The Bible and World War One

Bible ‘major support’ during Gallipoli campaign


The Gallipoli campaign that began in April 1915 is often remembered as a sideshow to the fighting in France and Belgium. But tens of thousands of British, ANZAC and other Allied soldiers and sailors fought and died there in an attempt to open a sea route through to Constantinople via the adjacent strait of water known as the Dardanelles.

Located at the junction of Europe and Asia, the Gallipoli peninsula became the focus of intense and prolonged fighting over many months, with the Turks, supported by their German allies, feeding tens of thousands of troops into the peninsula to contain the Allied landings.

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‘It is hard to understand British society at the time of World War One if you subtract the Bible from it.’
Dr Michael Snape, Reader in Religion, War and Society at the University of Birmingham.

The Bible was a defining influence on British culture across class divides. From the public school to the Sunday school, from art and music to political debate, the Bible was in the blood of British people.

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, every member of the British Armed Forces received a New Testament as a standard part of his kit: uniform, gun, boots, Bible.

Bible Society was among several organisations that worked tirelessly to provide copies of the Scriptures for soldiers, sailors, airmen, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors, and those invalided out of the front line. Over the four years of the war, it printed and distributed some 9 million Bibles in 80 different languages.

This microsite, commissioned for the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014, traces the history of the Bible and World War One through the stories, diaries, records and artefacts that have been passed down over the past 100 years, documenting the extraordinary relationship between the War, Society and the Bible.

Millions of Bibles distributed

Made with a khaki cover, most were the size of a small mobile phone today, and fitted into the left-breast pocket of a soldier’s uniform.

But some were even smaller. There were inch-sized copies of the whole Bible that could only be read with the aid of an accompanying magnifying glass and presumably very, very good eyesight, as well as tiny copies of the gospels and the Psalms.

Very rarely someone had a copy of the whole Bible – often a gift from a relative – and in one story you’ll read here this saved a soldier’s life, when he was just 18 years old.

Unlike today, Bibles weren’t distributed by planes, trains and lorries. Men known as colporteurs walked the length and breadth of Europe and the Middle East carrying packs of New Testaments to sell or give away to the troops that they met on the road.

The soldiers’ solace

‘Soldiers were happy to have something sacred with them in the hope it might stop bullets,’ says Dr Snape.

‘It also connected soldiers with their loved ones emotionally and devotionally as they may have agreed to read the same texts.

‘And it was hugely consoling for individual soldiers.

‘There are poignant stories from the Battle of the Somme of bodies being recovered from shell holes of men who died with a New Testament in their hands. What else could you do if you were alone, badly wounded and going to meet your maker?’

Justifying war

According to Dr Snape the Bible was also used to justify the war. ‘One of the classic texts used was the story of the Good Samaritan,’ he says. Belgium was seen as the victim of an attack and needed support.

The Kaiser was often described as the biblical anti-Christ and the war seen in ‘apocalyptic’ terms as the end of the world.

Perhaps people would be surprised to know that in 1910 the Kaiser had donated £25 to Bible Society saying, ‘I read the Bible often and with pleasure.

‘A Bible lies beside me at night in which most of the precious thoughts are underlined. I cannot understand how so many men exist who do not busy themselves with God’s Word.

‘In all my thoughts and actions I ask myself the question, “What does the Bible say on the point?”

‘The Bible is the source from which I draw strength and light in hours of trembling and fear I lay hold of this treasure of comfort.’

Sacrifice

Dr Snape adds that many soldiers saw their own sacrifice through their reading of Christ’s sacrifice.

‘It was consoling [for soldiers] to feel that you were taking up your cross. There was an idea of purposeful suffering.’

But for most soldiers the Bible represented something familiar and reliable. It gave hope and consolation during times of extreme suffering. It was a link with home, happiness, the past and a longed-for future.

‘There is no other book that was as widely owned or read in the trenches,’ says Dr Snape.

In this website you’ll find the stories of soldiers, women at home, conscientious objectors and chaplains, all of whom found comfort in the Bible during World War 1. This is their story. 

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Bible was 'defining influence' during WW1

When war broke out in 1914, every member of the British Armed Forces was given a Bible as an essential part of their kit.

Dr Michael Snape of Birmingham University explains why. ‘It was hugely consoling for individual soldiers,’ he says.

‘There are poignant stories of bodies being recovered of men who had died with a New Testament in their hands. ‘What else could you do if you were alone, badly wounded and going to meet your maker?’

Stories from the time

The 15-year-old who ran away to sea

Aged just 15 Edgar Ellis ran away to sea. His son, Major John Ellis (77) recalls, ‘He went down to the naval recruiting office and saw a sign saying that you had to be over 18.

Read more >

‘My grandfather’s Bible is my most precious possession’

‘It means a great deal to me still to have my grandfather’s Bible,’ says 56-year-old Mark Duffy. ‘Apart from my children, it is my most precious possession.

Read more >

‘Through God’s help alone I survived’

In August 1916, 20-year-old Harry Foster wrote home to his mother, accounting his experience of the Somme.

Read more >

More church resources

Resources to help churches to mark the centenary of World War One at the heart of local communities.

World War One in pictures

  • Bombadier George Hever Vinall.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall (left) with colleagues.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall went on to become a Bible Society translator in Japan.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's letter made headlines in the local paper.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's Bible with the three bullets.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's Bible with the three bullets.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's Bible with the three bullets.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's Bible with one of the three bullets.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • George Hever Vinall's Bible with the three bullets and photographs of him.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
  • Peter Vinall (81) with his father's Bible.
    Bible Society / Clare Kendall
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British and Foreign Bible Society operates in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.
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