The Cross at Neuve Chapelle
“When we think of the great struggle, the vision of the cross rises before us; and when we see the cross, we think of the processions of wounded men who have been broken to save the world.”
The war on the Western Front has been fought in a Roman Catholic country, where crucifixes are erected at all the chief cross-roads to remind us that, in every moment of doubt as to the way of life, and on whichever road we finally decide to walk, whether rough or smooth, we shall need the Saviour and his redeeming love. We have seen a cross so often when on the march, or when passing down some trench, that it has become inextricably mixed up with the war. When we think of the great struggle, the vision of the cross rises before us; and when we see the cross, we think of the processions of wounded men who have been broken to save the world. Whenever we have laid a martyred soldier to rest, we have placed over him, as the comment on his death, a simple white cross which bears his name. We never paint any tribute on it. None is needed, for nothing else could speak so eloquently as a cross—a white cross. White is the sacred color in the army of to-day, and the cross is the sacred form. In after years there will never be any doubt as to where the line of liberty ran that held back the flood and force of German tyranny. From the English Channel to Switzerland it is marked for all time by the crosses on the graves of the British and French soldiers. Whatever may be our views about the erection of crucifixes by the wayside and at the cross-roads, no one can deny that they have had an immense influence for good on our men during the war in France.
The experience of many a gallant soldier is expressed in the following Belgian poem: —
I came to a halt at the bend of the road;
I reached for my ration, and loosened my load;
I came to a halt at the bend of the road.
O weary the way, Lord, forsaken of Thee,
My spirit is faint—lone, comfortless me;
O weary the way, Lord, forsaken of Thee.
And the Lord answered, Son, be thy heart lifted up;
I drank, as thou drunkest, of agony’s cup;
And the Lord answered, Son, be thy heart lifted up.
For thee that I loved, I went down to the grave,
Pay thou the like forfeit thy Country to save;
For thee that I loved, I went down to the grave.
Then I cried, ‘I am Thine, Lord; yea, unto this last.’
And I strapped on my knapsack, and onward I passed.
Then I cried, ‘I am Thine, Lord; yea, unto this last.’
Fulfilled is the sacrifice. Lord, is it well?
Be it said—for the dear sake of country he fell.
Fulfilled is the sacrifice. Lord, is it well?
The Cross has interpreted life to the soldier, and has provided him with the only acceptable philosophy of the war. It has taught boys just entering upon life’s experience that, out-topping all history and standing out against the background of all human life, is a Cross on which died the Son of God. It has made the hill of Calvary stand out above all other hills in history. Hannibal, Cæsar, Napoleon—these may stand at the foot of the hill, as did the Roman soldiers, but they are made to look mean and insignificant as the Cross rises above them, showing forth the figure of the Son of Man.
Against the sky-line of human history the Cross stands clearly, and all else is in shadow. The wayside crosses at the front and the flashes of roaring guns may not have taught our soldiers much history, but they have taught them the central fact of history; and all else will have to accommodate itself to that, or be disbelieved. The Cross of Christ is the centre of the picture for evermore, and the grouping of all other figures must be about it.
To the soldiers it can never again be made a detail in some other picture. Seen also in the light of their personal experience, it has taught them that, as a cross lies at the basis of the world’s life and shows bare at every crisis of national and international life, so at the root of all individual life is a cross. They have been taught to look for it at every parting of the ways. Suffering to redeem others and make others happy will now be seen as the true aim of life, and not the grasping of personal pleasure or profit. They have stood where high explosive shells thresh out the corn from the chaff—the true from the false. They have seen facts in a light that expose things starks and bare; and the cant talked by skeptical armchair philosophers will move them as little as the chittering of sparrows on the housetops.
For three, long years our front-line trenches have run through what was once a village called Neuve Chapelle. There is nothing left of it now. But there is something there which is tremendously impressive. It is a crucifix. It stands out above everything, for the land is quite flat around it. The cross is immediately behind our firing-trench, and within two or three hundred yards of the German front trench. The figure of Christ is looking across the waste of No-Man’s Land. Under his right arm and under his left are British soldiers holding the line. Two ‘dud’ shells lie at the foot; one is even touching the wood; but though hundreds of shells must have swept by it, and millions of machine-gun bullets, it remains undamaged. Trenches form a labyrinth all round it. When our men awake and ‘stand to’ at dawn, the first sight they see is the cross; and when at night they lie down in the side of the trench, or turn into their dug-outs, their last sight is the cross. It stands clear in the noonday sun; and in the moonlight it takes on a solemn grandeur.
