A raw, cold morning in the late autumn! A weird-looking train, slowly drawing into the station out of the mist, with carriages altogether different in appearance from those we were accustomed to see! A battalion of brawny Scotchmen, travel-stained and sleepy. And then a somewhat lazy descent to the platform.
'Twenty-four hours in this train, sir, and never a bite or a sup. What do you think of that?'
But as the speaker could not quite keep the perpendicular, and found it absolutely impossible to stand to attention, it was evident that he had had more than one 'sup,' whether he had had a 'bite' or not. All along the line, sad to say, 'treating' had been plentiful, and this was the result.
Mobilising at Aldershot.
Multiply this scene a hundred times. Imagine the apparent confusion on every hand. Listen to the tramp, tramp of the men as they march from station to camp and from camp to station, and you will have some idea of the hurry and bustle in this camp on veldt during the period when the word 'mobilisation' was on everybody's lips.
Barrack rooms everywhere overcrowded, men sleeping by the side of the bed-cots as well as upon them; every available space utilised; even the H Block Soldiers' Home turned outside into a tent, that the rooms it occupied might be used as temporary barrack rooms again.
Discipline was necessarily somewhat relaxed! Drunkenness all too rife! The air was full of fare-wells, and the parting word in too many cases could only be spoken over the intoxicating cup. It was a rough-and-tumble time. Aldershot was full of men who in recent years had been unaccustomed to the discipline and exactitude of Her Majesty's Army, and the wonder is that things were not worse than they were.
Let us look into one of the barrack rooms. The men are just getting dinner, and are hardly prepared to receive company, and especially the company of ladies. They are sitting about anyhow, their tunics for the most part thrown aside, or at any rate flying open; but when they see ladies at the door, most of them rise at once.
'Yes, it is hard work, miss, parting with them,' says one K.O.S.B. reservist. 'I've left the missus at home and three babies, one of them only a week old. I thought she'd have cried her eyes out when I came away. I can't bear to think of it now.' And the big fellow brushed the tears away. 'It's not that I mind being called up, or going to the war. I don't mind that; but, you know, miss, it's different with us than with them young lads, and I can't help thinking of her.'
'Rough? yes, it is a bit rough,' says another as we pass along. 'I wish you could see the little cottage where I live when I'm at home, all kept as bright as a new pin. It's well she can't see me now, I'm thinking. She'd hardly know her husband. But there, it's rougher where we're going, I reckon, so it's no use worrying about this.' And, forgetting the presence of ladies, he started whistling a merry tune.
It was just 'a bit rough' in those days. But how could it be helped? Aldershot Camp had nearly doubled its normal population, and some thirty thousand troops were crowded in. And this population was continually changing. As soon as one batch of troops was despatched, another took its place, with consequences that, perhaps, were not always all that could be desired, but which were nevertheless unavoidable.
And so day by day we watched the camp gradually becoming khaki colour. At first it was khaki to-day and scarlet to-morrow, as one batch of khaki warriors left for the front and others, still clad in their ordinary uniform, took its place. But before very long Pimlico proved equal to the occasion, and khaki prevailed, and in South and North Camp one saw nothing but the sand-coloured soldiers. Then a strange, unwonted silence fell upon us; for they had gone, and we woke up to an empty camp and desolate streets, and realized that the greatest feat of the kind in the history of the world had been accomplished, and 150,000 troops had been despatched seven thousand miles across the sea.
Christian Work at Aldershot.
But we are anticipating. Let us first introduce you to a bit of Christian Aldershot during these mobilisation times. The mobilisation did not find us dozing; and the Churches and Soldiers' Homes, with their multiplicity of organizations, did their best to give to Mr. Thomas Atkins a home from home, and never with greater success.
