A cheer from the distant crowds, an increased involuntary bustle on board ship, and then train load after train load of troops detrained alongside the ship that was to be their home for the next three weeks. Up and up the gangways they went in long continuous lines, hour after hour, a procession that seemed as though it would never stop. At last all are on board, and the bell rings for visitors to go ashore. The troops crowd the bulwarks of the ship, they climb the rigging, many of them like sailors. They seize every vantage point from which they can wave a long farewell to those they are leaving behind them, and then some one with a cornet strikes up 'Soldiers of the Queen' and 'Rule Britannia,' and fifteen hundred voices echoed by those on shore join in the patriotic songs. At last all is ready and the moorings are cast off. 'One song more, my lads'; it is 'Shall auld acquaintance be forgot?' and there with the good ship already moving from the dock they sing it, while handkerchiefs are vigorously waved and hearty cheers rend the air, and not a few tears are shed. And so amidst excitement and sorrow, laughter and tears, the good ship drops down the Southampton Water, past Netley Hospital--soon to receive many of them back--and Calshott Castle, past the Needles and out into the open Channel, and fifteen hundred fighting men are on their way to South Africa.
A New Feat in Britain's History.
Week after week this was the programme. It only varied in that the ship was different, and the men were of different regiments and different names. Until at last the title of this chapter had become an actual fact, and Old England, in a sense truer than ever before, was upon the sea. For it was not young England simply that was there. The fathers of our land--our greatest and our wisest generals, the most seasoned of our veterans, were there also. And there was hardly a family at home but had some representative, or at any rate some near or dear friend upon the sea.
Never had such a thing as this been attempted before in the history of the world. Other great expeditions had been fitted out and despatched, for instance, the great Armada which was beaten and dispersed by our Hearts of Oak and broken to pieces upon our Scottish rocks. But for nearly 150,000 men to be dispatched 7,000 miles by sea, and not a man be lost by shipwreck, is something over which old England may well be proud, and for which it should bow in hearty thanksgiving to God.
The men these ships were carrying were new men. Some of them certainly were of the old type--drinking, swearing, impure--though for three weeks, at any rate, every man of them was perforce a teetotaler, and did not suffer in consequence! But our army has been recruited in days past from our Sunday Schools with blessed consequences, and on board every ship there were men whose first concern was to find a spot where, with congenial souls, they could meet and pray.
All sorts of places were found. The Rev. E.P. Lowry, for instance, managed to get the use of the Lunatic Ward, and there the men met and prayed, caring nothing for the nickname of 'lunatic' freely bestowed throughout the voyage.
Religious Work on a Troopship.
The following letter from Colour-Sergeant J.H. Pearce, culled from the Methodist Times, gives us a specimen of the work done by the soldiers themselves upon these troopships, work that commenced as soon as the ship left dock, and continued to the end of the voyage. It is dated--
'At sea, but in the hollow of His hand.
'The first evening we got together all we could find, and decided to start at once, although still in harbour; so we looked out a little place under the poop, and decided after a chapter and prayer to come along again the next evening. But when I went along to see who would turn up, to my sorrow I found the devil had taken up position outside our trenches, and we were debarred from entering by a crowd playing "House." The next day I was rather sick but went up and found the devil still in possession. Brother Evans was too sick to go that evening; but Thursday, being better, he and I went from stem to stern, downstairs and up, searching for a place to meet for prayer and reading the Word. We were just giving up our search to go to our quarters and pray about it, when we alighted upon about eight of our dear brothers on one of the hatchways waiting. They had sent two of the number to look for Evans and me, so we got around a port-hole light, and read Romans v., had a few words, and a word of prayer. Evans read 604, "Soldiers' home above," and we went home to pray that the Lord would open a way.
