Today, November 11, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting during World War I. To honor the heroes of that horrid war, and to break the long silence on this site, I’m posting part of the backstory to We Never Stood Alone. The setting is Stokely Free Church in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, UK. Lloyd Robins is being considered as the new pastor for the church, and his friend Ned Powell is introducing him. (Note: this is truly a backstory, written several years before We Never Stood Alone. There are minor inconsistencies with the way the story is alluded to in the published book, and the story-telling itself is very plain.)
Good morning! I know most of you know me, but for our visitors, my name is Ned Powell and I’ve been asked to speak first at our congregational meeting because I’ve known the man we’re going to vote on, Lloyd Robins, longer than anybody in our village. I was there at the beginning: his beginning of faith and mine. As we consider calling him as our pastor, I’ve gotten his permission to tell you our story.
My family has owned the farm across the river for three generations. My great-great-great was granted it by Lord Blount. I was born there in 1895 and had pretty much an ideal farm boyhood. My parents were loving, and our home was happy and hard-working. But as far as the church went, we weren’t very involved.
I was nineteen when the War broke out, and like most young men, I felt it my duty to serve. I joined the Royal Berkshires and was assigned to the 4th battalion, which didn’t arrive in France until the spring of 1916, just in time for the Battle of the Somme. Our unit, like so many, was decimated. You don’t need the details. But I managed to survive and even got noticed, mostly for being in the right place at the right time. I was made a sergeant and soon transferred to the 14th Battalion, the 1st Birmingham Pals of the Warwickshire regiment. After its first two battles on the Somme, the Battalion had to rebuilt with men from the West Kent Regiment, as well as a scattering of others like me gathered from along the front.
And it was there I was assigned as platoon sergeant to a very green 2nd Leftenant named Lloyd Robins. He came straight out of regimental training in Portsmouth, but took his officers course at Lichfield. Prior to that he was a Cadet at Babgate School in Coventry, where his father was a teacher of mathematics and science.
Before I say more about Lloyd, you need to know my mental state at that time. Since the war there has been a gradual awareness of the stress of trench warfare. You cannot imagine, and I will not try to describe the horror of mud, cold, shelling, death, fatigue, fear and miserable boredom that wears you in the trench.
Men reacted differently to this. Some got fixed on the next shell, certain it would have their name on it. Some were paralyzed by fear, unable to even contemplate an order to advance. Others get reckless, standing up and daring the Germans to shoot. Some got so scared they slipped into the night and disappeared into France.
Those were the most severe cases, but it affected all of us. By the time I joined
the 14th, I was sick of the war, furious at the higher ups who kept sending us to be cut down like wheat, and angry at whatever God might allow such suffering. I had lost any faith I might have had in the blood-soaked shell holes of the Somme. My only consolation was in the bottle: I soaked up any kind of drink I could find.
“But as for Lloyd, he soon showed signs of being a good officer. Few were smart enough to rely on their experienced non-coms. Lloyd did. The fact that it was me he’d got to rely on was not his fault. He was also deeply concerned for the men in his platoon. He was almost arrogant in striving to keep every one of the men in the platoon safe and comfortable. It was almost an obsession.
We had a few days leave before we moved to the front near a town called Morval. This was Lloyd’s first experience on the line, and like everyone, it hit him hard. The trenches we used had been fought over for two years, and the stench of death and decay hung heavy. I had been at places where a dawn barrage was routine, but here they just lobbed in ten or a hundred shells at random to keep our heads down. So, on the second day Lloyd had his first casualty. Matt Jeffries, corporal of the second squad, was killed outright by a 77mm shell. Lloyd was nearby, and I found him standing on the trench wall, staring at the body, I pulled him down and told him he needed to keep his head if he was going to help others keep theirs.
“But I hardly knew him!”
“What does that matter, Leftenant? Knowing a man won’t keep him from being injured or killed. Nothing will, if it’s their time.”
“It’s not supposed to be this way!”
“How can it be any other way? It’s a war. People get killed. These men don’t expect you to keep them alive, just to keep your wits about you . . . And when it all goes to hell in a handbasket, just keep going.”
