Salvation, with strong, sweet tea

by
25 July 2014

The First World War began on 28 July,100 years ago. The Church Army went quickly into action, following the troops with the tea urn - and much more. Johanna Derry reports

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

Recreation at risk: British and French soldiers in the Partridge Cac­­ton hut, Poperinghe, 1918

Recreation at risk: British and French soldiers in the Partridge Cac­­ton hut, Poperinghe, 1918

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 servicemen. 

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 Salaam.

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 battlelines.

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 illustrates:

 

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 car.

 

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 week.

 

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 hours.

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 that.

"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 group.

"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 boyhood."

 

CLOSE CALL

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." 

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