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

Chapter 15


When I left home Christmas day, 1917, I thought I was going on a two years’ service. The great German offensive and success of March, 1918, indicated that the war was not going to end that year. Things looked black in the spring.

Time fled fast. The weeks and months have gone by rather fast because the year was one of ceaseless activities and a goodly portion of it spent on battle fronts. Often have I longed for home and loved ones and have had that which the Germans call “Heimweh” which translated means “ache for home.”

Often on the long hikes with the army in the dark, rainy nights, have I longed for the lights and comforts of home. When our sleep would have to be on the wet ground or in murky dugouts or trenches, and our “eats” would be coffee without any “fixings,” and dry bread, sometimes “hard tack;” when for days no kitchens could accompany us because of shell fire and we had to subsist on reserve rations, I would cast longing eyes towards the homeland and the cozy kitchen and dining-room and the well-prepared meals, and the family circle.

But we all felt it was war! From the Colonel of the Regiment down to the humble private they all took their share of the hardships without grumbling. But oh, the joy, the unspeakable joy that comes to us these days, when we think of it — the war is over. We say it to one another. It seems almost like a dream — almost too good to be true.

I remember we were on the Argonne front when the first gleams of peace began to break upon the dismal horizon, and day by day all kinds of reports came across. We heard of Bulgaria’s surrender, and then of Turkey. We knew if Austria gave up it would be good-bye to Germany. I was so sure of it that my over sanguine nature gave way, and with Austria’s surrender I predicted Germany coming across and the cessation of hostilities in forty-eight hours. I had to revise that and, to be on the safe side, I put it that the war would be over by Thanksgiving. Well, I was on the sure side this time, and hostilities ceased Nov. 11 at 11 o’clock. That eleventh hour was hailed with feverish expectancy by our troops. Sad is it not that in the very last hour of the war one of our preachers met his death by an unfortunate shell!

By a strange range of circumstances Sunday, Nov. 10, found me in Paris, preaching in the morning at an Aviation Encampment, and my evening appointment brought me to Versailles where I preached. This visit to Versailles was very interesting to me of course because the Allied Supreme Council was then meeting there to determine the question of Armistice, etc.

On Sunday afternoon I took a walk through the Palace Gardens, made famous by the brilliant King Louis XIV, and his dazzling Court. Voltaire estimated that Versailles cost Louis XIV $100,000,000, Mirabeau said it cost $240,000,000, Volney put the figure at $280,000,000. You can take your choice or believe the more popular tale that the Great Monarch was himself frightened when he saw the bills and tore them up, so that no one would ever know what it cost. Twenty thousand workmen and 6,000 horses were put to work creating the great park and building the chateau where the delegates of democracy are to assemble. The task took a long time. In 1685 a courtier wrote in his diary: “There are more than 36,000 peasants now at work for the King in or about Versailles. These half-clad and half-starved wretches die by the dozens under the strain of the cruel tasks imposed upon them. And when one of these workmen died in the King’s service his family received $2.50.

The Hall of Mirrors, where the Peace Conference held its sessions, is 242 feet long and 33 feet wide and measures 43 feet from floor to ceiling. On one side of it seventeen large mirrors look out upon the stilted artificial gardens which were designed by Lenotre under the personal supervision of Louis XIV. On the other side of the gallery seventeen large mirrors reflect the splendors of the stately room. Paintings representing scenes in the life of Louis the Magnificent ornament the ceiling, sides and every available vacancy not filled by a mirror.

As I walked through its parks with the trees dressed in their autumn glory, the sight was indeed entrancing, yet the fading leaves spoke to me of the fading qualities of human glory. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth,” so do kings and empires! Think if you will, of nations and thrones that have faded out. Egypt gone, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia, Rome and Greece and now we see the fading away of Austria as an empire, and Germany too. Thrones have tottered, crown’s have gone to the scrap-heap, kings and queens into exile, and Europe is like an old house that has got to be torn down to its very foundations to make room for something new and different.

