Jesus Christ
Growing in Christ - Meditation
"He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." Luke 24:45

Many terrible images come to mind when we think about World War I. Death and destruction took place on battlefields of mud, with soldiers enduring pain and privation to the limits of human endurance. What bitter thoughts they must have held, we might think, as they were ordered to climb out of the trenches and face barrages of bullets, barbed wire and artillery fire.


We would not be wrong to assume bitterness. It would be wrong, however to assume that the thoughts and expressions of these brave soldiers were unsophisticated or unintelligent. There is in fact evidence that many soldiers of that time and place had a poetic flair for expressing themselves and exhibiting great faith as they did so.


Such evidence can be found in Martin Gilbert's recently published book, The Battle of the Somme (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart) 2006. While providing all the details one might expect of well-written military history, Gilbert does not hesitate to reprint extracts of poetry either published at the time or simply found in letters home.


One example is written by Tom Kettle four days before he died on the battlefield and intended to be read by his daughter:


And oh! they'll give you rhyme

And reason: some will call the thing sublime,

And some decry it in a knowing tone.

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,

But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor. (pp. 175-176).


The reference to Jesus as the final comfort of a doomed man is unmistakable.


Another poem exhibiting faith was written by Cyril Winterbotham, a twenty-nine year-old Oxford University graduate. It is entitled "The Cross of Wood":


God be with you and us who go our way

And leave you dead upon the ground you won;

For you at last the long fatigue is done,

The hard march ended, you have rest to-day.


You were our friends, with you we watched the dawn

Gleam through the rain of the long winter night,

With you we laboured till the morning light

Broke on the village, shell-destroyed and torn.


Not now for you the glorious return

To steep Strand valleys, to the Severn leas

By Tewkesbury and Gloucester, or the trees

Of Cheltenham under high Cotswold stern.


For you no medals such as others wear-

A cross of bronze for those approved brave-

To you is given, above a shallow grave,

The wooden Cross that marks you resting there.


Rest you content, more honourable far

Than all the Orders is the Cross of Wood

The Symbol of self-sacrifice that stood

Bearing the God whose brethren you are. (p.166).


Honour is an important concept to a soldier, and we can see how significant it is for a soldier to die with his faith being his final source of comfort and honour.


William Berridge was a twenty-two year-old Oxford graduate who indicated trust in God through his poetry:


God, wheresoe'er Thou may'st be found

And Whosoe'er Thou art,

Grant in the Scheme of Things that we

May play a worthy part;

And give, to help us on the way,

An all-enduring heart.


We know Thou watchest from above

This fantasy of woe;

And, whatsoe'er pain or loss

We here may undergo,

Let us in this be comforted-

None from thy sight can go.


Sometimes in folly we upon

Thy Name profanely call,

And grumble at our destiny

Because our minds are small,

And so we cannot understand

The Mind that ruleth all.


Grant us to see and learn and know

The Greatness of Thy Will,

That each one his allotted task

May grapple with, until

We hear at last Thy Perfect Voice

Bidding us 'Peace, be still.' [pp.159-160).


The greatness of God's will, while always a mystery, can be understood as a source of peace.


Donald Johnson wrote the following poem entitled "Battle Hymn":


Lord God of battle and of pain,

Of triumph and defeat,

Our human pride, our strength's disdain

Judge from Thy mercy-seat;

Turn thou our blows of bitter death

To thine appointed end;

Open our eyes to see beneath

Each honest foe a friend.


Give us to fight with banners bright

And flaming swords of faith;

We pray Thee to maintain thy right

In face of hell and death.

Smile Thou upon our arms, and bless

Our colours in the field,

Add Thou, to righteous aims, success

With peace and mercy seal'd.


Father and Lord of friend and foe,

All-seeing and all-wise,

Thy balm to dying hearts bestow,

Thy sight to sightless eyes;

To the dear dead give life, where pain

And death no more dismay,

Where, amid Love's long terrorless reign,

All tears are wiped away. (pp.114-115).


Not every soldier can acknowledge God as being the Lord of both "friend and foe," but once again we observe reliance on the "all-seeing and all-wise" God.


How can we who are not soldiers possibly understand war? Statistics do not always penetrate our souls. To read of thousands being killed in a day may leave us feeling amazed but untouched. To hear of bodies being blown to bits might shock us, but only for a moment. A simple poem about a broken-hearted bagpiper, however, might actually cause us to feel something:


'Take my pipes,' the Piper said,

'And lay me down to sleep.

The sights I've seen have broke my heart

And caused my soul to weep.'


'Take my pipes,' the Piper said,

'And wrap me in my plaid.

The sights I've seen have made me cold

And all I feel is sad.'


'Take my pipes,' the Piper said,

'And my hearty tartan kilt.

My friends have gone and left my side,

Dragged down by mud and silt.'


'Take my pipes,' the Piper said,

'And play them far away.

Their sound's too sweet to carry far

Upon this dreadful day.'


'But stay. . . ! Don't take my treasured pipes,

I'll need them by my side

When I take up my Scottish lads

To the land on the other side.' (pp.265-266).


This poem, by Ron Venus, was read aloud at a special memorial statue of a piper in Longueval, France as recently as 2002. As in the other poems, there is trust and hope and faith in the hereafter.


Pondering the pain of warfare is difficult. We can be inspired, however, not merely by the conventional courage exhibited by the soldiers, but by the faith that carried them through this life and into the next.


Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 1Peter 4:12. (ESV).


May we in times of extremity draw on such faith also.


In faith and fellowship,


Patrick McKitrick (more...)