There is no doubt that the morale of the British soldier is steadily advancing. 'They forget,' said a lad from Ladysmith the other day, 'that we are not what we used to be. It used to be that the army was composed of the scum of the nation; some folks forget that it isn't so now.' They do, or, rather, perhaps they did until the war commenced and made the soldier popular. But the fact is that, especially during the last twenty years, there has been a steady improvement, and we venture to assert that to-day, so far as his moral conduct is concerned, the average soldier is quite equal, if not superior, to the average civilian. This is due in large measure to the officers, who take a greater interest in the everyday life of their men than ever before; but it is due in even larger measure to the great interest the Churches have taken in the men, and especially in the multiplication of Soldiers' Homes.
At Aldershot there are, in addition to the military and civilian churches, which are all of them centres of vigorous Christian work, six Soldiers' Homes, viz., three Wesleyan, two Church of England, and one Salvation Army, in addition to the Primitive Methodist Soldiers' Home, now used chiefly as a temperance hotel. At these Soldiers' Homes there are refreshment bars, reading rooms, games rooms, smoking rooms, bath rooms, and all other conveniences. They are for the soldier--a home from home. Here he is safe, and he knows it. They will take care of his money, and he can have it when he likes. They will supply him with stationery free of charge. They will write his letters for him, if he so desires, and receive them also. In fact, while he considers himself monarch of all he surveys as soon as he enters, he is conscious all the time that he must be on his good behaviour, and it is rarely, if ever, that he forgets himself.
A counter-attraction to the public-house, an entertainment provider of a delightful order, a club, a home, and a Bethel all rolled into one is the Soldiers' Home,--the greatest boon that the Christian Church has ever given to the soldier, and one which he estimates at its full value.
During the mobilisation days these Homes were crowded to the utmost of their capacity, and chaplains and Scripture readers vied with each other in their earnest efforts to benefit the men. In those solemn times of waiting, with war before them, and possibly wounds or death, hundreds of soldiers decided for Christ, or, as they loved to put it, 'enlisted into the army of the King.'
Barrack Room Life.
Somehow or other the average Englishman never thinks of the soldier as a Christian, and soldier poets bring out almost every other phase of the soldier character except this. As a matter of fact the recruit when he comes to us is little more than a lad. He has been brought up in the village Sunday school, and been accustomed to attend the village church or chapel. He has all his early religious impressions full upon him. He is excitable, emotional, easily led. If he gets into a barrack room where the men are coarse, sensual, ungodly, he often runs into riot in a short time, though even then his early impressions do not altogether fade. But if we lay hold of him, bring him to our Homes, surround him with Christian influences, by God's help we make a man of him, and the raw recruit, the 'rook' as they call him, not only develops into a veteran ready to go anywhere and do anything for Queen and country, but into a Soldier of the Cross, ready to do and dare for his King.
An Aldershot Sunday.
Let me introduce you to an Aldershot Sunday. The camp is all astir at an early hour. Musters of men here and there on the regimental parade grounds, the stately march to church, the regimental band at the head. The short, bright, cheery service. The rattle and clatter of side-arms as the men stand or sit. The rapid exit after the Benediction has been pronounced and the National Anthem sung. The 'fall in' outside. The ringing word of command, and the march back to barracks, amid the admiring gaze of the civilians.
All this can be sketched in a few sentences; but we want to give our readers more than a mere introduction--a speaking acquaintance. We want them to get to know our friend Thomas Atkins before they see him out on the veldt, or amid the heat of battle. And to know him as we know him they must get a little closer than a mere church parade; they must watch us at our work for him, they must realize some of our difficulties, and be sharers in some of our joys.
Let us then get nearer to him, and in order to this, attempt to get into the heart of an Aldershot Sunday. And as the most conspicuous and handsome pile of buildings in Aldershot is the Grosvenor Road Wesleyan Church and Soldiers' Home, and it happens to be the one with which we are best acquainted, we will follow the workers in their Sunday's work.
The Prison Service.
And first of all let us visit the Military Prison. There are not so many prisoners as usual just now, and those who are there are terribly anxious to have their terms of imprisonment shortened, in order that they may get to the front--not that prisoners are ever wishful to drag out the full term of their imprisonment, but now that all is excitement and their regiments are on the eve of departure, they are feverishly anxious to go with them.
