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A lantern unto their feet

01 August 2014

The words and, sometimes, the very presence of the Bible were a source of comfort and inspiration to those who faced the hazards of the First World War. Hazel Southam reports


One of the shrapnel bullets, and Vinall's Bible, where it lodged

One of the shrapnel bullets, and Vinall's Bible, where it lodged

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 wounds.

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, and boots.


"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 Birmingham, says.

"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 line.

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 deformity.'"

"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 those soldiers."


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 reading scripture.

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 joy."

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 longed-for future.

'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 German society.

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 in prison.

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

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