I could see by the way he shook his head, like a horse with flies, that he wasn’t listening. And in the following days he re-doubled his efforts to keep the men safe. We dug the line trenches deeper and scavenged from the saps to reinforce them. He made sure the meals were hot and on time, though the mess sergeants began to call him an old lady. He learned every name in the platoon and talked to all the men. He planned any task for maximum safety and minimum exposure.
Not that he was unwilling to follow orders. In fact he and I led a few boys into no-mans land two nights in a row, gathering information about the enemy. We went all the way across on the second patrol and located a machine gun nest.
That was preparation for our advance on Morval at the end of September, 1916, the last gasp of the Somme offensive. Leftenant Robins ordered me to lead the third section on a diagonal to flank the German machine gun. The other sections were led by corporals, including Tom Black, a Birmingham lad who had grown reckless from shell shock. We should have replaced him, but we had no one better.
Our artillery was to provide a creeping barrage we could follow across no-mans land. But the enemy seemed undaunted, and when we went forward they opened up with their 77’s, machine gun fire, and rifles. The men were on their bellies in the mud from the first, and it was slow work crossing the crater scarred space to the German lines.
Lloyd came across with my section, but the machine gun nest had been moved – and had Tom Black’s section pinned down. Lloyd waved me forward toward the trench and went that way with two privates. But they were too late. Black had gathered his eight remaining men in a huge shell hole and ordered them straight up toward the machine gun. As Lloyd watched helplessly, all eight crested the edge of the hole and fell back in a wave of fire. Lloyd and the privates scrambled in to find Tom and the whole squad dead, but for three badly wounded.
My squad reached the first trench and scrambled over to find that, here at least, our artillery had done its work. The walls were collapsed and the Germans killed or routed. We turned toward the machine gun nest, hoping to take the pressure off Lloyd. We still had a few Mills bombs, and managed to put the nest out of action.
Lloyd ordered us to consolidate our hold – barely fifty yards. To our right and left our boys had been driven off by the defenses. In front of us fire poured into the trench from regrouping Germans, and soon their artillery began to find us as well.
Fortunately our captain was able to assess our position and ordered us back to our lines. Lloyd went directly to the fatal shell hole and refused to leave until the medics had taken out the wounded men and we had carried off our dead. Then he came back across the line, the last to return, under heavy fire.
This skirmish hit Lloyd hard. He had thought he could keep these men safe, even on the offensive. Now his pride was broken. He was morose and pessimistic.
We occupied that sector only a few more days before being relieved. Soon after we were relocated to Givency, where we were attached to the 2nd Canadian division.
They were preparing an assault on Vimy Ridge, but that was far off, and we settled in to simply hold the line through the coldest part of winter. The hearty Canadians, continued trench raiding even in the deep cold, but the rest of us just tried to stay warm, dry and fed, though we rarely accomplished even one to our satisfaction.
Through this winter two things happened that have a direct bearing on us today, as we call Lloyd to be our pastor. First, he got more and more disheartened with the war, and with his own leadership. He would tell you, and probably will later, that he discovered in himself a broken core of pride. It had been pride that led Lloyd into the insane belief he could make the war retreat before him and somehow keep his men safe. Lloyd, I believe, was cut out to be a shepherd, but without Jesus that only led to despair. He could not through his own strength keep others safe or even warm. So he was a broken man that winter, at times angry, at times stone silent, occasionally drunk, though most of the time he refused my offers of that sedation.
The other thing that happened that winter is that we became friends with the Canadians. We alternated in the trenches with a Canadian platoon of their 2nd division. Their Leftenant, Pete Miller, was older, close to thirty, and had been a teacher in Toronto before the war. He joined the Canadian army as a private, but had risen to officer rank. He had been in every battle the Canadians had fought, but stayed more sane than most, and he was the one person Lloyd could really talk to.
Nonetheless it was a long, cold restless winter for Lloyd and for me. I had been on the line nearly a year, and was growing resigned to the truth that I would die there, that some bullet, some shell, some cloud of gas would have my name on it. My earlier visions of returning home to Stokely, of working the farm with my old dad, had disappeared. The only thing that kept me from seeking death was the fear that it might lead to something worse, a torment for my sins not worse in kind, because nothing could be more hell than what I’d seen, but worse in duration, without end.
