Reflections on the Two World Wars
An address given at Bethel Chapel, Luton, on Lord’s Day afternoon, 8th June, 2014, on the occasion of the Sunday School Anniversary.
Usually on these occasions I try to speak of something that is topical, but something that will be profitable and for the honour and glory of God. For a long time, my thoughts for this afternoon have been on 1914 and 2014 – a hundred years since the beginning of that war, perhaps the most terrible of all wars in which millions were killed. Especially today we ought to remember with holy gratitude to God that we were brought through and victorious, or wherever would England have been today? And also in gratitude to the Lord that at the moment, even in this sad day, we are spared from such horrors. When you think of the fighting in France and Belgium, and the warfare, the trenches, sinking in the thick mud, sleeping in it, infested by rats, little to eat, cold, shivering, unwell, shells bursting about them, comrades being killed, one being shot on the right hand, one on the other, wondering who would be next! Then thinking of our eighteen-year-old boys here this afternoon who would have been called up from home to go to France, and most likely never to return home again. So we thank the Lord that we are spared from those horrors today, but we thank the Lord for that wonderful deliverance. And of course, we do not forget the deliverance in the last war.
Interestingly, we had one person present at chapel this morning who was born just before the end of the first great war. Now of course, I do not remember it, but I very much grew up under the shadow of the first war. Most families had had a bereavement. My own family – one of my father’s brothers had been killed in France, and in the little town where I lived, there were the war widows; when they were only in their twenties or thirties their husbands had never returned. There were also old ladies, unmarried ladies, some of them not very happy, some of them not very nice, but people whispered, ‘She was a lovely girl, but her boyfriend never came back and she has never been the same since.’ I remember one old lady in my native town used to sit outside her front door all day, and whenever anyone passed, she said, ‘Could you please spare a minute for a poor old lady? I wonder if you have seen a young man anywhere in your travels?’ And she would give a careful description of him, and they would shake their heads and say, ‘No.’ She would say, ‘So sorry to trouble you. Thank you very much.’ One of her sons had been reported missing and it had turned her brain, and she lived her life in expectancy that one day he would return. It was a hard time.
I picked up the old Gospel Standards following 1914, and there are things like this in the obituaries:
Hugh Smith was wounded in Gallipoli, a ball passing through his body, from which he finally recovered, and was sent to France, where he was killed in action on February l5th.
David Peerless died on March 22nd, 1916, aged 21 years. Some months after the dreadful war broke out, he felt it his duty to enlist. Myself and others [this was written by his godly pastor] were very sorry; one thing was, he was very delicate. [Then it went on:] He was enabled to maintain his profession of the truths he had received . . . The last Lord’s day that he attended at the chapel [before
going to France], after the service he said that he had had such a good day, that he felt that whether he died on the battlefield or anywhere else, he should go to heaven.
But this was one which I thought was very touching:
Joseph Obbard of Tunbridge Wells was killed in action in France, September l9th, aged 34. My dear husband was a very quiet, unassuming, God-fearing man . . . His last letters were chiefly upon better things. He seemed to fully realise his solemn position, and he spoke of that verse being so sweet to him only two days before his death:
His love in time past forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last in trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer I have in review
Confirms His good pleasure to help me quite through.
He hoped he should be spared to come home to his loved ones and his little business, but the Lord willed it otherwise. He was killed instantaneously by a shell bursting over his dug-out. I have lost a most kind and affectionate husband, and the children a tender, loving father. May we have strength given to bear this heavy stroke, feeling
He never takes away our all –
Himself He gives us still.
I am almost certain that that man was the father of Mr. Lionel Obbard who died in the Harpenden Bethesda Home some years ago. You also remember there was an old man over a hundred in Bethesda who had had one of his legs shot off fighting in the first war, and it seemed unbelievable he had been without one of his legs for either seventy or eighty years.
I requested this afternoon that Psalm 9l should be read. What a blessing it was made to many during the war and what a blessing to some of the wives here at home!
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day . . . A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
I remember when I was a little boy, some of those old ministers sometimes would speak of their experience in the trenches with the bullets passing near them, over their head, and a comrade falling to the ground, and perhaps the Lord spoke: ‘Not a single shaft can hit.’ The tears used to run down their faces. We felt there was something real there, the reality of vital godliness. And they used to quote that: ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side’ – so many of their friends killed, but they were brought back. ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.’
And just one final quotation from our magazines. This was from someone who returned and died peacefully many years afterwards. Apparently he was one of the deacons at Blackboys – Thomas Benjamin Burfoot. But in his obituary it says,
When in the trenches on the front line, Psalm 91:l-7 was made very appropriate when many of his fellow-soldiers around were mown down by gun-fire while he was spared. He was also favoured at times under these circumstances to feel peace in his soul and communion with the Lord.
I believe many of those godly young soldiers from our chapels had a wonderful tale to tell, the peace they felt and the blessing. I rather think of an old friend, whom the minister Mr. Wolstenholme had. He was a sergeant major. I do not know the full story, because those old people would not talk much about their experiences in the first War, it was so terrible. I rather think he was so blessed in his soul and so favoured with peace that he was not afraid of anything. He did some deed of daring – in great difficulties I think he captured a number of German soldiers and was awarded the Military Cross or some other medal.