'We were to meet to-night at the same place to report progress. I was in the meantime to ask for the use of the orderly-room. The Lord had answered by opening the windows of heaven and the heart of the officer commanding the troops, and gave us exceedingly abundantly above what we asked or thought, for this morning the colonel met Mr. Cochrane, asked him if he were the Scripture reader, and told him he would give any place on board the vessel we liked to ask for. The orderly-room was granted us, and when we got there a number of R.A. clerks were at work. I spoke to the sergeant-major and told him we did not want to be objectionable, so would come when they had finished. He said, "Take no notice of us, go on." But there was too much commotion, so I went to see our orderly-room sergeant, who let us into the clerks' room, and there we had a real glory time. We know the Lord is with you at Aldershot, for we have realized His presence there. But He is here in wonderful power. We had a conversion last night on the hatchway. A man came along and listened, and in the dark we did not detect him till he spoke; so we have to report progress. We are to meet every night for prayer, reading and praise. It would melt a heart of cast steel to have been in our little meeting to-night, as one after another of the dear fellows simply poured out his heart to the Lord in prayer and praise. You thought I liked a good innings, but why should not every blood-bought and blood-washed one be the same? Do I realize what Jesus has done for me? Then
"I must tell to sinners round What a dear Saviour I have found,"
and point to the redeeming Blood, and say, "Behold the way to God." Glorious times yesterday, about seventy or eighty at parade service. I took John i. 29, "Behold the Lamb." Afternoon Bible reading. Evening out-door meeting, about 400 or 500 men listening; then indoor meeting. A dear fellow of our regiment gloriously converted Saturday night. Took his place with us in the open-air ring last night.'
Such stories as these tell of intense devotion, of a consecration that is indeed 'out and out.' They show that every Christian soldier is a Christian missionary, and that a Christian army would be the most powerful missionary society in the world.
In many cases Christian officers were instrumental in bringing numbers of the men to Christ: among these may be mentioned Captain Thompson, of the 4th Field Battery R.A., who held services three times a week throughout the voyage, and whose loving and earnest addresses had a powerful influence upon his hearers.
Tons of literature of all descriptions were put upon the troopships at the port of embarkation. Mr. Punter, the Wesleyan Scripture reader, himself distributed six tons at Southampton. One society seemed to vie with another in thus ministering to the wants of the men. The Soldier's Testament proved a boon to many, and as our lads return from the front, many of them show with pride their Testaments, safely brought back through many a fierce fight.
In the evenings, on many of the ships, large numbers met and sang hymns. A soldier never tires of singing, and his 'Sankey' is an unfailing friend. Many a lad had thus brought back to memory days of long ago, and gave himself to his mother's God.
But, after all, the great Christian events of the voyage were the parade services. If there were chaplains on board, they naturally conducted the services. If not, the officers in some cases performed that duty, and we read in one soldier's letter that on the Braemar Castle Prince Christian Victor conducted a service, perhaps a somewhat unusual occupation for a prince!
Parade Services on a Troopship.
But men in the ranks conducted parade services also. The commanding officer would send for some godly non-commissioned officer or private, and make him for the time being the 'padre' for the ship. Nor were these devoted Christians unduly exalted by the position in which they found themselves. It was no slight acknowledgment of worth that, all untrained, they found themselves for the time being Acting-Chaplains to Her Majesty's forces. Godly Methodists like Sergt.-Major Foote or Sergeant Oates, for instance, were not the men to be spoilt by such a position. Sergeant Oates tells how the men pointed him out as the 'Wesleyan Parson,' but he tells also that being provost-sergeant he had an empty cell under his charge and that there he used to go to be alone with God. From such communings he came out a strong man--strong to resist temptation and to win men for Christ. And as for Sergt.-Major Foote, he was simply bubbling over with Christian enthusiasm--enthusiasm that did not lead him astray because it was united with a well-balanced judgment.
The best pictures we get of such parade services at sea are however from the pens of our chaplains. The Rev. E.P. Lowry gives us a vivid picture of a Sunday at sea, which we venture to transcribe from the Methodist Times:--
'This day has really in large measure been given up to the feelings and exercises of devotion. There has been no physical drill and regimental "doubling" round the deck to the accompaniment, first of the bagpipes, and then of the fifes and drums; no medical inspection of the men's feet; no lectures to officers on first-aid to the wounded; no rifle practice at the Boers in the shape of bottles and boxes thrown overboard to be fired at by scores of eager marksmen, and speedily sent to the bottom.
