Thursday, 13 February 2014

'The guns were firing all through the service'

'Church service before the battle'
'God' is a words that crops up frequently in WW1 soldier's letters, which is not surprising for men who grew up in a world in which Christianity was part of everyday life. Some were more devout than others and one particularly moving letter was written by 19-year-old Private Ernest Adams of Leeds, to be read by his mother and father in the event of his death. (He was killed in action near Ypres in September 1917):

'Dear Parents, I know how you will grieve and my heart aches for you, but I beseech you to think not of me as dead, but just gone home to God, there to dwell in peace and rest, freed from all earthly strife. Think too of how much pain and sin might have been mine had I lived. But now I am pure and white in God's own house. Well, goodbye, and may you find peace and joy that comes from God alone.'

Not all were quite as religious, but faith gave strength to far more men than is probably the case today. 'Thank God he has brought me through,' wrote Private Tom Fake, of Bristol, to his wife on Armistice Day. During two years in the trenches he had ended every letter to her with 'God bless you'.

Services were often held in the trenches, frequently before battle, and many found great comfort in hymns they would have sung in church at home with their families. This diary entry was written by Sergeant George Fairclough during fierce fighting on the Western Front in September 1914:

'The big guns were firing all night. We had a regimental service with the hymns: 'O God Our Help in Ages Past', 'Fight the Good Fight', 'Heavenly Father in the Mercy', and 'Lead Kindly Light', the guns were firing all through the service.'

Very often prayer books and bibles are found tucked away amongst soldiers' letters, and inside a prayer book belonging to Private Edwin Wood, a signaller with the Gloucestershire Regiment, are printed notes about the way to conduct services for troops:

The Lessons selected should be very short.
Hymns may be sung at the commencement and end of the Service,
and after the Sermon.
The Sermon should also be short.
'God save the King' should be sung before the Blessing at the end
of the Service.
Special Prayers may be added at discretion.

On the facing page is a Morning Prayer which begins:

'We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.'

The prayer then asks God for forgiveness and for help in following a more 'righteous, godly and sober life'. Let's hope someone passed on the message to the politicans and generals.

(With thanks to Sandra Lambert, Jackie Carpenter and Andy Goodenough for the letter extracts; the Wood family for prayer book extracts; and Bob Griffin for the postcard illustration.)

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