The Cross and Flag: World War I Experiences – By George Ridout

Chapter 14

Fletcher Benson

Fletcher Benson was a good fellow, well built physically, strong in mind, had a tender heart and was whole-souled. He knew God in a sound conversion when quite a lad, and afterwards experienced a clean heart at Zion Hill camp grounds.

When war broke out he was studying for the ministry in college, but when the call for soldiers came he did not shirk his duty to his flag and country, but went and enrolled himself under the banner of Uncle Sam. He fully knew what it would mean to get in the army — going away from home and religious surroundings, and getting into an atmosphere where there would be great temptations, many hardships, much to endure on all hands and of all sorts, but he was convinced that there was grace sufficient for every need. After awhile training in a home camp he was shipped to France, and it was not long before he found himself as an infantryman in active service on the front line.

At the Battle of the Marne he passed through his first great fiery ordeal the night of that dreadful bombardment he was down in the trenches and when just past midnight the Germans began to pour that rain of shell over on the American forces he was exposed to the fire without a thing to shelter him ,but the walls of a hastily built trench. To him it was a terrible experience, but through it all he prayed to God in silent yet fervent prayer that he might pass safely through the awful night and see the morning break. Many that night about him were wounded by the flying shrapnel, and some were killed, but when morning came he was found without a scratch, yet his sympathies went out to the wounded in adjoining trenches and he willingly offered himself as stretcher-bearer to help take the wounded down the hill to the first aid station in the old Chateau. Many a comrade did he aid that day in getting to the dressing station, and he did all he could to get water for the thirsty, and in every way help the helpless and the suffering.

When the counter attack at the Battle of the Marne took place the next Tuesday night, his company had an exposed bit of the line to hold, but they held it through terrible odds, and Fletcher himself knew from real experience what it meant to engage in real soldiering, but through it all he was sustained by the conviction, in some peculiar way, the battle was the Lord’s and it was his duty to be a real soldier — to be brave and courageous and do his full duty.

I met Fletcher about three weeks after the Battle of the Marne. I remember the meeting up there in that shack where he was put up. It was Sunday morning when I happened in on him. He was reading his Bible and he had a little army hymn book opened before him. He said to me, “Just before you came along I was singing one of those hymns that seemed just to suit my experience. If you don’t mind I will sing you a verse of it.” And he began to sing:

“O Jesus, I have promised
To serve Thee to the end;
Be Thou forever near me,
My Master and my Friend!
I shall not fear the battle
If Thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway
If Thou wilt be my Guide.”
After singing the verse he said: “You remember the Battle of the Marne, Sunday night of July 14th. Well, all through that terrific barrage this hymn was singing through my soul and especially those words:

“I shall not fear the battle,
If Thou art by my side.”
I felt in a strange, peculiar way that there was One standing at my side and when the shells were bursting all about me I felt that He was shielding me from the shrapnel and comforting me so that all terror left me and I was not afraid.

I said to him, “Sing on, let me hear the rest of the hymn.” And he sang:

“O let me feel Thee near me!
The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle,
The tempting sounds I hear;
“My foes are ever near me,
Around me and within;
But, Jesus, draw Thou nearer,
And shield my soul from sin.
“O let me hear Thee speaking
In accents clear and still,
Above the storm’s of passion,
The murmurs of self-will!
“O speak to re-assure me,
To hasten or control!
O speak, and make me listen,
Thou Guardian of my soul!”
I must confess that this was a means of grace to my soul, to meet such a young fellow, far, far away from home, the product of one of our most spiritual colleges, the fruits of a revival meeting in a little Methodist Church down in a small town, and a by-product of Zion Hill camp meeting — to meet him here in France and in the war zone, and a soldier in Uncle Sam’s army, and to find that through all the temptations and tests that had beset him he had kept unflinchingly true to God. It was encouraging and inspiring and I went out from his shack to my morning service to preach more vitally the saving and keeping power of the mighty Christ.

My next meeting with Fletcher Benson was over in the Saint Mihiel sector. Our division was ordered to relieve the attacking division. We got over in a country that was virtually plowed up by our own artillery preparatory to the attack upon the German strongholds. I had witnessed a great deal of the effects of German artillery but here I had the opportunity of seeing what our guns had done to the enemy country. Some of our large shells had made holes big enough and deep enough to suffice for the cellar of an ordinary sized house; great gaps and chasms had been made in the earth big enough to bury a family of elephants, and the German dugouts were played havoc with — dugouts which had endured for four years, and where the Huns had kept fairly comfortable had caved in under the American fire as though they were paper boxes. We had to put up a couple of nights in those woods. The first night the Germans threw a lot of shells over on us-they knew where we were — and some of their fire struck us bad. Two of our boys were killed during the night, several were wounded, and in the morning a soldier pointed out to me where a piece of shrapnel had struck the trunk of a tree right next to the pup tent where I slept, and he said: “It is a good thing for you that that trunk got that bit of iron; if it had hit your tent, good-bye.”

