IN 1916, George Vinall wrote a letter home from the Front which
must have made his parents' blood run cold. In sober, measured
tones, he described how his gun position was being shelled by
German troops. A dozen men were injured; two later died of their
Vinall was saved by the fact that a friend called him over to
the edge of the tent in which all the men slept. Had he stayed
where he was, he, too, would have been killed. A few days later,
Vinall sent his parents four bullets that had come from the German
shell, as well as his Bible, in which one had become embedded.
He wrote: "Four bullets came in, one being embedded in my kit
where my head would have been but for the arrival of my friend.
Another was on the floor where I would have been lying. The third
was in the pocket of my tunic, having been stopped by my Bible, as
you can see." Adding that he was "without a scratch, safe and
well", he ascribed his survival to God.
One of the bullets had stopped at Isaiah 49.8. He told his
parents: "The verse where the bullet stopped contains these words,
which caught my eye directly I saw it, 'I will preserve thee.'" He
went on: "May this be true of future days until I see you all again
is my heartfelt prayer."
He did survive, and, in fact, went on to become a Bible Society
translator in Japan.
Vinall was not unique in interpreting his experiences of war
through the lens of the Bible. It was a defining influence on
British society across the class divides. From the public school to
the Sunday school, from art and music to political de-bate, the
Bible was in the blood of British people.
Every member of the British Armed Forces received a New
Testament as a standard part of his kit, alongside uniform, gun,
"IT IS hard to understand British society at the time of World
War One, if you subtract the Bible from it," Dr Michael Snape,
Reader in Religion, War and Society at the University of
"British culture was suffused with biblical knowledge and
language. The Bible is the foundation of Christianity, and
Christianity is the basis of the people; so the Bible is a key
reference point for people in World War One in distress."
Perhaps it was because of this that the Bible Society was among
several organisations that worked through international blockades
to get Bibles across Europe during the war.
It printed and distributed about nine million Bibles, in 80
different languages, between 1914 and 1918. This included printing
Bibles in German and transporting them to Germany, using a system
of couriers who walked enormous distances across Europe.
WILLIAM GOODERHAM was a regular churchgoer. But it was not faith
or nationalistic fervour that drove the teenager to join up: it was
hunger. He was one of eight children of a farm labourer in the
village of Mellis, in Suffolk.
He lied about his age to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
He wrote home that he had never seen so much food. "My dad had gone
to school plenty of times hungry, with bread and just a bit of
lard," Gooderham's daughter, Joyce Youngman, says. "So you can
imagine: when he went to the Navy, it was food galore. He said
that, when he was doing his training, he had never seen butter,
meat, and vegetables like that in all his life."
Just a year later, he believed that God took a hand in his
destiny. Now 17 years old, he had been sent to the Front. He found
himself lying in a shell-hole in no man's land, injured, alone, and
terrified. For three days he lay there, unable to get back to his
In the end, two German soldiers rescued him. "They were
horrified by his wounds," Mrs Youngman says. "One of the Germans
took his own helmet and got water to bathe his wounded ankle, and
bound it as best he could. They took it in turns to carry him back
to a German field hospital, piggyback, for three miles.
"The German surgeon operated straight away, and it saved his
ankle and his foot. He always said that they were his guardian
angels. 'They weren't my enemy,' he said: 'they saved me from
"For him", his sister says, "it was a miraculous experience. He
felt that God was with him."
IT WAS also faith that motivatedmy own great-grandfather, Thomas
Winter, to head for France. A long-serving Sunday-school teacher,
he could not bear to see the young people he had taught -
youngsters much like William - go to war alone. So he joined the
YMCA, aged 59.
"I was always brought up to think of him as a very fine
Christian man," his granddaughter, Mary Southam, says. "He spent
his life doing what he thought he should. . . That was community
service. He wanted to do his bit."
Thomas's war involved serving meals to soldiers who were
stationed back from the front line, in both France and Italy. He
also established choirs, and ran Sunday-evening services, choosing
hymns and Bible readings that he knew were being used in his home
church in Buckinghamshire.
