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The first world war’s Christian soldiers

A Christmas reflection from a Spectator reader in 1916

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

10 December 2016

9:00 AM

From a letter published under the heading ‘The religion of the ordinary soldier’, The Spectator, 23 December 1916: During a discharge of gas at the beginning of July along our front, one of the cylinders was displaced by the near bursting of an enemy shell. It turned the nozzle round, and the gas began to pour into our own trench. One of my lads, who was acting as orderly, heard from the communication trench that something was happening and ran into the front line… He ran forward unprotected, tugged at the cylinder, and pointed its nozzle outwards again before he fell unconscious. He died a few minutes afterwards. Those who saw it told me it was a quite spontaneous action. This boy would have told you that if his name was on a shell, it was no use running away. But what is this but ‘He saved others, himself he could not save’? This Christian instinct of self-sacrifice is a part of the manhood of thousands of our ordinary soldiers.

Let us look further into the actions of our ordinary soldier. In all the times I have spent at dressing-stations I have never seen a wounded man urge his claim to medical attention before his proper turn came. Uncomplainingly they lie there on their stretchers, often having been lost sight of in shell-holes for many hours with horrible wounds, then jolted along over broken ground by the stretcher-bearers, first-dressed after long waiting, then hoisted into cars and bumped over execrable roads for several miles to the main dressing-station; and there they lie, quietly waiting their turn. These are the ordinary swearing, blasphemous soldiers, and this mute heroism is called ‘the British sense of fairness’. But what is it but the fulfilling of the Christian precept, ‘Whatsoever things ye would that others should do unto you, do ye also unto them’?

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