'Early came an inspection of the ship's crew, stewards, and stokers, numbering about 180 in all, and including Africans and Lascars, of almost every imaginable hue, all dressed in their Sunday best. Then came the muster, at ten o'clock, of all our soldier lads, in red tunic and forage cap, for church parade. Nearly the whole 1,600 answered to their names, were divided into groups according to their various denominations, and marched to their various rendezvous for worship. The Presbyterians and Wesleyans numbered nearly 500, which would make a very full parade at Grosvenor Road Church. The place assigned to us was down below on what is called the first and second decks, where the men usually have their meals, and sleep in hammocks, or on the tables, forms and floor, as the case may be. All the tinware and other impedimenta had been carefully cleared away, and so the men at once filed in between the tables. A special form was provided for the two officers who attended, and another for Mr. Pearce, who acted as my precentor, and myself. The 200 ha'penny hymn-books sent in by the thoughtful kindness of the Rev. R.W. Allen rendered invaluable aid in the brightening of the service, for they made it possible for every man to join in the singing, which was touchingly hearty and tender. Only favourite hymns would be in place in an assembly so strangely mixed, so we began with "Jesu, Lover of my soul," followed by "What can wash away my sin?" "Just as I am," and "Oh, what a Saviour! that He died for me." Nearly half the men on board are Reservists, fresh from home and home-ties, though now 4,000 miles at sea, and to them the singing of such hymns would inevitably be wakeful of all hallowed memories, and more helpful than any sermon.
'Nevertheless, I ventured to speak to them solemnly, yet cheerily, of the mobilisation order that Joshua issued to the Hebrew host on the eve of battle, when he commanded them as the one supremely essential thing to sanctify themselves. The men were reminded that character tells, above all, on the field of battle, as Cromwell's troopers proved, and that since, of all work, war is the most appallingly responsible and perilous, every soldier is doubly called to be a saint. Such was "Stonewall" Jackson, America's most victorious general, and as in his case, so in theirs, grace would not rob them of grit, but increase their store. That grace they all might find in Christ.
'We also all seemed to feel it a consoling thing to bow in prayer on that rolling lower deck for Queen and country, for comrades already at the seat of war, and for "the old folk at home," so, in our humble measure making ourselves one with that innumerable host who thus seek "to bind the whole round earth by golden chains about the feet of God." Not a man seemed unmoved, and the memory of that first full and official parade will be helpful to me for many days to come.
'The Roman Catholics were also mustered; but as there was no priest on board, associated worship was for them quite impossible, and they were accordingly at once dismissed.
'In the absence of an Anglican chaplain, Surgeon-Colonel McGill, the principal medical officer, read prayers with the men of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The captains of the various regimental companies did the same for their Church of England men; while in the main saloon the ship's captain conducted worship with as many of the naval and military officers as found it convenient to attend. At the harmonium presided Bandsman Harrison, of the Northamptons, who for the last two years has helped ever so well at the Sunday afternoon services of sacred song in Aldershot.
'After church there was an excellent gathering in the guardroom for prayer and Bible reading, when we refreshed our hearts with the thought of the glories of the ascended Saviour who is indeed "The Almighty"; and although in this singular meeting-place we have never before ventured to indulge in song, to-day we could not refrain from an exultant voicing of the Doxology.
'At 6.30, just when loved ones at Aldershot were assembling for worship, our praying men met once more; this time on the upper deck, where there soon assembled a large and interested congregation, sitting on the bulwarks or lying about in every imaginable attitude on the deck. Close by there were half a dozen strong horses that had not felt their feet for over a fortnight; every now and then piercing bugle calls broke in upon us, and the restless feet of many a man hurrying to and fro; but none of these things moved us, and the service was vigorously maintained for nearly an hour and a half. Mr. Pearce, the Army Scripture Reader, gave out the hymns; I read a chapter and gave an address as brightly tender and practical as I could make it; sundry soldiers also spoke and prayed; and a manifestly gracious impression was produced on all present. The men are eager to listen when sanctified common-sense is talked, and are just as ready good-naturedly to note anything that in the slightest degree is odd. One of our godliest helpers has a powerful voice, but sometimes inserts a sort of sentimental tremolo into his singing, which makes it distinctly suggestive of the bleating of a sheep. I was sitting in my cabin close by when this preliminary singing was started, and was not left many moments in doubt as to its unmistakable sheepishness, or lamb-likeness, for almost immediately I heard some of the young rascals sitting round put in a subdued accompaniment of "Baa-a-a." Yet none the less the song moved on to its triumphant close. And thus, amid tears and harmless mirth, we are sowing on board this ship the seeds of eternal life, humbly trusting that the Lord of the harvest will not suffer our labour to be wholly in vain.'
Or take this as a later picture from a private letter sent home by the Rev. Frank Edwards, Acting-Chaplain to the Welsh Wesleyan troops. Mr. Edwards went out at his own charge to render spiritual help to his countrymen.