And yet it is easy to preach, for in prison most hearts are softened, and just now there are memories of bygone days that make one love the old hymns and listen with more than old interest to old truths. Of course there are not a few exceptions. For instance, you see that tall Guardsman! Guardsman, do you call him? Anything but that in his uncouth prison dress! But he is a Guardsman, and by-and-by will give a good account of himself in South Africa. See how his eyes are fixed on the preacher. How eagerly he listens to every word the preacher says! Surely there is a work of grace going on in his heart! And so next morning when the preacher and junior chaplain meet, one says to the other, 'I am quite sure Robinson was greatly affected yesterday. He could not take his eyes off me all the time. He seemed in great trouble. Speak to him about it, and try to lead him to Christ.'
Hence, when next the Rev. E. Weaver, our indefatigable junior chaplain, visited the prison, he said, 'Robinson, what sort of a service did you have on Sunday morning?'
'Pretty much as usual, thank you, sir.'
'How did you like the sermon?'
'Oh! all right. You know I've heard him before.'
'Yes, but wasn't there something that specially touched you. The preacher said you could not take your eyes off him all the time. He felt sure you were in trouble.'
'Well, sir, I was, that is the fact. I couldn't help looking at him, and I have been thinking about it ever since.'
'Well, now, you know me, Robinson. Cannot I help you? You have no need to be afraid to speak to me. What is your trouble?'
And Robinson looked gravely at the chaplain, and the chaplain at him. And then with an effort Robinson said, 'I've been wondering about it all the week. I cannot get it out of my head. Don't be offended, sir, however did that 'ere gent get inside that waistcoat?'
How are the mighty fallen! And the poor preacher who, with cassock vest, had stood before that congregation of prisoners, had after all only excited curiosity about his dress.
But it is not always so, and many a lad has been won to better ways through the ministry of the prison.
Parade and other Services.
Then follows the Parade Service, already described, and no more need be said except that the preacher must be dull and heartless indeed who is not inspired by those hundreds of upturned faces, and the knowledge that the word he speaks may, through them, ere long reach the ends of the earth.
We will not linger either at the Hospital Service or the Sacred Song Service in the afternoon, or at the Soldiers' Tea, or even at the Voluntary Service at night, which, with its hundreds of soldier attendants, is a testimony to the spiritual value of the work.
The 'Glory-Room' of the Soldiers' Home.
Let us rather pass into the 'glory-room' of the Soldiers' Home at the close of the evening Service. There is never a Sunday night without conversions. And they call it the glory-room because
'Heaven comes down their souls to greet, And glory crowns the mercy-seat.'
Ex-Sergeant-Major Moss is in charge, and as frequent references will be made to him in the following narratives, we may as well sketch him now. A man of medium height, thick set, strength in every line of his face and figure, eyes that look kindly upon you and yet pierce you through and through. A strong man in every respect, and a kindly man withal. A man among men, and yet a man of almost womanly tenderness where sympathy is required. Again and again in the course of our story we shall come across traces of his strenuous work and far-reaching influence. And in every part of the British Empire there are soldier lads who look upon this ex-sergeant-major of the Army Service Corps as their spiritual father, and there is no name oftener on their lips in South Africa than his.
He is in charge to-night, and is telling his experience. He knows all about it, has done plenty of rough campaigning in his time, but he knows also that the religion of Jesus Christ is best for war or peace. Christ has been with him in all parts of the world, and Christ will be with them. They are going out. No one knows what is before them, but with Christ at their side all will be well.
And now a Reservist speaks. He cannot pass the doctors, and has to return home; but he tells the lads how he went through the Chitral campaign, and how hard he found it to be a Christian all alone. 'It is all right here in the glory-room,' says he; 'it is all right when the glory-room is not far away, and we can get to it. But when you are thousands of miles away, and there are no Christian brothers anywhere near, and you hear nothing but cursing, and are all the time amid the excitement of war, it is hard work then. Stick to it, my brothers. Be out and out for Christ.'