It was during this time that Lloyd and I began to really be friends. We had an almost unspoken understanding that the other was close to the edge, and we each fought for the other, cajoling, encouraging, cheering, agreeing and commiserating at the same time. I didn’t want Lloyd to crater, and he didn’t want me to.
But it was the Canadians who saved us. Leftenant Miller was the informal leader of a group that called themselves ‘Fundamentalists.’ They were different from even very devout Anglicans. They seemed to really believe in God, in Jesus, in prayer. In fact they met to pray and study the Bible regularly. All this would have been just another form of trench fever, but these guys seemed to be the sanest among us.
Lloyd became good friends with Pete Miller, and as Lloyd’s sergeant I heard much of their talk. Pete could see that both Lloyd and I were walking in darkness and had no peace. He predicted we wouldn’t survive the next major offensive: ‘you haven’t the will for it, and he cares too much,’ he said to me. He told us our pride, drink, anger, hatred were just our own brands of sin, and for these, we were judged, with a sentence of death. But, he said, God had sent Jesus to be take the punishment of our sins. He died on the cross and defeated death in resurrection. Now, by faith in him we could be rescued; finding light in darkness and peace in turmoil. Nothing we could do would save us, and there was nothing we needed to do but believe. Lloyd and I listened to Pete’s talk, wished it could be true, but could not find faith.
Things came to a head in the spring. As early as January we had known we would go into the line for the spring offensive, and that the target would be Vimy Ridge, a strongpoint that had been held by the enemy since 1914. This was the most carefully prepared offensive I had ever seen. The Canadians had learned from the Somme and Verdun and were teaching movement and cover and perfect artillery support to their whole army, four Canadian divisions that would make this assault.
Finally the date was set: April 8, 1917, Easter Sunday. The Canadians decided to celebrate Easter on Good Friday and they invited a chaplain to the front to conduct services. They also invited Lloyd and I and several others to worship with them.
We were wound tight as a drum. I had gotten hold of some beer a few days before and was still recovering from that attempt to forget what was coming. Lloyd was alternating between frantic preparation and despairing contemplation of who would die. Into this darkness the padre brought a text I had only heard at Christmas: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. He told us that Jesus was that light and that he went into the darkness on Good Friday to bring light to men. Then he quoted verse 5: For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. The reign of Jesus, yet to come, he said, would be the end of war, hatred, sin and misery.
But, he told us, light and peace could already be ours in Jesus: Isaiah 9:6-7 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
God, he said, offered us peace and light in place of turmoil and darkness through his son, the Prince of Peace whose kingdom of peace could reign in our hearts even while we were going through the hell of this war. That, he said, was what we were seeing in Pete Miller and the others. That he said was what we could have if we would give up on ourselves and place our trust, faith and dependence on Jesus.
And that is what Lloyd did and what I did that Good Friday, moments before we queued up to occupy our assault trenches. The Padre asked anyone who wanted special prayer to see him. I went, and he helped me to pray my first believer’s prayer. Pete Miller did the same with Lloyd, and as we lifted our heads from those prayers God allowed us to see the light and peace in each other’s eyes.
Easter came, but the battle was delayed by a day. The believers met briefly in our assault trenches to sing a hymn. The men around us were whispering for us to shut up, we’d give away the whole offensive. But I had to believe that singing on Easter Sunday was a good way of telling the Germans we weren’t up to anything.
The next day, April 9th we went over the top. Despite superb preparation and nearly perfect artillery, the day was war and war is hell. But the assault was a success, and the fog of war was perhaps a little less dense than usual, as we in the 14th leap-frogged over the advance our friends and briefly had the Germans on the run. But it was not without cost. The platoon lost six good men, one of whom we’d been praying with just the day before. But those horrible truths were no longer able to break Lloyd or to drive me to desperation, because we had found light in darkness and peace in turmoil. We had found Jesus, and in the months to come we learned to walk with Jesus. Lloyd dove into the Bible and prayer like a Canadian, and by the grace of God we came out of the war more whole than we had entered it.