'This morning we had a splendid parade service. It was held on the upper deck. The captain had a large awning put up specially for the service. A stand was then erected by the chief officer, and a few of the men draped it with flags, and I had a large box covered with the Union Jack to serve me as a pulpit. Then the men were marched up and formed into three sides of a square, of which the preacher and my choir formed the fourth side. The centre of the square was occupied by the officers.
'It was the most memorable service of my life. We opened with the hymn,--
"Stand up, stand up for Jesus,"
and the strains of that hymn from hundreds of manly voices was carried far out upon the waters. Then we had the Liturgy, and the responses came clear and strong in true military style. The singing of the grand old Te Deum was most impressive. We sang an Easter hymn with great feeling and earnestness, and before the sermon,
"Jesu, Lover of my soul."
Oh! how those men joined in the singing. It seemed to become a prayer on every lip, and the fitting expression of the thought of every heart. Its meaning was clearer than it had ever been before.
"While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high."
Then came the sermon, which was no sermon at all. True, I took a text, Isa. lxiii. 1, and I had a sermon in my mind. But when I looked round at those men, and thought how we were all standing on the very brink of eternity, and how few, perhaps, would ever see the dawn of another Easter morn, I knew it was not the place for an elaborate sermon. The time was precious and my words must be few and straight. I had a good time. It was impossible to miss it. Looking round upon those men as they came pressing closer and closer, with their hungry souls shining forth through their eyes, as they listened to the old, old story of the Saviour's everlasting love, and of His mighty conquest over sin and death, why, it seemed to me that if I did not preach to them the very masts would cry out and proclaim the glad tidings. I forgot self, and time, and place, and remembered nothing but my hearers and my message. And although I had been warned not to keep them long, as they would never listen, such was the sympathy between us, and so great the fascination of the old story of Christ's love and power to save, that they listened spellbound to the end.
'Then came the last hymn "Rock of Ages," and, oh! how it rolled out, clear and strong and triumphant, vibrating through the ship and echoing over the waters, a fitting close to a helpful and impressive service.'
In such manner ended a typical Sunday upon a troopship. And only a typical Sunday, for on scores of troopships Sundays of a similar character were spent. Such sacred hours must have proved splendid preparation for the approaching campaign. And many a lad who had never thought upon the great things of eternity before came face to face with them then.
And so with marvellous celerity the English army was transferred to South Africa, and all eyes and hearts followed it. The pride of the castle and of the cottage was there; the heir to vast estates, and the support of his widowed mother's old age; the scape-grace of the family, and the one on whom all its hopes centred.
The Chaplains of the British Army.
And with them went the best that the Church could send. A noble band of chaplains has our British army. Men like the venerable Dr. Edgehill, the Chaplain-General--the soldier's preacher, par excellence. Men like the Rev. A.W.B. Watson, who nearly killed himself by his acts of self-sacrifice on behalf of the men in the Soudan campaign.
Distinguished clergymen, Presbyterian and Wesleyan ministers, Army Scripture readers, agents of the Soldiers' Christian Association--all wanted to go; and the difficulty was not to find the men, but to choose among so many.
And so men of war and men of peace, soldiers of the Queen and soldiers of the King of kings, found themselves together on the shores of South Africa, sharing each other's dangers, privations and fatigues, all of them loyal to their Queen, and each of them doing his work to the best of his ability.
And the prayers of Christian England were with them night and day. What wonder that through the army went a wave of Christian influence such as had never been felt before.
And then from the Colonies they came. Australia and Canada sent their choicest and their best. From the dusky sons of the British Empire in India came representatives also. South Africa itself had its own goodly tribute to offer. And with them all came Christian workers--chaplains from Australia and Canada; missionaries by the score in South Africa, ready to do everything in their power for the soldiers of the Queen.
And so it came to pass that the whole British Empire was represented on the South African veldt. And the prayers, not only of Christian Britain, but of the whole Empire, ascended to Heaven as the prayer of one man for our soldier lads across the sea. Never has the sentiment of Tennyson's beautiful poem been so translated into fact before, for in very deed the whole round world was every way
'Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.'The months that witnessed the welding of the British Empire into one great family witnessed also one great effort for her soldiers, and one glorious chain of prayer for their conversion. What wonder that hundreds, if not thousands, turned to God!