When war was declared in August 1914, Soldiers’ Christian Association had 2000 serving members and 2000 associates. Many of these men were to have their faith in Christ tested in the early months of the war and like their comrades, the Army Scripture Readers, were to find Christ entirely faithful in keeping them professionally and spiritually.
In that ‘contemptible little army’ (as the Kaiser called the British Expeditionary Force) were many men who had been brought to faith in Christ in the South African War and the subsequent years of peace.
In order to illustrate how these had been taught to value the written Word, let us take a glimpse into a sergeant’s experience during his first days in France. At about midday on 20 August 1914, the order came that his battery was to be prepared to march to the front at 9.30pm. In his pocket he carried a copy of Daily light.
Night had fallen, and he and his battery were waiting for orders. He had already mounted his horse ready to march off. From his pocket he took the little book and turned to the evening portion, then read prayerfully by the light of the great arc lamps which encircled the camp.
The appointed passage was Deuteronomy 33:27: ‘The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms, and he shall thrust out the enemy before thee’.
Scoffers may smile at the suggestion that an individual soldier should deliberately appropriate the promise for himself and for his cause. Yet that is what this sergeant did. It was a promise which he took with him, not only through the terrible days of the retreat from Mons, but throughout the whole war.
As he stood by his gun before Mons with the members of his gun detachment, under orders which might well mean death to them all, he urged them to be prepared to meet their God. Four out of the five men that night made the great decision, and continued to bear unfaltering witness until, for three of them some months after, the end came.
The retreat from Mons is associated in the popular mind with disaster and defeat. It is well, therefore, to lift the curtain on some details which are not usually recounted in official histories or popular war-books.
Troops under Field Marshal Sir John French were retreating under conditions which were so exhausting that many of them found it impossible to keep awake. Some fell asleep from sheer exhaustion by the roadside as the army marched steadily onwards.
Even in these extreme conditions soldiers found time to meet and pray. In one unit the SCA members gathered together at midnight, in order that they might read together their Scripture Union portion, and spend a little time in united prayer.
All around them lay comrades who had fallen in battle. Guns of their brigade had been taken by the enemy, and fellow soldiers had been captured as prisoners of war. Yet here were Christian soldiers who found a way of escape from the scenes of carnage.
For them, quiet communion with God and the reading of his Word meant a renewal of strength and the building up of high resolve. During the first months of the war, by permission of the military authorities, marquees were erected by the Association in the home camps, and furnished with facilities for letter-writing, reading and rest.
Every night a gospel service was held, at which there was always an overflowing audience. When winter came, huts were erected and these gave additional facilities through the provision of rooms for Bible classes and devotional meetings.
Here the work of the Association was fostered and increased, thousands of men testifying to the help and blessing received. Before the time came for demobilisation, there were 19 huts at work.
Opportunities came to the Association which were seized gladly. From commanding officers there came requests for additional help for their men. From the men themselves came the greatest evidence of all of the blessing and help which the huts were giving, and of lives yielded to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Thousands of young men had rushed to join ‘Kitchener’s Army’. For these there existed already a number of societies which catered for the material and social needs of the troops; but the Soldiers’ Christian Association Council realised that there was at this time an urgent need for someone to give undivided thought to the spiritual demands, which very soon were expressed by those who found themselves face to face with a new set of circumstances and in danger from unsuspected temptations.
The results were noteworthy. The late Rev. Dr J. Stuart Holden wrote, after a tour of France: ‘No one need ever have any doubt as to whether men will come to a hut where there are neither canteen, concerts, cards nor amusements. They not only came to these huts, but entered in such numbers that in almost every centre the crying need was for extension.
‘The difficulty was not to get the men; the difficulty was to find room for all who came and to accommodate them with comfort. Men there were as tired and blasé with amusements, as they were weary with the war itself. Such men found the huts of the Soldiers’ Christian Association a real home, and many of them, thank God, found there also the gate of heaven’.
But it was not only those who were already serving the Lord Jesus Christ who were glad to come into these huts. ‘One night there entered a group of three men’, continues Dr Holden, ‘and at once every man in the hut seemed to be thrilled with interest. The ladies in charge were aware that the centre of the little group was a celebrity of some kind, from the stir which his entry caused’.
‘In the course of a conversation with him, they discovered that he was a famous pugilist with a worldwide reputation. His companions were also well known boxers. This man, they told the ladies, on one occasion won £2000 in a few minutes in the ring. He had been matched against an opponent for a 20-round contest, and had knocked out his man at the beginning of the second round.
‘The man had never heard of the crucifixion or the story of the Prodigal Son. He could not give the name of any book in the Bible. But to him the gospel story came as a wonderful message. He drank in every word. His mind opened to its beauty like a flower before the sun.
‘He was in the camp for three weeks as a sergeant-instructor in gymnastics. Every day he came to the hut three times for instruction in the Word of God. He left, at the end of his three weeks there, with a sincere and humble faith in the Lord Jesus, and made a bold confession of his faith. He was one of the idols of the men in camp, and the story of his changed heart was told with amazement in every place where he was known’.
Others were led to surrender to Christ only when they saw themselves on the very brink of destruction. A gospel service had been held at one SCA hut, after which the leader, who had to hurry away, was stopped by a big fellow who gripped his hand. ‘Sir, I’ve taken Him tonight’, declared the man.
‘I’ve been waiting for such an opportunity as this ever since the battle of Cambrai. I have a little wife at home who has been praying for a long time that I might become a Christian. Well, I was in a division at Cambrai that was left hanging on without support for four days. Most of my comrades were killed…
‘But I vowed then that the first chance I got of being converted I would take it. I’ve done it. I’ve taken my chance tonight, and He has taken me. I’m just going to write and tell my wife. Oh, how glad she will be!’
Even in the dug-outs were those who met together in Christian fellowship, to pray for some particular comrade whose need was laid on their hearts. A sergeant wrote later that one of these men was turning out a particularly bright Christian: ‘He had been definitely laid on my heart for some time. It was after I had had several talks with him that he finally surrendered.
‘I was turning in one night, and just popped my head into the dug-out. “How is it tonight, George?” I asked. His answer gave me the thrill I was waiting for. “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth”, he said. “Is that you, George?” “Yes”.’
It was not only the notorious evil-livers who were helped to decision. Sometimes they came into touch with one or other of the members of the Association at the Front those who had lived lives which were outwardly correct and almost beyond reproach.
One young fellow attended evening service at the invitation of a sergeant SCA member. The lad had gone through a terrible experience up the line, but had got back to the base camp unhurt. As he sat in the meeting, he realised how evil he was in the sight of God.
He had lived a morally good life, but was aware of the power which indwelling sin had over him. As the meeting progressed, there came to him a great longing for a complete change of heart. Before the close of the gathering, he had been led by the Holy Spirit to trust implicitly in the finished work of Christ.
Christian soldiers of this generation knew that if they were to win the respect of their comrades their allegiance to Christ must be open and their manner of life consistent. ‘Camouflaged religion’ was judged to be as despicable as an open denial of belief — and this was believed to be equally true both in times of war and peace.
Christians among the ‘Old Contemptibles’ regarded saying prayers under the bedclothes at night, rather than kneeling by one’s bedside, as a piece of cowardice which could only bring disgrace upon the religion of Christ.
As one of them was to say: ‘A man may as well keep his mouth shut if he never bows his knees before God. If he can’t speak with his tongue, he can testify with his knee muscles’.
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
Brigadier Ian Dobbie OBE