WHEN war broke out across Europe in 1914, the Church Army
mobilised immediately. It took less than 24 hours for Lady Bagot, a
Church Army member who had been instrumental in establishing Church
Army war hospitals in South Africa, to put forward plans to send
evangelists, trained by the St John Ambulance, to Belgium, to
establish a hospital for the troops there.
From that moment on, the Church Army provided huge energy to the
service it provided at the heart of the war effort. Church Army
evangelists and volunteers dedicated themselves selflessly to serve
those fighting, those injured, those working in munitions
factories, and their families.
Over the course of the next four years, the Church Army raised
funds, sent parcels to prisoners of war, and escorted wives and
mothers to France to visit their dying loved ones in hospital. They
also ran hostels for soldiers who were travelling to and from the
Continent, and set up a rehabilitation centre for disabled
But it was the Church Army's recreational huts that formed the
backbone of the organisation's activity throughout the conflict.
Serving hot drinks and meals, providing games for the soldiers to
help distract themselves from the horrors of the Front, and handing
out endless sheets of paper for them to write to their loved ones
at home, Church Army huts were places of sanctuary and respite for
thousands of soldiers.
At first, tents were set up near to where troops were garrisoned
in the UK. The first was near a camp at Bedford, quickly followed
by one at Woolwich. But, very soon, their work expanded beyond
serving the needs of those waiting to be dispatched for service,
and Church Army huts began to follow the troops over the English
Channel to France and Belgium.
BY THE end of the war, there were about 2000 huts, established
wherever Britain had men at war, spreading as far afield as Malta,
Gallipolli, Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Dar es
Whether on their way from the trenches, or heading towards them,
soldiers could find a Church Army hut close at hand. One Private in
the Royal Army Medical Corps on the Western Front wrote home: "We
have been in an area where there was very heavy shelling - so much
so, that it was impossible to erect a recreation hut near us; but
we were not long in finding a Church Army hut, which was about 20
minutes' walk further back. Each Sunday we enjoyed to the full the
live, cheery, and inspiring services."
Often, Church Army huts were the only places where troops onthe
move could be given foodand drink, and many men sought counsel,
prayer, and comfort from the evangelists and chaplains based there.
As the war progressed,more Church Army huts, sponsored by donations
from supporters in Britain, were set up closer and closer to the
The huts on the Western Front were constructed in sections so
that they could be moved to follow the movements of the troops.
Evenso, during the retreat through Flanders in 1916, 60 of the huts
ended up under enemy shellfire, as one diary entry from the time
12.30 a.m. very heavy shelling; attended to walking wounded,
went through thirty gallons of lemonade and twelve gallons of tea,
a busy day until 11.15 p.m.; arrangements made to meet two
companies; roused at 2 a.m.for Australians coming down; they were
dog-tired and thoroughly appreciated refreshment provided; terrific
bombardment continued all night; a shell burst twenty yards from
THE dedication of those who served in the huts was remarkable.
One Church Army Huts Commissioner reported:
Our Huts are often right in the midst of things. The
superintendent of one came in for his share of a gas attack a
little while ago. He had previously had his "ration" of a gas mask
and a shrapnel helmet served out to him, with the other men. His
roof is frequently peppered with shrapnel. The superintendent of
another Hut, at a place rightin the mines area, had a hole burnt in
his coat by quite a large piece of a shell, which exploded close
outside, when the Germans had trained their guns on the mines, in
their determination to prevent us from getting at the coal. Another
is expecting that he and his customers may have to make a bolt into
a little wood nearby for sudden shelter, at any time.
A Church Army evangelist, working from a hut at the Front,
described a similar experience, writing:
I am a speck of black in a huge sea of khaki. I have two
soldiers to help me. I sleep on the floor. We are not allowed to
have glass in the windows; they are filled with a kind of cloth
that letsthe light through. When a big gun fires it often breaks
all my lamp glasses. When one particular great gun goes off, my
stove pipe that heats the Hut generally goes off too. Overhead
visits from Taubes are, of course, a regular daily matter. The mud
is awful; I very soon had to invest in rubber trench boots to the
thighs. I have to wear continually a satchel containing two gas
helmets (extra one in case one is defective); you see thegas
rolling along in a distant cloud when it's coming. Tea with plenty
of sugar in it is the favourite with the men; we averaged 20
gallons a day. I give out about 2000 sheets of writing paper a
THE evangelists and volunteers working in the huts served more
than tea. They also delivered the Christian message to the many
thousands of men who passed through their doors. The former
chairman of the board of the Church Army, Admiral Sir Horace Law,
wrote about the Huts: "Though the references to 'cups of tea and
buns' being served in all sorts of unlikely places are numerous, it
is noteworthy that the Lord's Supper and His words of comfort and
grace were offered as the most valuable Food which was andstill is
the privilege of the Church Army to arrange to serve wherever
captains and sisters are to be found."
Risking danger to their own lives, Church Army evangelists,
together with the hundreds of volunteers who joined them,
selflessly worked in some of the darkest places to bring Christ's
love, with a good cup of tea, to men facing their darkest
FOOD FOR THE SOUL
IN A Church Army hut in the Salient of Ypres, the Revd
Gerald W. Elliott, an army chaplain, was approached one evening in
June 1917 by two men from a labour battalion, asking if he would
celebrate the eucharist for them, as they had not been able to
receive communion for several months.
"I wish I could adequately describe that celebration.
Nearly forty men had walked over four miles on a very close and
sultry day to be present. It was nearly dark, and the only light
was a little circle near the Altar. The men could not read their
books, but the responses came firmly and clearly for all
"Now and then a man, pipe in mouth, would walk down the
duck boards from the road to see what was going on. And the pipe
would be removed and he would remain one of the watching
"The next Sunday it was the same. A few more came in and
knelt at the back of the Hut, but the majority remained at the
door. And then, on the following Sunday, I asked those watchers to
come in and kneel down and join in the prayers. They did so, and
the following week I had quite a number of conversations with men
who had long given up the practice of Communion. Three who had
never been confirmed gave me their names as candidates, and the
next Sunday several others made their first Communion since
MANY Church Army Evangelists worked right up at the
front, experiencing the mud and shelling at the heart of the
battle, and risking their lives to be with the men.
One un-named Church Army evangelist wrote in the
Church Army Review of 1916: "There wasn't another Hut
anywhere near mine; it was the only place the men had besides their
night billets. One of my soldier friends came off duty, knocked me
up at 2 a.m. once, just to say, 'I've come to let you know I'm
alive, I'm glad you're here still. Do you know, it's like coming
home on leave, just to come here to this little Hut.'
"It was at about seven in the morning my Hut was
shelled. I had got down to sleep not very long before, and was
sleeping at one end of the Hut when the shrapnel hit the other end.
The first shell came through the roof and buried itself a foot deep
in the ground under the dloor. I jumped up to see what was the
matter. I jumped up to see what was the matter. The second shell
burst through at the side, and came through the wall; and a bit of
it gave me a great slap on the thigh.
"The Hut is just where it is most needed. I doubt if I
and it will survive when the great push comes for we're in a hot
place. Anyhow, 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 shall go down with them. I'm proud
of the Church Army at the front."