As the British Army reached a peak of four million men, an estimated 12,000 Norfolk men died in the conflict, 6,000 from the Norfolk Regiment
alone. In some cases, the treasured pocket Testaments
were returned to grieving families back at home. The troops often used these Testaments as tiny albums to hold pictures of loved ones. Some soldiers scribbled messages - even their "last will and testaments" - on spare pages.
Inside the cover of the Testaments, designed to fit into the top pocket of uniforms, was a replica handwritten message to the troops by Field Marshal Lord Roberts
, saying: "I ask you to put your faith in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you.
"You will find in this little Book: guidance when you are in health; comfort, when you are in sickness; and strength when you are in adversity."
It has often been said of trench warfare that "there are no atheists in foxholes," and there are many reports of men coming to faith amid the conflict, while others may have carried the pocket Testaments as a type of good luck charm.
However, the Testaments also had a page for a "decision form" where soldiers could, and did, record their personal faith in Christ, based on the Bible promise that "as many as received Jesus, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them who believe on His name." (John 1:12).
Millions of Testaments and gospel booklets were distributed by churches, chaplains, mission and social agencies and even local businesses during the Great War. Scripture Gift Mission
(SGM) alone distributed an incredible 43 million items of Scripture, including New Testaments and Gospels for British troops.
Thousands of chaplains were recruited to serve alongside the 5.4 million men from the UK and seven Empire territories who fought in France
(the Western Front); 956,703 men were killed in action.
From the start of the conflict, the SGM was inundated with orders for Scripture booklets on a scale unseen in the (then) 28 years of the mission or the 138 years of the Naval and Military Bible Society.
Now, to help people reflect on this wartime landmark, SGM (now re-named SGM Lifewords)
has developed a replica edition of the Active Service John's Gospel
, for use in schools, memorial services and civic events. It contains first-hand stories and newly-commissioned artwork, but looks and feels just like the original Gospels that were distributed to soldiers a century ago.
During his military career, Lord Roberts, a committed Christian and a leader much admired by his troops, wrote a remarkable prayer that was issued by Neville Chamberlain
to commanding officers to be read out to men in the Services.
The prayer, written in the name of Jesus Christ "who loved us, and laid down His life for us", began with the words: "Almighty Father, I have often sinned against Thee. O wash me in the precious blood of the Lamb of God. Fill me with Thy Holy Spirit, that I may lead a new life. Spare me to see again those whom I love at home, or fit me for Thy presence in peace.'
In October, 1914, the Pocket Testament League
gave out 400,000 New Testaments to soldiers on Salisbury Plain. The League was founded by Helen Cadbury
from the famous chocolate company. Helen became a believer in Jesus Christ at the age of 12, and later encouraged her Christian friends to distribute pocket gospels. In time, the League gave away 110 million gospels worldwide.
Today, most of the 700 parish churches of Norfolk still have a memorial to those who died in the First World War.
World class composer Patrick Hawes
has been commissioned to write a major new work for adult and children's choirs, solo soprano and chamber orchestra. This piece will receive its world premiere at Norwich Cathedral
on July 12.
The music celebrates the courage and faith of nurse Edith Cavell,
who was executed for treason after helping Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium
to the neutral Netherlands.
It will be performed by the English Chamber Orchestra,
soprano Elin Manahan Thomas,
the Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society
, and students from international Britten Music Course.
You can obtain copies of the SGM Gospel from www.sgmlifewords.com
Pictured above, the new replica of the Active Service John's Gospel issued in the Great War and a soldier reading in the trenches. Picture by John Warwick Brooke/IWM.