Saturday, 24 October 2015

Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war!

While writing a magazine article about Christmas in the WW1 trenches last year, I was struck by how ever-present 'the church' was at the battlefront. Christian organisations like the YMCA and the Salvation Army ran huts for soldiers' recreation, bibles and prayer books were issued to troops as a matter of course, and army chaplains held services wherever they could for anyone to attend, whether or not they were church-goers - or even believers.

The Church was there to support soldiers in their hours of need and this, of course, was a reflection of the way Christianity was woven into the fabric of  life at home in the early 1900s. The same observation obviously occurred to John Broom, a fellow Pen and Sword author, who has taken things a step further by writing a book called: Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.

'For millions of people the war was fought and commemorated withn a broadly Christian framework in Britain and abroad,' writes Broom in the introduction. 'As the importance of Christianity in the collective public life of Britain has crumbled in recent decades, so has the appreciation of some of the values that spurred our great-grandparents to action.'

Broom's book tells the inspiring stories of a number of very different characters who used their Christian faith to cope with their experiences of the First World War. Each story is a compelling one and some are well known, like that of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by German firing squad in 1915 for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

Imprisoned for ten weeks before being shot, Cavell's final words to the Reverend Horace Gahan revealed that she accepted death with serenity : 'I thank God for this ten weeks' quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here [in prison]. But this I would say, standing as I do in front of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone'

A very different tale is told of Francis Gleeson, an Irish priest who served as an army chaplain on the Western Front. With no fear for his own safety, he tended the wounded in frontline trenches, often under fire, as if they were his own sons. 'If ... advocates of war were made to be soaked and caked and crushed with cold, wet trench mud, like these poor soldiers, and to wear those mud-weighted coats, they would not be so glib with their treatises on the art of war,' he wrote. 'These militants should be made to undergo a few nights in cheerless billets [and] mud-river trenches.'

Fight the Good Fight is an extremely readable book, excellently researched, well illustrated with 23 plates, and packed with notes and references for anyone who wishes to take study further. It addresses a subject that has been largely overlooked thus far into the the Great War Centenary, namely the importance of Christianity during the conflict. I'm pleased to report that Broom is now working on a second volume, and he has just put the finishing touches to a book about Voices of Faith from the Second World War.

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith From the First World War by John Broom is published by Pen and Sword Books.

British nurse Edith Cavell, who found serenity
through faith before her execution in 1915

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