Well, such are the mercies attendant upon us in the battlefields! The next day, knowing we would have to spend another night in that woods I went looking for a dugout, and in my search I was delighted to come across my friend Fletcher Benson again. It was a happy meeting. We went together in search of a dugout, and at length was directed by my good friend, Major Mac, to a dugout close to his. We settled on it for the night. Now I must confess that those German dugouts always felt hideous to me, there was something uncanny about them though they were invariably built strong and substantial and comfortable. This one especially gave me strange feelings, but when night came on, and Benson came, we got in, lighted our candles and sat down to talk things over.

Since our first meeting Fletcher told me he had passed through some strange experiences. One thing he was glad to tell me was, that he had been promoted from Corporal to Sergeant, and that his company commander had shown him many favors. He said one day his Captain said to him, “Benson, I see you don’t smoke, chew or swear.” “‘No, sir, I don’t do either. At home I was taught to avoid tobacco; at college it was prohibited, and as to swearing, I don’t think any man can fear God and swear at the same time.”

“Well, Benson,” said the Captain, “You keep on. I myself am a preacher’s son. My father taught me along the same line. I got away from his teachings some since getting in the army, but I hope to get back to them again some day.”

Benson was known by some of the men as “Happy” Benson. He was never seen out of temper, nor indulging in anything coarse or doubtful. One day one of his comrades said, “Well, I should like to know what keeps Benson so happy in such miserable surroundings as we have to put up with.”

“If you would like to know,” replied Benson, “I will tell you. This is what makes me happy. I try to keep the fear of the Lord ever before me. I am in France in the line of duty. I have a little book — my New Testament — which I read every day and I say my prayers regularly.”

“Oh, there you go again Benson, with your religious business.”

“Well,” spoke up another comrade, “I think it is a good thing that in this man’s army we have a few fellows like Benson, who have the courage to be religious; he helps make up for a lot of us who have not that kind of stuff.”

Well, as we sat there in the dugout, Benson was telling me these little incidents, and then before we laid down on our German-made wire cots, I asked Benson to read something from his little Testament, and he read Ephesians, 1st chapter, and after he had finished he said: “I want to read from another little book which I have carried with me all through the war,” and he pulled out from his pocket, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” by Brother Lawrence. He said, “Let me read a couple of citations from this little book which has been a blessing to me often. Listen.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and more delightful than that of a continual walk with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

And again: “To be with God, there is no need to be continually in church. Of our heart we may make an oratory wherein to retire from time to time and with Him hold meek, humble, loving converse. Everyone can converse closely with God, some more, others less. He knows we can. Let us begin then, perhaps He is just waiting for one generous resolution on our part; let us be brave.

In that old German dugout we knelt in prayer and we felt that God was as close to us there as on Zion Hill camp ground, or in the most sacred spot at home. We laid down to sleep, blew out our candles, and sang as our good-night lullaby, Lyte’s famous hymn:

“Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.”
After we had spent that night together in the German dugout in the Argonne, we had to make an early start for our next objective. Breakfast was eaten when it was barely light, and at six o’clock we were on the move. Fletcher was attached to Company G, of the Second Battalion, and my understanding was that the first and second battalions were to move immediately in on the line of attack while the third remained in reserve. I moved on with the Second Battalion Medical Corps, and we put up our first-aid station as far up toward the front as we could go with safety.

It was not long before our wounded began to arrive, and one day we had to work continuously for about twenty-two hours. Same of our boys were terribly wounded, some hopelessly, but the surgeon gave them the best of treatment and hurried them on to the hospital as fast as the ambulances could take them, but, alas, the roads became congested. Everything was trying to get to the front where the fighting was going on — artillery, ammunition, rations, engineers, signal corps, etc., and between them all a jam occurred on the road, and for about ten miles for almost a whole day scarcely a wheel moved. Of course, one of the things which superinduced this condition was the dastardly trick the Germans played on us by mining the roads; and at one point where the mine went off one of the biggest of our army trucks tumbled over and it took the engineers nearly ten hours to clear things up and build a bridge over the chasm made by the Hun mine.