And then another--an Engineer. 'I was going through the camp the other day, and I noticed that where they were building the new bridge they had put a lantern to warn people not to approach. It had only a candle inside, and gave but a poor light. On either side of me were the lamps of the Queen's Avenue, and only this tiny flicker in front. And I said to myself, "My lad, you are not one of those big lamps there in the Avenue; it's but a little light you can give, but little lights are useful as well as big ones, and may be you can warn, if you cannot illuminate."' And then with enthusiasm they sang together,--
'Jesus bids me shine with a clear, pure light, Like a little candle burning in the night; In this world of darkness we must shine-- You in your small corner, I in mine.'
Then follow other testimonies and prayer, and by-and-by first one and then another cries to God for mercy, and as the word of pardon is spoken from above, and one after another enters into the Light, heaven indeed comes down their
'souls to meet And glory crowns the mercy-seat.'
This is no fanciful picture. It is an every night occurrence. The old times of the evangelical revival are lived over again in that 'glory-room,' and hundreds are started upon a new and higher life.
But it is time to separate, and with a verse of the soldiers' parting hymn the comrades go their various ways, and the blessed Sabbath's services are over--over, all except one service more, the service in the barrack room, where each Christian man kneels down by his bed-cot and commends his comrades and himself to God. In the case of new converts this is the testing-time. They must kneel and pray. It is the outward and visible sign of their consecration to God. A hard task it is for most; not so hard to-day as it was a few years ago, but difficult still, and the grit of the man is shown by the way he faces this great ordeal. Persecution generally follows, but he who bears it bravely wins respect, while he who fails is treated henceforth as a coward. This testimony for Christ in the barrack room rarely fails to impress the most ungodly, though at the time the jeering comrades would be the last to acknowledge it.
At the risk of appearing to anticipate, let me tell a story.
In a nullah in far-away South Africa lay about a dozen wounded men. They had been lying there for hours, their lives slowly ebbing away. One of them was a Roman Catholic, who had been a ringleader of persecution in the barrack room at home. Not far from him lay 'little Jemmie,' wounded severely, whom many a time the Roman Catholic had persecuted in the days gone by. Hour after hour the Roman Catholic soldier lay bleeding there, until at last a strange dizzy sensation came over him which he fancied was death. He looked across to where, in the darkness, he thought he could distinguish 'little Jemmie.' With difficulty he crawled across to him, and bending over the wounded lad, he roused him.
'Jemmie, lad,' he said, 'I have watched you in the barrack room and seen you pray. Jemmie, lad, do you think you could say a prayer for me?'
And Jemmie roused himself with an effort, and, trying hard to get upon his knees, he began to pray. By-and-by the other wounded soldiers heard him, and all who could crawl gathered round, and there, in that far-away nullah, little Jemmie 'said a prayer' for them all. Surely a strange and almost ghastly prayer-meeting that! As they prayed, some one noticed the flicker of a light in the distance. They knew not who it was--Briton or Boer--who moved in the distant darkness. Jemmie, however, heeded it not, but prayed earnestly for deliverance. The light came nearer, and the wounded lads began to call with all their remaining strength for help. And at last it came to them--the light of a British stretcher party--and they were carried to help and deliverance.
'And now,' said the Roman Catholic soldier, who, on his return from the war, told this story to the Rev. T.J. McClelland, 'I know that God will hear the prayer of a good man as well as the prayer of a priest, for he heard little Jemmie's prayer that night.'
And so the Aldershot barrack room prepares the way for the South African veldt, and the example apparently unnoticed bears fruit where least expected.
The Hymns the Soldier Likes.
Of all hymn-books Mr. Thomas Atkins likes his 'Sankey' best. He is but a big boy after all, and the hymns of boyhood are his favourites still. You should hear him sing,--
'I'm the child of a King,'
while the dear lad has hardly a copper to call his own! And how he never tires of singing!
But the Scotchmen are exceptions, of course, and when, following mobilisation times, the Cameronian Militia came to Aldershot, they could not put up with Mr. Sankey's collection. Rough, bearded crofters as many of them were,--men who had never been South before,--all these hymns sounded very foreign. 'We canna do wi' them ava,' they cried; 'gie us the Psalms o' Dauvit.' But they set an example to many of their fellows, and the remarkable spectacle was witnessed in more than one barrack room of these stalwart crofters engaged in family prayer.