His was a war of building the so-called "huts" from scratch, and
simply being kind. "I think his faith would have helped him when he
was away at war," Ms Southam says. "He was mature enough to be able
to be a good friend and counsellor to soldiers whom he met, who
perhaps were having a really tough time. I should think he was in a
good place to use his Christian faith to comfort and strengthen
ANOTHER Sunday-school teacher with a similar aim was Lilian
Hayman, from Bournemouth. During the war, she wrote regularly to
young men who had attended her Bible-study classes, and had
subsequently joined up.
One of them was Philip Bryant, who served on HMS Queen
Elizabeth. In 1915, he wrote to Lilian: "Sometimes when I have
a difficult task on hand it is a great comfort to know you are in
His hands, and honestly Mrs Hayman I ask God's help in everything.
I do nothing without I ask His aid and I am sure perfectly that is
because of that that I am successful in those things."
Hayman continued her Bible classes through the war, and taught
her young charges how to understand what was happening through
One boy in her class was 15-year-old Samuel Ching. In June 1916,
he wrote from the Front that he had studied "sowing and reaping" in
her class, quoting Psalm 126.5. He noted that "our soldiers and
sailors are sowing in tears in order that Europe may reap in
Dr Snape says that many soldiers may have seen their own
sacrifice through their reading of Christ's sacrifice. "It was
consoling [for them] to feel that they were taking up their cross,"
he says. "There was an idea of purposeful suffering."
But, for most soldiers, the Bible represented something familiar
and reliable. It gave hope and consolation during times of extreme
suffering. It was a link with home, happiness, the past, and a
'There is no other book as widely owned, or read," at the Front,
Dr Snape says. Of course, this was the case across both sides of
the front line.
MARTIN NEIMÖLLER, a German U-boat submariner, was thrown back on
his faith in 1917. His vessel had to fire on a French vessel that
was trying to rescue the survivors of another torpedoed ship. It
was an incident that was to change him for ever.
"Assuming we survived," he said later, "the question whether our
conscience survived with us depended on whether we believed in the
forgiveness of sins."
The following year, it was NeimÖller's own life that hung in the
balance. His U-boat was hit three times by an Allied convoy. It was
forced to dive, leaking water, and wait until nightfall before it
could emerge again. Everyone's life was at risk.
NeimÖller - the son of a Lutheran preacher - found himself
asking the big questions of life: whether there was a God, and
whether there was a purpose to life.
After the war, he followed his father into the Lutheran Church,
hoping to bring the love and comfort of the Bible to a broken
Later, he was one of many church leaders who were opposed to
Hilter's Nazification of Protestant Churches in Germany. It cost
him his freedom: he spent seven years in a concentration camp.
ANOTHER man who gave up his freedom for what he believed the
Bible was saying to him was Howard Cruttenden Marten. He grew up in
north London, where he attended a local Methodist church, and later
became a Quaker. His faith led him to become a conscientious
objector, and he refused to join up.
He was tried, and sentenced to death by firing squad. "Standing
there, on the parade ground, I had a sense of representing
something outside my own self, supported by a strength stronger
than frail humanity," he said.
He was not shot, however. His case was raised during Prime
Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, when he received
support from leading politicians, including the future Prime
Minister Ramsay MacDonald. His sentence was commuted to ten years
During the course of the war, he was held in Rouen, Le Havre,
Winchester, Wormwood Scrubs, Wakefield, Aberdeen, and, finally,
Dartmoor. Once, when imprisoned in France, he was warned that any
act of disobedience would result in his death.
"During the afternoon, those of us in the Guard Room held a
Meetingfor Worship after the manner of Friends, and never perhaps
had we experienced a time when the need of divine help and guidance
was more felt."
Imprisoned in a stone cell with a concrete floor, Marten had no
bed or chair. At night, his coat and blanket were taken away. "The
best device I could adopt was to take off my tunic and sit on it,'
he later wrote. He was, however, allowed a Bible, and "read and
re-read the Gospel of John, and several of the epistles", which, he
said, "proved a solace".
Marten was finally released in April 1919, after the end of the
war. He went on to be a successful businessman, and helped to lead
the Conscientious Objection movement of the 1930s and 40s.
The Bible Society has published Hear My Cry: Words for
when there are no words, a book of psalms, poems, prayers, and
individuals' stories, for use by churches wishing to mark the First
World War centenary (£3.99).
For more information, visit www.biblesociety.org.uk