But oh, the joy of peace! I was in a great city where are the headquarters of the A. E. F., when hostilities ceased, and at once the city yeas decorated with the tri-color of France, the Union Sack of Old England, and the Star Spangled Banner of USA. French people were wild with joy and as the band played the people exulted so as to get beyond themselves.

And now the war is over what of conditions religiously. A friend writing me from New Jersey thinks that the churches need to be aroused to meet “conditions that will be upon us after the war is over. Our soldier boys should be met by the church, not simply by giving out flowers and refreshments, but by offering a Christ who satisfies.” “I do not know,” writes my friend, “what will be the conditions of the soldier boys’ conscience when they return, but I do know what should be the attitude of the church in receiving them …. After the war is won for democracy shall it produce pride and self-conceit?” Well, as I see it when the boys come marching home the church should meet them with a vital gospel because, to be perfectly frank, they have not had much of that in France. My own conviction is that the only thing that will meet the case will be the old gospel and the full gospel.

I have heard men talk about the war giving us a new theology, a new gospel, a new vision of God, a new pulpit. I have heard them say that after the war men will no longer stand for the kind of gospel that the preachers have preached for so long a time. When you first hear that, you may be carried away with the novelty of it for the present and you might find yourself yielding a kind of assent to it, but let me advise you to go slow in changing your point of view or trading away your old faith for the new.

Bear in mind that the Christian faith is not a bit of machinery that is subject to so many improvements that a thing a couple or three years old is thrown on the dump heap as useless since the newest thing has come out. Bear in mind that the Christian faith is the best thing that has ever been found to bless the human soul — to heal its wounds, to wash away its guilt, assuage its sorrows, cleanse its defilement, illuminate its darkness and bring it back to its God, its Saviour, its Refuge, its Home, its Heaven.

Now the war is over, the paramount question is, “When are we going home?” Before the Armistice the question was, “When will the war be over?” I have had to answer those questions times without number, as best I could. The other night in the YMCA hut I got myself in quite a fix with a big audience of New York troops who are longing to see the Statue of Liberty again as soon as possible. I told them that at the close of the program I would try and tell them when they would be going home. I afterward saw that I had involved myself into quite a task. At the end of the program it came on me like a sort of inspiration, “Valentine’s Day,” so I told them they might expect to be home by Valentine’s Day, 1919. I hardly think I was far astray. The troops long for home now that the war is over.

Talk all you might about “LaBelle, France,” to them, it has no attraction for the bulk of them-they are longing for “home, sweet home,” longing for mother’s touch, and sister’s love, and wife’s embrace, and children’s kisses, and the old homestead or farm; and the little church by the cross roads, and the school-house where they attend the country Sunday school, and the boys from the city long for Broadway and State Street, and the park and the city crowds. One boy in the hospital got so homesick that he could not eat, and there seemed but little prospect of his getting better, till one day one of the good nurses thought of something, and she made a pie like “mother used to make,” and brought it to the sick boy. It aroused his appetite, he ate it with great relish, and soon he was on the mend, and will see mother and the old home again. The coming back of the boys from France will mean a great homecoming.

Many of the boys will come home out of “great tribulation.” They have been in the trenches and dugouts, and out at the battle front where they have fought the enemy and seen war in all its hideous realities. Some of them will never get over the shock of war. One boy, in the insane hospital, was talking to the Chaplain. He looked all right, and, for while, talked all right, then he said “Chaplain, I am not crazy, I am all right. I tell you, Chaplain, how it was; me and my Chum were marching along when a shell came across and just cut my buddy’s head clean off. I went over where he lay and picked up his head and put it on again and said, ‘Buddy, come along now with me,’ and I tell you, Sir, he wouldn’t come along.”

The shock, the sight, the horror of the thing was too great for that poor soldier boy; his brain turned, and it is a grave question as to whether he ever will get his mind back again. Yet, there is a possibility because he is young.

