The Bible and World War One


Even today Walter Young’s New Testament falls open at Romans 12. Here he would have read, ‘Hate what is evil, hold onto what is good. Love one another warmly as Christian brothers and be eager to show respect for one another.

‘Work hard and do not be lazy. Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles and pray at all times…Ask God to bless those who persecute you – yes, ask him to bless, not to curse.’

These are words that the 25-year-old former Post Office sorter from London read repeatedly, not just through World War 1, but every week of his life.

Walter didn’t want to join the war, being opposed to violence, but eventually he signed up in 1915, joining the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles).

His church – Woodbridge Chapel in Clerkenwell – gave him a New Testament with the message, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away. My word shall not pass away,’ from Matthew 24.35 inscribed in the front.

He fought at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. Ultimately, he was captured by the Germans and put to work as a prisoner of war in a Prussian coal mine.

‘This as about the most miserable period of my life,’ he wrote later in his memoirs. ‘True, life in the dirtiest and most dangerous trenches was worse while it lasted, but there was always the relief to look forward to if one survived. But life for me at this mine seemed one long round of almost unbroken misery with hardly anything to relieve it.’

Yet it was here that Walter felt that God was saying to him that his fellow PoWs were ‘sheep without a shepherd’. And so, he asked a German officer for permission to hold a service.

It was granted, and a series of services, using Walter’s little New Testament, were held in the ablutions room where the men washed on leaving the mine.

Walter later recalled the first service. ‘All the accommodation was occupied and some were standing and the congregation included not only British but Frenchmen and Russians as well. I suppose we numbered about 40 in all.

‘It was a strange scene for a service. There was only one light and that was partially obscured by the steam from some boiler, which made a fairly loud hissing noise all the time.

‘Nobody had a hymn book and it was obvious that only a very few well-known hymns could be chosen.

‘So from my prayer book hymnary I read out the words, verse by verse and most of them joined in the singing which was led by a violin player. It was a very simple Gospel service. I spoke a few words.

‘If anything was attempted with a feeling of unfitness and inadequacy surely it was these few services. But possibly that very feeling of weakness was my greatest strength, for I could place no dependence on myself or on others.’

Wal's War extracts

Read extracts from Wal's War, including The Battle of Festubert, and the service at the head of the mine.

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Walter's 'inspired' service

How Walter's Bible 'strengthened' him

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