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Kept together by ginger biscuits

31 October 2014

Rosie Dawson learns how one church community supported its soldiers in World War I

Created for the trenches: the Crescent Congregational Church newsletter

Created for the trenches: the Crescent Congregational Church newsletter

IN AUGUST 1914, nine young men were holidaying in Cumbria. United in their love of ginger biscuits, they decided to form a society, "The Ancient Order of the Ginger Knut". They chose a motto - "Keep smiling". Each evening at supper their President - a red-head - would break and distribute a biscuit among its members.

Within weeks these men had enlisted into the army, and were bound for different theatres of war. But they vowed to keep each other in mind on Sunday evenings, by breaking a gingernut and eating it, whether they were training at home, or in a dug-out or trench far away.

This story is told in an extra-ordinary volume that can be read - although it rarely is - in the Liverpool Records Office. It contains monthly editions of a newsletter called Young Crescent - Near & Far, and was published by a schoolteacher, James Moir, who was a member of the Crescent Congregational Church in Everton.

Each of the 53 editions of Young Crescent includes letters written by family and church members to men serving on the Front, and from the men back home. "The fighting has now developed into trench warfare, and our firing line is about 200 yards from the enemy," writes Will Mackie from the Dardanelles in June 1915. "After being relieved we go to the rest camp - What's in a name! - but we are about two miles from the firing land, and are continually shelled."

I came across the Young Crescent while working with the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce on a documentary for the BBC about how the beliefs and practices of religion changed as a result of the First World War.

The Church in 1914 was a seven-day-a-week provider of social and educational services, reaching into every area of society. The Crescent Congregational Church had committees organising food handouts to the poor; it had a mothers' group, a swimming club, and a choir. It was only natural that it would provide a forum for the exchange of news between the home and war fronts.

Many other church magazines did the same, but the Young Crescent is unusual in that it was specifically created for this purpose, and runs to eight pages. Each newsletter is written out in Mr Moir's tiny handwriting, and hundreds were reproduced and distributed. Mr Moir himself had been declared medically unfit for active service. This was his contribution to the war.

The Young Crescent soldiers will all have attended the Sunday school. As Jennie Dunn writes in December 1915: "Not long ago you were little tots around Crescent, singing We are but little children weak. Now I see the same as fine stalwarts in khaki and blue, prepared to wage a war for righteousness. That's what you are out for, isn't it? 'For right is right, since God is God, and right the day must win.'"

THE Congregationalist Church had some doubts about the war. Some maintained opposition - such as Dr Orchard, a minister from London, who spoke out against the war, and visited conscientious objectors in Wormwood Scrubs. But, by and large, once hostilities had started, it got behind the war effort. Although one correspondent wonders how a loving God can allow such suffering, there is little questioning of the war in the Young Crescent.

The censor may have had some-thing to do with this, although it seems that the more local the press, the less tight the scrutiny was. The vast majority of the population was behind the war. There was also an awareness that the men at the Front needed to have their morale kept up, and to be assured of the thoughts and prayers of loved ones.

In the issue of March 1917, devoted to letters from mothers, Mrs Thompson writes: "Now boys, you know how we all admire you at home or overseas - you are doing your bit in good style, keeping a cheerful face. Whilst poor mother just waits for the coming of her boy of boys. I know quite a few of you, and those I don't know to speak to I know by name. I attend the roll of honours services, and the prayers of our minister always bring me close to my boy, and to all the boys as their names are mentioned."

Through the Young Crescent, the church instituted the custom of keeping an hour on a Sunday evening when the congregation and the Crescent boys on service would keep each other in their thoughts and prayers. Setting aside the exact and simultaneous time became very important to Captain Lightling, stationed in Alexandria, who had difficulty calculating it because of the different time zone. He says, however, that "it would be hard for me to name a time when my thoughts are not turned homeward, and I shall not cease to look forward to the day of my homecoming."

In a touching ritual, the newsletter extended The Ancient Order of the Ginger Knut to all the Crescent boys. Enclosed with the June 1916 copy they found a gingernut in crescent shape, and were asked to remember one another in silent prayer as it dissolved in their mouths.

INEVITABLY, as the war went on, the newsletters carried the news of casualties. Many Crescent boys will have learned of the deaths of childhood friends in this way. Bereaved parents shared the letters they had received from officers and comrades which told them how their sons had died. They used the Young Crescent to issue general thanks for the support and condolences they had received. Again and again in the newsletter we read the conviction - hard for us to appreciate, but near-universal at the time - that the dead had gone to a better world, and were waiting to be joined by their loved ones.

This conviction is expressed in a poignant poem, written as a tribute to Ted "Bunter" Cross, whose death is reported in August 1916. (He was known as "Smiler" to his mates. I wonder if he was one of the original Ginger Knut boys.)

Well, one thing's certain, Bunter
We know where you have gun ter
And if we've the luck to get to reach that land
Guess you'll be there to meet us
With your mighty grin to greet us
And mighty glad we'll be to grab your hand.

Rosie Dawson is the producer of BBC Radio 3's Sunday Feature, God and the Great War, to be broadcast on Sunday 9 November at 6.45 p.m. Frank Cottrell Boyce is the presenter.

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