About two o’clock in the afternoon of the Second day a captain was brought in on a stretcher severely wounded. He had been shot in both legs, also in the shoulder. He was in a desperate condition, but what added to his grief was the fact that four men had been killed in their effort to bring him in. They were bearing him along on the stretcher, when the German snipers picked them off one by one. Four other fellows volunteered to take the Captain out, and one of them was Fletcher Benson. These last four succeeded in getting their Captain out of danger and bringing him safely to the first-aid station.

Night was coming on, and the stretcher-bearers concluded they would wait for morning before returning to the lines, and this gave me another chance to fellowship with Benson, and that night by our fire where we kept our chocolate and coffee hot for dispensing to the wounded and to hungry and thirsty soldiers we talked of many things.

“Well,” I said, “Benson, what do you think of war by this time?”

“Oh,” he said, “war is awful. I hope this will be the last war this old sin-cursed world will ever see. When I get home one thing I shall never do. I shall never glorify war. Now think of what I had to go through and see yesterday. When we got on the lines we were up against a nest of German machine guns — one-pounders and snipers. I saw one of our Lieutenants shot in the head and fall dead instantly. Ten of my own platoon went down one after the other, and our company got so shot to pieces that I believe there are not more than sixty or seventy left out of 250. On our way out with the Captain the Germans were shelling everything in sight. One shell fell about fifty feet away from us and killed four of our boys and wounded eight others, and a fellow riding a horse was shot to pieces and his horse torn in two. I have seen enough the past two days to make war appear to me the most horrible monster the devil ever invented. But the marvel is that I am alive. Bullets were flying all around me and shells burst close to me and yet through it all God has mercifully spared my life and I am alive to praise Him. These days I often think of those words in the 91st Psalm, “A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee,” and then I think of that hymn we used to sing at Zion’s Hill camp meeting, “God will take care of you.”

I said, “It is several days now since I have had a sing, and I pulled out my little song book and together, Benson and I sang the first verse.

“Be not dismayed whate’er betide,
God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide,
God will take care of you.”
The singing attracted many who were standing around, and we had quite a congregation as we sang the second verse.

“Through days of toil when heart doth fail,
God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail,
God will take care of you.”
Then others joined us in the chorus, and we sang on until we sang the hymn through. I said, “When we have been having some close calls the past few days, many of our comrades have gone, not to come back, we have been spared, I propose before we separate to go to our dugout, that we have a bit of prayer. And I am going to call on Sergeant Benson to lead us in prayer.” All heads were bared and as I recall it now, Benson prayed something like the following:

“Heavenly Father, we give Thee thanks that our lives have been spared during the awful fighting of those two days past. We have seen many comrades go down in battle, many others wounded and carried off to the hospital. We thank Thee for Thy loving care over us. We have not been worthy of Thy goodness, oh, God, but Thou hast been merciful. Bless my comrades here, oh God, forgive us all our sins, and don’t let any of us go down to death without saving our souls. Protect us this night from the shells and from gas. Grant that soon the war might be over and peace shall come on the earth again. Bless our dear loved ones in America, protect them, and grant we may all meet again. For Christ’s sake. Amen.”

The next morning the glad news reached us that the Armistice had been signed and that tomorrow at 11 o’clock all hostilities were to cease.

Fletcher Benson went back to the lines and I saw no more of him till two weeks after the war finished up. I was preaching in the YMCA hut out from the front lines and he found it out and came over. I was anxious to know what he intended to do when he got back home again, and I was glad to hear him say that he meant to go back to school to prepare for the ministry. He said, “The war has taught me many things. I have had all kinds of experience but through it all God has kept me clean. There are a great many problems coming up before the country with our returning soldiers, and I feel as though I might be able to contribute a little to the church and the ministry from the many experiences I have had in France. I know one thing, I feel more deeply settled in God and the old gospel than ever before in my life and I want to live to preach a free and full salvation and to testify to the wonderful grace of a mighty Savior.”

And now, dear reader, I have set forth this sketch purposely to show that thousands of splendid youths have been in Uncle Sam’s army in France and have been kept true in the midst of all the tests to faith and manhood. They have lived the praying life, they have kept the faith and will be returning home the brighter and stronger for the many things they have passed through. And don’t forget this also, that with the return of the soldier boys there will come a splendid opportunity to win them to Christ. Many of them will be hungry for church, and the old-time home preaching again — they did not get much of that here in France. Let our returning soldiers have the warmest kind of welcome, but don’t neglect the opportunity of winning them for Christ and the Church.