How The Baptist Times reported the war
Round-up of The Baptist Times' First World War coverage, taken from the commemorative edition in January 2012
The Great War was a national tragedy which for the first time saw killing on an industrial scale. It marked the end of many old certainties about human progress and human nature; in Philip Larkin's words, 'Never such innocence again.'
Baptist leaders were deeply troubled by the onset of war. Many of them, like John Clifford and international Baptist statesman J H Rushbrooke, were lifelong peacemakers.
But the war was generally seen as a response to unprovoked German aggression (historians today would be more nuanced) and as a sad necessity.
As the casualty lists grew longer, this sadness became deep grief. But there are also articles about the drink trade, empty churches and children's work, and plenty of sermons which don't mention the war at all.
In August 14, 1914, we carried a letter from Clifford, Shakespeare and others 'To the Ministers and Members of Churches' in the Union.
'It is not for us to apportion blame or to restrict our intercessions to the interests of our own beloved Homeland. We are taught to pray for our enemies, and we must intercede for all these passion-blinded peoples, that they may regain a spirit of national sanity and self-control which will enable them to acknolwedge the inhumanity and folly of war… let us pray for peace in the spirit of peace, and may God mercifully hear and speedily answer our prayers.'
Clifford's sermon at Westbourne Park was reported the following week.
'I hate war with the whole force of my being. It is anti-christian, wicked, devilish, diabolical. Yet when I looked into the sitation and weighed the whole of the evidence, I could not see that our Government had taken a wrong step… the only thing I can say is that we are forced into it. It is an awful compulsion, and what it means nobody can tell. We must endeavour to do the will of God, which will is to stand up for humanity. I believe that the best and noblest elements of the human race are with us.'
We ran a letter on September 4 from a Scarborough pastor, E Roberts Lewis, referring to reports that it was dangerous to visit because of the activities of the German Navy.
'I write to assure any Baptists who desire to come here that the reports of danger were absolutely groundless. Excursions have been resumed, and there is ample and excellent accommodation available.'
In Scarborough 17 people were killed, including four children; in Hartlepool casualties were far higher. The Baptist church was destroyed and the church secretary killed.
'Baptist Women And The War' was a regular column.
The London Baptist Women's League opened a depot at Baptist Church House. Belgian refugees were helped and housed. Lowestoft Baptists fitted out a Red Cross hospital and several women volunteered as nurses – 'Well done, Lowestoft Baptist women!' (September 18).
'There is every indication that the members of the Women's League are going to make a substantial contribution towards the 300,000 pairs of warm socks required by Lord Kitchener early in November. The ladies of the Gorsley Church, Glos, have promised at least 12 pairs of socks, together with a similar number of belts and helmets, and some warm clothing for children.'
The Union issued a Message 'To the Baptists of the British Empire' in the September 25th edition.
'We are not likely to forget that, in the German and Austrian nations, we have many friends and brethren, not only of the Baptist, but of the Lutheran and other Churches, with whom we have held Christian fellowship, and whom we hope again to meet in fraternal gatherings and in the pursuit of common Christian enterprises. Nothing can ever break our oneness with them in Christ.'
A Baptist Soldier's Pocket-Book was produced (November 27): 'It is, of course, khaki coloured, the case being of strong glove-lock form and of waterproof material. The contents include space for the owner's name, home address, regimental number, &c; short prayers, suitable passages of Scripture, hymns, calendar, list of chaplains, and copy of Army letter about registration as Baptists, blank pages for notes, &c. [Nonconformists were allowed to register according to their denominations, but the Army often made this difficult and insisted that they were either C of E or Roman Catholics.]
Despatches from the Front were regularly included
Captain E L Watson wrote on December 4 about his experiences as an Army chaplain at a dressing-station.
'One incident impressed me very much that night in that chamber of agony. Just as the last man was being carred out I heard a sob near by me, and putting our my hand touched a stretcher-bearer who had become jumpy. Poor boy, and no wonder. Only 17 years of age, and away from home for the first time. Empty stomach and soaked clothes, bringing in and remaining with the wounded till relieved, with death outside at every step. This first night of his experience with war was trying his strength and testing his nerve. I took his hand, and whispered a message, and I heard him go out with his little company again towards the trenches over a fire-swept area.'
Increasingly the paper featured reports of deaths in combat. 'Private Edward Barber, of the Grenadier Guards, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Neuve Chapelle, was connected with the Rev. Charles Pearce's Church at Tring…
'In the great battle at Neuve Chapelle he displayed the highest courage, and contributed largely to the success of the attack on the German trenches… Unfortunately in a subsequent action Mr Barber was shot through the brain by a German sniper, and died instantaneously (June 25, 1915)
Baptism at the front On May 26 1916, we reported on the baptism of a young soldier. He was taken through the snow to the bath-house, which was empty.
'There in solemn quietness the ordinance was administered… While he kneeled in the bath Mr Matthews, placing his hands on his head, said: "Phillip, on thy profession of faith in the Son of God I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen."
As he pronounced this ancient formula Mr Griffiths drew the plug which brought down upon the candidates head and body a copious shower of water…
'Thus the ceremony came to an end, and this young soldier went on his way rejoicing, with the light of a great gladness in his eyes.
'Let the readers of The Baptist Times and Freeman pray for the welfare of Phillip Asaph Boase.'
Some Baptists refused to fight; the Baptist Peace Fellowship was founded in 1915. Conscientious Objectors were often roughly handled, sometimes in the pages of this paper. On November 24, 1916, G H Ruffell Laslett wrote, 'Much as I regret the ill-treatment some of the Conscientious Objectors have received, yet their sufferings are as nothing in contrast to the sufferings endured by those facing the Germans. The torture of the trenches is incomparable, and I have yet to learn that the porportion of deaths for their principles, among Conscientious Objectors, is at all equal to that among conscientious belligerents… they not only ceaselessly complain of the treament which is the result of the advocacy of their convictions, but also desire that the State, which they refused to defend, should, nevertheless, protect them. This is both unheroic and illogical.'
The End of the Great War, November 15, 1918
'Early on Monday morning it was known in London that the Armistice had already been signed, and at eleven o'clock the explosion of maroons was the public signal that the war was ended. The streets filled as if by magic. Houses of business were closed, and the populace began, each person in his own fashion, to express its joy. For our part, a great gladness and thankfulness possessed us, but we did not feel inclined to shout.
'We thought of the terrible price that had been paid, and of those to whom the declaration of peace would bring a gust of weeping. Later in the day, at an hotel, a French lady came up and said to us, "Are you English?" We replied, "Yes." "Then," she said, "I am thankful that I am not. I am French." And certanly her method of demonstration was more obvious than ours."