For our young men, it was not always easy. There was a lot of ungodliness in the army and some of them were terribly persecuted because of the profession they made. Some of them would kneel down by the bedside in the barrack room with other soldiers round about, or they would sit on their bed in the barrack room and watched by others in scorn and contempt, would read the Bible. Even there the Lord watched over them and answered their prayers. You older ones remember our dear old friend and deacon Mr. Fred Gurney. He was called up in l9l4 to serve in the army, and he was already a church member here at Bethel, and he felt he had to maintain his profession. He used to kneel down by his bedside and he endured great persecution. One person was so vicious and evil, he felt he could not bear it any longer, but he could not see any way of deliverance. He cried to the Lord for help and mercy and deliverance in this trial, and one night, one of the wildest, most evil men in the regiment came into the barrack room. Apparently he was so fierce and strong and so dreadful in a rage that the soldiers were terrified of him, and everyone wondered what his business was. He came up to Mr. Gurney and said, ‘Fred, you are never going to be persecuted again.’ He pointed to this man and said, ‘This one who persecuted you, I am going to kill him,’ and he meant it. Mr. Gurney pleaded with him, and he said, ‘well, I will knock him black and blue,’ and he knocked him black and blue, and turned round and said, ‘Anyone else who persecutes that soldier for reading his Bible and kneeling down, you will get the same.’ It was a strange deliverance, but there is that word, ‘The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly.’
During the 1914-18 war, there was more of the fear of God and honouring God, even if it was only outward, than there was in the more recent war, the second great war. In 1914 my own mother had come into service as a girl from a Shropshire village to a town in Lancashire called Rawtenstall where she attended the Church of England. She said when the time came for some of the young men, the boys, to be going away to France, people would come down to the station to say ‘Goodbye,’ realising that many of them would never come back home again. My mother said it was a very emotional time, and as the train came in sight on which they were going to be taken away, people began singing, ‘God be with you till we meet again.’ Now you would not get that today. She also said when the war ended at 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the church bells rang and everything stopped. The trams stopped where they were; everything stopped; work stopped; and everyone went along to the church to return thanks to the Lord, the mill workers in their clogs and shawls. She never forgot the vicar solemnly and graciously standing up and announcing the hymn, ‘Now thank we all our God.’ Sadly, you would not get things like that today. There was more of an acknowledgement of the Lord and his mercy and our accountability before him.
It was so with the Prime Minister, because just as we had Winston Churchill in the last war, in the first war it was David Lloyd George. It has been said that he more than anyone else under God was responsible for our victory. The godly old people used to thank God for Lloyd George and they thanked God for Churchill. They felt it was the Lord’s provision. Now Lloyd George knew the truth. There were many things with Lloyd George which were not commendable, but he knew the truth and he honoured God. He was a Welsh Baptist, and I think he was a deacon.
Now how Lloyd George appeared in the public eye: there was a case in Wales. A little girl who attended a Baptist chapel had died and the vicar said because she was a Baptist, she was not permitted to be buried in the churchyard. Now there was a young solicitor in his twenties called David Lloyd George and he fought it. He took it to the highest authorities; he fought it all the way, and he won the victory. The vicar could not forbid that Baptist girl to be buried in the churchyard. From that moment, David Lloyd George was a hero in Wales. The next General Election, he was elected Member of Parliament for Caernarfon and he held the seat for fifty to sixty years. There is a statue of him outside the castle in Caernarfon and outside the National Museum in Cardiff. But Lloyd George knew there was a God, and with all his badness outwardly, Lloyd George honoured God. I think most of you know the story of how at a dark hour in the l914-18 war, it was a Sunday evening, and there was drenching rain, and there was a little Strict Baptist chapel at the end of a common and after the service started, two people came in. One was the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, and they had walked over a mile in the drenching rain across this windswept common. The other one was his Secretary. Lloyd George stopped after the service and had a talk with the minister, and apologised for being late. It is said ‘he seemed loath to go.’ I do not know if this is true or not, but it is said that as they left the little Strict Baptist chapel, Lloyd George looked back and said to his companion, ‘That is the reason why we are going to win the war.’ Now Lloyd George was not a good man, but he did acknowledge God and he was honoured for it.
When the great war ended, he was ‘the greatest man on earth.’ Four years later, he was voted out of office. He was never in office again as long as he lived. That is human greatness, and how easily it can be extinguished.
Just a sad word. After the end of the war many soldiers never returned to church or chapel. There was a reason for it. In the years before the war, the churches had been weakened and weakened again. One of the saddest things was this. There were people who seemed to be gracious ministers – well, they certainly preached the truth – but they began to take this stand: that it was not necessary to believe everything in the Bible; you have no need to believe in Adam; you have no need to believe in the Flood; some of these Old Testament accounts, well they were just stories. Yet they still preached the truth, but they were carried away by human learning. There was a weakening, and religion in England had become so weak generally by the war years that there were many whose religion did not stand the test. It could not stand the test of all the terrible things that had happened.
Before closing, I suppose I ought to mention seventy years ago this week: the D-day landings. There has been so much in the papers about it. Strangely, I cannot remember anything about it at all, but people have said to me, probably everything was kept so quiet and hushed over, that we did not know much about it till after the war. That, of course, was the second war, against Hitler and Nazism. If that had triumphed, whatever would have happened? And some of us wondered at one time if it would. But God heard and answered prayer. God raised up Churchill, and of course what happened seventy years ago this week, D-day, the invasion of France and thousands perishing, thousands killed, but the fighting and pressing forward into France, and in the end victorious, re-conquering Europe and delivering us, under God, from Nazi Germany.
Some of my own family yesterday were at a one hundredth birthday party and the old man who was a hundred said that it is a lot nicer today than seventy years ago. He said, ‘I was one of the thousands who invaded France.’ He said, ‘Seventy years ago yesterday I was driving a tank on the beaches.’
But what is it all about? Thanksgiving to God, never forgetting all the suffering there was with our fathers and grandfathers. May they not be forgotten, but especially may the Lord not be forgotten for his wonderful mercy and his wonderful grace in delivering our country and delivering us, and O, that even now in this sad day, in wrath he might still remember us in mercy.
Taken with permission from Perception, A Quarterly Magazine for Young People. Autumn, 2014.
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