God works in mysterious yet wonderful ways, including in times of pain, tragedy and despair. This was found to be true by all those British soldiers who during the Great War found inner peace — through finding Christ.
Those in the front line ministering to the spiritual needs of the British ‘tommies’ were the Army chaplains and Scripture Readers. The chaplains included Anglicans and Nonconformists and ranged widely in theological persuasion.
Some chaplains became household names, such as ‘Tubby’ Clayton and ‘Woodbine Willie’ (Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy). The latter became well known for bringing cigarettes as well as good cheer to men in the trenches.
And some chaplains were distinguished for their great gallantry amidst the horrors of war. These included Edward Noel Mellish VC, MC, and Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, DSO, MC.
Between 1914 and 1918, 179 Army chaplains perished, many of them men who had refused to kill, even though they still wished to serve the soldiers. The work that they undertook and their contribution to the war effort was officially recognised by King George V as so important that he conferred the prefix ‘Royal’ on the chaplaincy department (Royal Army Chaplains).
Then, there were many ordinary but brave chaplains and Scripture Readers, whose names have been relegated to a footnote — among them those who desired most of all to preach Christ to soldiers, sailors and airmen, despite the personal cost.
Congregationalist padre Joseph Ormerod, for example, based his message at the Front, not ‘upon the justice of the war being waged’, but ‘that both Britain and Germany were guilty of greed’ and on his biblical understanding of ‘the gospel of Luke 12:13-15’ (cited by Neil E. Allison in his fascinating study of Great War chaplains, in The Congregationalist lecture 2013).
By the outbreak of the war, the Army Scripture Readers and Soldiers Friends Society had many readers ready to distribute Scriptures and preach the gospel (see p.16). Squadron Leader Colin Woodland, MBE (Retd), of today’s SASRA says, ‘One of our Scripture Readers, Harry Wisbey, was smuggled on board ship by his regiment and taken to France with the British Expeditionary Force.
‘Many readers followed in the footsteps of ASR Wisbey and took the gospel to the trenches and fronts throughout the war’. What was it that inspired such Christian men to go to the Front? It was certainly not, for true evangelicals, mere patriotic sentimentality.
Major Philip Bray, who served in Northern Ireland and Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan, says that they were ‘driven by the zeal that Christ may be glorified in the Forces, and preached where he is not known’.
Major Bray, who co-authored the book The fight of faith (Panoplia Publishing) chronicling the battlefield testimonies of 15 Christians, explains that soldiers have a ‘greater openness’ when they know they are in danger. ‘I have met some who sought the Lord in danger, which they may not have done if all had been well’.
However, not all people act rationally when faced with death, and this means that many in battle situations harden their hearts in times of danger. These need, even more urgently, a living, walking testimony to reach them.
One such testimony came, in the most unexpected circumstances, from Scotsman Duncan Campbell.
Shortly after Campbell’s conversion in 1913, he was called up to serve in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. According to Bray, the young Campbell’s testimony was that of a living faith.
Campbell said, ‘I often fell on my knees in the trenches and asked God to forgive me for the thoughts of my heart, which sometimes were not too clean’. But, after being part of a cavalry charge at Amiens, on 12 April 1918, he was thrown wounded to the ground.
Campbell was discovered by a Canadian cavalryman, who some time later, after the charge, returned and took the battered Scotsman to a casualty clearing station.
In Duncan Campbell’s own words, ‘I cried to God, “God, oh God, make me as holy as a saved sinner can be”. God swept into my life and I knew in a matter of minutes an experience that I did not think was possible this side of heaven.
‘As I lay … I repeated in Gaelic the Scottish psalm, “O thou my soul, bless God the Lord and all that in me is, be stirred up his holy name to magnify and to bless”.
‘Not one person in that casualty clearing station could understand a single word of what I said. But God came in convicting power and, within an hour, seven Canadians had been saved. It was my first experience of Holy Ghost revival’. Campbell was later greatly used in revival ministry in the Hebrides.
God works through his people, who are all called to be witnesses for Christ. The Great Commission, from the lips of Jesus, is, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19-20).
That commission remains the same in season and out of season, in times of peace and in times of war.