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08 May 2014

No tomorrow? Church Army Evangelists in World War One

No tomorrow?  Church Army Evangelists in World War One

As people across the world join together to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, Alliance member, Church Army, is remembering its evangelists and volunteers, who in 1914 stepped up to the challenge of sharing the gospel with those facing great adversity in the trenches and on the home front.

Through recreation huts, tents, hostels, rest homes, mobile canteens and hospital visiting, thousands of men and women found hope in their darkest hour thanks to the Church Army's work.

A young evangelist describes his work on the western front: "I am a speck of black in a huge sea of khaki. I have two soldiers to help me. I sleep on the floor. The mud is awful; I very soon had to invest in rubber trench boots up to my thighs. I have to wear continually a satchel containing two gas helmets; you see the gas rolling along in a distant cloud when it's coming.

"I'm proud of Church Army at the front. It makes one feel proud when one hears a soldier who has come in say, 'Thank God! Another Church Army Hut'. And judging by the men I have been among, there's a bit of real religion and recognition of God at the bottom of them all."

The Church Army huts provided places of calm where soldiers could take time out to think and pray as well as to receive input from a Church Army evangelist. One soldier at a home training camp wrote: "The atmosphere of the hut is so different from all other places here, and the presence of the altar speaks to men of better things. The evangelist-in-charge never makes a man feel he must join in the service if he should happen to be in the hut at service time."

Some huts were just an hour's walk from the front line and also served to tend the wounded when the first port of call, known as the first dressing stations, were full.

The huts served other purposes too, as this extract from the 1916 Church Army review shows: "We are packed out in the evenings from 500 to 800 men. We sell everything at cost price. Tea with plenty of sugar is the favourite drink of the men; we average 20 gallons a day. I give out about 2000 sheets of writing paper a week. We have a cinema show once a week. We have a voluntary service every Sunday night and I have had 250 present.

The Church Army also provided recreation tents in the camps to which the soldiers were sent.

Another extract from the same report describes one soldier's impressions of a camp he had newly arrived at: "Arriving on a dark, windy, cheerless evening, with prospects of a prolonged stay, attached to a strange battalion in a camp noted for its bleak situation, was not a promising outlook. Endeavour to picture our pleasure when we found a large, well-lit Church Army marquee containing plenty of small tables, chairs and all necessaries for reading, writing and games. An army Chaplain too worked in hearty conjunction with the evangelist in charge to make the tent a really welcome spot. Besides the material comfort, we realised the presence of spiritual activity, as evidenced immediately on our entry."

The evangelists themselves were close to conflict, their own lives being risked as they worked among the men. One, sent back to England due to injury, wrote: "The senior chaplain who was a colonel motored me all the way to the coast to save me the jarring of the train. I'm looking forward to going back. I've become attached to the men. You can never promise yourself a tomorrow out there. Still, if they go down I will go down with them".

There were reports for The Times in 1915 which talked of the sounds of a piano and sights of stoves, dominos, hymns, biscuits and much more in the huts; happy, comfortable and 'like heaven' after the trenches.