I first saw it on a November afternoon when the sun was sinking under heavy banks of cloud, and it bent my mind back to the scene as it must have been on the first Good Friday, when the sun died with its dying Lord, and darkness crept up the hill of Calvary and covered Him with its funeral pall to hide his dying agonies from the curious eyes of unbelieving men. I had had tea in a dug-out, and it was dark when I left. Machine-guns were sweeping No-Man’s Land to brush back enemies who might be creeping toward us through the long grass; and the air was filled with a million clear, crackling sounds. Star-shells rose and fell, and their brilliant lights lit up the silent form on the cross.
For three years, night and day, Christ has been standing there in the midst of our soldiers, with arms outstretched in blessing. They have looked up at Him through the clear starlight of a frosty night; and they have seen his pale face by the silver rays of the moon as she has sailed her course through the heavens. In the gloom of a stormy night they have seen the dark outline, and caught a passing glimpse of Christ’s effigy by the flare of the star-shells. What must have been the thoughts of the sentries in the listening posts as all night long they have gazed at the cross; or of the officers as they have passed down the trench to see that all was well; or of some private sleeping in the trench and, being awakened by the cold, taking a few steps to restore blood-circulation? Deep thoughts, I imagine, much too deep for words of theirs or mine.
And when the battle of Neuve Chapelle was raging and the wounded, whose blood was turning red the grass, looked up at Him, what thoughts must have been theirs then? Did they not feel that He was their big Brother and remember that blood had flowed form Him as from them; that pain had racked Him as it racked them; and that He thought of his mother and of Nazareth as they thought of their mother and the little cottage they were never to see again? When their throats became parched and their lips swollen with thirst, did they not remember how He, too, had cried for water; and, above all, did they not call to mind the fact that He might have saved Himself, as they might, if He had cared more for his own happiness than for the world’s? As their spirits passed out through the wounds in their bodies, would they not ask Him to remember them as their now homeless souls knocked at the gate of his Kingdom? He had stood by them all through the long and bloody battle while hurricanes of shells swept over and around Him.
I do not wonder that the men at the front flock to the Lord’s Supper to commemorate his death. They will not go without it. If the Sacrament be not provided, they ask for it. At home there was never such a demand for it as exists at the front. There is a mystic sympathy between the trench and the Cross, between the soldier and his Saviour.
And yet, to those who willed the war and drank to the day of its coming, even the Cross has no sacredness. It is to them but a tool of war. An officer told me that during the German retreat from the Somme they noticed a peculiar accuracy in the enemy’s firing. The shells followed an easily distinguishable course. So many casualties occurred form this accurate shelling that the officers set themselves to discover the cause. They found that the circle of shells had for its centre the cross-roads, and that at the cross-roads was a crucifix that stood up clearly as a landmark. Evidently the cross was being used to guide the gunners, and was causing the death of our men.
But a more remarkable thing came to light. The cross stood close to the road, and when the Germans retired they had sprung a mine at the crossroads to delay our advance. Everything near had been blown to bits by the explosion except the crucifix, but that had not a mark upon it. And yet it could not have escaped, except by a miracle. They therefore set themselves to examine the seeming miracle and came across one of the most astounding cases of fiendish cunning. They found that the Germans had made a concrete socket for the crucifix so that they could take it out or put it in at pleasure. Before blowing up the cross-roads they had taken the cross out of its socket and removed it to a safe distance; then, when the mine had exploded, they put the cross back so that it might be a landmark to direct their shooting. And now they were making use of Christ’s instrument of redemption as an instrument for men’s destruction.
But our young officers resolved to restore the cross to its work of saving men. They waited till night fell, then removed the cross to a point a hundred or two yards to the left. When in the morning the German gunners fired their shells, their observers found that the shells fell too far wide of the cross and they could make nothing of the mystery. It looked as if some one had been tampering with their guns in the night. To put matters right they altered the position of their guns, so that once more the shells made a circle round the cross, and henceforth our soldiers were safe, for the shells fell harmlessly into the outlying fields. Nor was this the only time during their retreat when the Germans put the cross to this base use and were foiled in their knavery.
When a nation scraps the Cross of Christ and turns it into a tool to gain an advantage over its opponents, it becomes superfluous to ask who began the war, and folly to close our eyes to the horrors and depravities which are being reached in the waging of it.
There is a new judgment of the nations now proceeding, and who shall predict what shall be? The Cross of Christ is the arbiter, and our attitude toward it decides our fate. I have seen the attitude of our soldiers toward the Cross at Neuve Chapelle and toward that for which it stands; and I find more comfort in their reverence for Christ and Christianity than in all their guns and impediments of war.
The Cross of Christ towers above the wrecks of time, and those nations will survive which stand beneath its protecting arms in the trenches of righteousness, liberty, and truth.