Last Sunday I was preaching at an encampment, when the YMCA Secretary said to me: “Could you stay over and conduct a funeral service?” I said I would. The circumstances led me to change my subject and to preach to the soldiers a sermon on heaven. Would the readers like to know what the sermon was like? Well, I think I will put down some notes of the message. The text was Rev. 21:2: “And I, John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” I said in part, “We are indebted to John, for the fullest description of heaven we have in the Bible. Jesus told us about the many mansions in John 14, but here in this chapter we have heaven described to us as a city. Now what is there about a city that distinguishes it from all other places?

1. A city is a place of mansions and homes. People crowd in the cities and make them their homes. Heaven is a home city. It has many mansions.

2. A city is a place of many people. So is heaven. John saw multitudes there which no man could number, and they were of all tongues and races and nations and families.

3. A city is a place where there is much beauty and music. Some cities are renowned for their beauty, like Paris, or Venice, or Los Angeles. They have beautiful avenues, parks, statuary, pictures, etc., and in the city there is much music. So with heaven; beauty is there — there the trees of Paradise grow, and the trees of life beside the River of Life. I expect there are flowers there-the lily and rose, and daisy and daffodil, and as for music, there will be abundance there. John, in Rev. 14: “I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps and they sung as it were a new song before the throne.” John heard the angelic choir singing around the throne: “The number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands,” and the song they sang was:

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,
To receive power and riches,
And wisdom and strength and
Honor and glory and blessing.
Blessing and honor and glory,
And power be unto Him
That sitteth upon the throne,
And unto the Lamb,
For ever and ever.”
Music hath charms, and in heaven we shall be charmed with its music. David will then play on his golden harp, and the sweet singers of Israel will chant God’s praise whilst the redeemed from all the earth shall shout aloud redemption’s song.

Today the land is being filled with music, because the war is over. Our Regiments carry with them their bands, and when the bands play the soldier’s heart beats fast with a new joy. Music has often inspired the troops when weary with the march, and we are told of one Scottish musician who, during the battle, played his bagpipes to encourage his fighting comrades, while the shot and shell fell thick and fast. He played on and on while they fought, until he himself got a fatal shot and death silenced him.

4. Heaven is the home of the soul. Home never felt sweeter to us than now. We dream about it and the loved one there. We are all longing for the time when the ship hauls into the pier and we get on board and then say good-bye to France, and face the western sky and our homes. So after life’s battles are fought we want to make heaven at last and go to the home of the soul.

5. We must remember next what it means to get to heaven. We must be a candidate for it and run for it. We must let the world know that we are heaven-bound. We must be sure to have things so arranged that we shall not be disappointed. If I desire to go to Paris I must get my ticket and get on the train that goes that way. So we must take care that we are headed right for heaven if we want to make that city our heavenly home. Then we must remember the mark to be borne by those who come up to heaven’s gate. John indicates, in Revelation, when the question was asked about the great company, “Who are these arrayed in white and whence came they?” The reply was, “These are they that have come up out of great tribulation and washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note two things here, “They have come up out of great tribulation.” Many of our soldier boys are going back home out of great tribulation. They are going to bear wound marks and they are privileged to wear “wound stripes.” I remember the doctor who got wounded when the Huns shelled us at our dressing station at St. Giles. He went to the hospital, got well again, but when he returned he was wearing a wound stripe on his arm. Those wound stripes are honorable — they testify that the bearer was in battle or in the war zone where dangers abounded, he endangered his life for his country’s sake and gave up all. So with regard to heaven. When we get there we shall bear the marks of battle, and remember we have an enemy to fight more dreadful and powerful than the Hun — that enemy is the world, the flesh and the devil.

In our conflicts with this triple foe we shall suffer bruises and wounds, but may come off more than conqueror through Him who hath loved us. Then we must bear the blood mark. When we get to heaven’s gate we shall not get through because we are Protestant, Catholic, or Jew — we shall not get through because we have fought on the battlefields of France; the rich man shall not get through because of his money, nor the learned man because of his culture, nor the great man because of his renown — there is just one condition, “we must be washed in the blood of the Lamb.”