But it is time we saw our soldiers depart. And first there is the inspection in the barrack square, and it is difficult to recognise in these khaki-clad warriors the men we had known in the barrack room or 'Home.' And then there is the farewell in the evening, and the 'glory-room' or other devotional room is full of those ordered South, and there is the hearty hand-shake and the whispered 'God bless you,' and then all join in the soldiers' good-night song--his watchword all the world over, hymn 494 in Sankey's collection,--
'God be with you till we meet again.'
His life is such a coming and going that he would be unhappy unless you closed every evening meeting with at least one verse, and on these occasions, when no one knows whether it will be in earth or heaven that he will meet his comrade next, it is, of course, impossible to close without it. And so night by night before each regiment takes its departure some one starts 494. By-and-by, as the train steams out of the station, it will be 'Auld Lang Syne,' but these are Christian men, and they are parting from Christian men, and so often with hands clasped and not without tears they sing,--
'God be with you till we meet again, Keep love's banner floating o'er you, Smite death's threatening wave before you, God be with you till we meet again.'
They will not forget it, these soldier lads, and as they pass one another on their long marches across the veldt, unable to do more than shout a greeting to some old friend, it will be 494; and as with rapid tread they advance to charge some almost impregnable defence, they will shout to one another--these Christian soldiers--494, 'God be with you till we meet again!'
Off to the Front.
What stirring times those were! What singing in the barrack rooms at night! What excitement in the streets of the town, yes, and what drunkenness too, making it necessary now and then to confine a regiment to barracks the night before departure. And then the march to the station, often in the small hours of the morning, the rush at the last with some would-be deserter just caught in time, the enthusiasm of the men, the cheering of the crowd, the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'God Save the Queen.' And then away goes the train, heads out of every carriage, handkerchiefs waving, lusty voices cheering, shouting, singing. God bless you, our soldier lads!
But what mean these little knots of women and children gazing wistfully after the train? What mean these sobs, these tears, this heart-break? Ah! this is another side to the picture. They have said good-bye, and they know that all of these lads will not return, and that some of those left behind are left desolate for life. God help them, our British soldiers--aye, and God help those they have left behind them!
Mr. Lowry Ordered South.
Let us glance at just one scene more before we say good-bye to old Aldershot and follow our soldier lads on their journey South. It is the farewell of one of the best-loved of Aldershot chaplains--the Rev. E.P. Lowry, senior Wesleyan chaplain. For seven years he has ministered with rare success to our troops; his name is a household word among them, they love him as they love few, and he loves them one and all. And now he too is ordered South. He is fifty-six years old, and has done no campaigning heretofore. It is, therefore, no light task he has before him, and though he has many advantages and is known to so many, yet he is quite aware he must rough it with the rest, and is prepared to undergo all hardships with his men.
It is a raw, biting morning, and the piercing wind makes the khaki uniforms that flit here and there look altogether unseasonable. On the other side of the station is Rev. Father Ryan, the Roman Catholic chaplain, in khaki uniform and helmet, looking a soldier every inch of him,--a good man, too, and a gentleman, as we Aldershot folks know well. But on this platform what a crowd there is! Men and women, old and young, soldiers and civilians, have all come to say good-bye to one man, and he moves in and out among the people saying a kindly word here and giving a handshake there. There are not many for South Africa by this train. The men left hours ago, and only a few officers who had no need to travel with their men are going down. A young lad here, the son of a Christian man, is going out hoping to get an appointment in some South African volunteer regiment, and his comrades of the Fire Brigade are here to say 'good-bye.' But the rest of us are all crowding round our best-loved padre to say God-speed.
It is a scene that will live with us for many years. See, they are running along the platform as the train steams out. 494 they shout, and bravely and with smiling face he calls out in return 494, and off they go, he to the work of his life, and we to the more humdrum but perhaps not less necessary work of the hour.