satisfied. When he came out, he was still away from God. But he sought out the worker who had so skilfully guided him in the afternoon.

To him he unfolded the story of his past failures. He was, he said, an utterly hopeless case. He had been brought up in a very godly home. It had been like a prison to him. There was refinement and comfort, but he could not do as other boys did. He was not allowed to read the books they read, nor go where they went.

At last he had broken loose, and his passage was booked to Nova Scotia and, as he thought, to freedom. He had done with family prayers and Bible readings. He felt like a convict loosed from his chain.

Like the prodigal, he rushed wildly into sin. And, like the prodigal, he found the experience far from satisfying. He vowed to do better, and did worse. He tried again, and companions and the lure of the world led him captive. He hated himself and the life he was living.

Then came the war, and he jumped at a chance to cut loose from his associations. But he could not cut loose from himself. He enlisted with the determination to follow the advice of his mother and live the Christian life. But, before a month had passed, he had been defeated over and over again. That night he had become resigned to his lot.

Coming to Christ

‘So you have tried every way but the right one’, said Mr Ward. ‘You have come to yourself, and stopped there. You have never come to Christ!’

While these two were talking, there came into the room yet another lad seeking the way of Christ. He had heard Mr Ward’s last sentence.

‘That’s just what brought me here, sir’, said the newcomer. ‘I can’t understand this “coming to Christ”. It’s troubling me a goodish bit. I’ve said my prayers many a time, and I’ve been confirmed and taken Communion. Still I know I’m not right. I went back to my tent after the meeting, but was so miserable that I said to myself, “I’ll go and ask him what he means by it”.’

Mr Ward replied, ‘I mean that you have a real Saviour. One who died to save you, and who is now living to keep you. He is here, just as really as I am here. He says, “Come to me”, just as really as I said, “Come in”, when you knocked at the door.

‘You came to me for help to understand, and you believed that I would give that help at once. Come to Christ in the same sure faith that he will give you forgiveness and peace’.

‘But what if I keep falling every time?’

‘What does a mother do if her child falls on the way to her?’

‘Picks her up quick as lightning’, came the reply. ‘I’ve watched my wife on her knees many a time, teaching our little Dot to walk. She’s caught the little one quicker than she could fall. Do you mean it’s like that with the Saviour?’

‘Yes, and what is more, he will hold your hand all the time, for you will never be able to walk without him. And, if you withdraw your hand from his and fall, he will take you in his arms again. Trust him with yourself and you will know what peace means’.

‘I will’, said the newcomer.


As he knelt with Mr Ward, the Canadian too knelt with them. ‘Lord Jesus, I do come to thee’, prayed the seeker. ‘I’ve wanted to for a long time. I’ve been afraid. I’ve been looking to myself. Now I am looking to thee, and I trust thee with all my heart and soul’.

The Canadian too prayed. Just a simple cry from his heart, and one which may seem but the call of a child in need of help. Those who have to do with men in their hour of bitterest temptation know that such a prayer as he uttered came from a weary but sincere soul.

‘Have mercy on me, Lord Jesus … Forgive and save me … I come to thee, my Saviour … Help me, oh, help me to live straight’.

The newcomer left the little room after a time of fellowship. ‘Thank God he came when he did’, said the Canadian. ‘It was the thought of the stretched out arms that showed me the way … Let me have my letter again, sir, please. I want to let the folks at home know what I’ve found tonight’.

During those war days the workers in the SCA huts prayed earnestly that they might be able to seize every opening that came, and use it for the winning of men for Christ. If a man entered the hut and used the piano for the purpose of reviving memories, when a passion for music was the ruling purpose in his life, the player tactfully would be asked to play at the evening evangelistic service, and the workers would unite in prayer that the help thus given might be the means of winning the player to God.


Mr Ward recorded four instances where men of very different types, but all gifted musically, were thus brought into Christian fellowship. One was a player of classical music, the son of a Christian mother.

The second was a man with a liking for popular melody, able to attract a crowd of comrades to the piano with selections from catchy song tunes and familiar choruses. Yet a third man was a big Scotsman, who made himself known as a musician by rendering Rachmaninoff’s Prelude.

This musician had views of his own about God and religion. ‘No,’ he said, ‘there’s too much injustice and sorrow in the world for me to accept a God of love. If I could see any kindly purpose behind it all, anything like the same reason which has made me sometimes punish one of my own children, for instance, it would be different.

‘But the innocent suffer, the very best of us are butchered or blown to pieces, and the man who played for safety and himself, in every department of life, gets the decoration and the cheers of the crowd’.

‘Did the Lord Jesus Christ play for safety and himself, or get the cheers of the crowd when his life hung in the balance? What he was and is, God is, for they that have seen him have seen the Father. Could he do wrong? Think of him. Then ask yourself whether any faith placed in him can be misplaced’.

This man came to play the following Sunday night. He made the piano carry a note of command as he struck up the opening chords of ‘Stand up, stand up for Jesus’.

At the close, this Highlander was the last man to make his way into the enquiry room, seeking, and finding, a faith which overcame the doubts and fears of his earlier comments on a ‘God of love’.

Brigadier Ian Dobbie OBE

This extract is taken, with kind permission, from the author’s book Sovereign Service — the story of SASRA 1838-2013; SASRA, 2013, £5.00; ISBN 0-9512486-0-X






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