I met author and academic, John Broom, in 2014, when our paths crossed in the history blogosphere. John had just launched Faith In Wartime and we exchanged ideas on getting started with blogging. He is now an established history blogger. Faith In Wartime has gone from strength-to-strength with a fast-growing readership.
John graduated in History from the University of Sheffield in 1991 and has pursued a career in teaching, firstly in History, and latterly as a Specialist Teacher in Autism. In 2006, the inheritance of a collection of papers and memorabilia, written between 1940 and 1946 by his late father who served in the Desert Rats, sparked in John, a passion to discover the links between twentieth-century warfare and religion.
After completing an MA in Local and Regional History with the Open University, John decided to study for a PhD at the University of Durham. He has also conducted research on behalf of the Bible Society for their First World War website. John’s PhD research explores connections between the Second World War and Christian culture in Britain. He plans to complete his PhD in 2017.
In 2015, Pen & Sword Military published John’s first book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War (ISBN: 9781473854154 – Price: £19.99 / $39.95). When John approached me to ask whether I would like a copy to review, of course I was delighted to accept.
Fight the Good Fight is a fascinating read and very well-written indeed. The book is a detailed study of a usually hidden aspect of wartime social history, the topic of Christian faith. Fight the Good Fight has been meticulously researched and includes a wealth of previously unpublished material.
There is a forward by Dan Jarvis OBE MP, Labour Spokesman of First World War Commemoration:
I am pleased to commend this book of case studies of Christians from all walk of life, of many different denominations and displaying a wide spectrum of political views. It includes accounts from the Western Front, the home front and from the prisons of Britain that held conscientious objectors and those on the Continent that held prisoners of war and spies.
These stories help us to understand better an aspect of the rationale behind the response of so many to the challenge of global warfare, and further increase our admiration for the depth of belief and of personal character that so many were called to show.
(Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War by John Broom, 2015, pp. x-xi)
Fight the Good Fight demonstrates the variety of ways in which people of different denominations; Anglican, Catholic and Nonconformists, interpreted the war as combatants, civilians, chaplains and conscientious objectors. The book will interest anyone who is fascinated by the social history of World War One, regardless of their religious persuasion.
Whilst a toxic mixture of nationalism and militarism tore Europe and the wider world apart from 1914 to 1919, there was one factor that united millions of people across all nations: that of a Christian faith. People interpreted this faith in many different ways. Soldiers marched off to war with ringing endorsements from bishops that they were fighting a Godly crusade, others preached in churches and tribunals hearing that war was fundamentally against the teachings of Christ.
Whether, Church of England or Nonconformist, Catholic or Presbyterian, German Lutheran or the American Church of Christ in Christian Union, men and women across the globe conceptualised their war through the prism of their belief in a Christian God.
Fight The Good Fight brings together individual and family case studies, some of well-known personalities, others whose story has become neglected through the decades. Although divided by nation, social class, political outlook and denomination, they were united in their desire to Fight the Good Fight.
Fight The Good Fight is divided into 6 sections containing 21 biographies and 2 case-studies:
- Christian Britain in 1914 (John Reith, David Jones, J.V. Salisbury, Joseph Garvey, Lewis Valentine and Philip Bryant);
- Three Chaplains and an Army Scripture Reader (Father Francis Gleeson, John Esslemont Adams, Russell Barry and Harry Wisbey);
- Women in War (Lilian Hayman, Maude Royden, The Hon. Mrs Edith Lyttleton Gell and Edith Cavell);
- Christians from Other Nations (Louise Thuliez, Martin Niemöller, Pastor Pieter-Jozef Dergent and Alvin York);
- Conscientious Objection in the First World War (Francis Meynell, Howard Marten, Laurence Cadbury and Corder Catchpool);
- Families in War (The Chavasse Family and The Brocklesby Family).
I have selected the biographies of Lilian Hayman and Pastor Pieter-Jozef ‘Jef’ Dergent to share with you in this article. I found their stories particularly interesting, moving and harrowing in equal measure. It also transpired that their stories were interconnected (although Lilian and Jef never met!). Both were united by the strength of their own faith and sense of religious duty, heightened by a backdrop of global conflict.
Lilian Hayman (1865-1944)
Lilian Hayman’s story appears in the ‘Women in War’ section. Lilian was a Bristol-born surgeon’s wife who ran a boys’ Bible class in Brighton and then from her home in Bournemouth, Dorset (from about1912). In the Imperial War Museum’s Department of Documents there are more than 100 letters written to Lilian by some of her ex-pupils who were now serving in the armed forces.
Lilian wrote regularly to the young men who had attended her Bible study classes and often sent them parcels containing home comforts. Lilian even sent one pupil (Tony Hewitt) a game of snakes and ladders. Another former pupil, Philip T. Bryant, had a particularly close bond with Lilian. Philip served on HMS Queen Elizabeth and according to John Broom:
His letters to her [Lilian] show a continuing devotion, describing himself as ‘your sincere young friend’. He wrote, ‘Forgive me if I chatter too much but I forgot myself in talking to you as you understand so much.’ He received letters from his mother and Mrs Hayman only, and emphasised the latter’s importance in his life: ‘I will always bless you for the way you have helped me to keep on the very Narrow Path we have to tread.’
(Fight The Good Fight by John Broom, 2015, p.90)
Lilian continued to teach her Bible classes until her death in 1944, aged 80.
Pastor Pieter-Jozef ‘Jef’ Dergent (1870-1914)
Pieter-Jozef ‘Jef’ Dergent’s biography appears in the section, ‘Christians From Other Nations’. He was a rural Catholic priest from the Leuven region of Belgium. Born in Geel, 1870 and consecrated as a priest in August 1893. Before the outbreak of World War One, he was working at Gelrode, near the town of Aarschot. John Broom describes this period in Jef’s life:
He was considered by his parishioners as a man of the people, who took care of children and the infirm. He set-up a Gregorian singing choir and was holding harvest time rehearsals in the church.
When German troops invaded Aarschot on 19th August, 1914 there followed immediately a series of brutal attacks on local civilians. On the Leuven-Aarschot road, 75 were shot dead and another 29 were killed in the town including the mayor. Gelrode was also occupied on the same day and Jef’s church was used as a prison. John explains:
Priests were considered by the Germans to be dangerous partisans, capable of inspiring resistance from the Belgian people. Four priests hid in a well for 3 days and then left Aarschot in disguise on the night of 23 August. The dean of the town was held prisoner as a partisan.
When the Germans searched Jef’s house, old gun cartridges had been found in a storage room. Jef was kept under arrest in a room in his house and then released on 20 August. However, he was now under suspicion of subversion.
Following his release, Jef made the courageous decision to take 3 wounded men, by cart, to Aarschot where the Damien Institute, former home to the Fathers of the Sacred Hearts, had been converted into a Red Cross field hospital. Jef and his driver set-out at 8am on 26th August, safely depositing their wounded at the hospital later that morning. One of the fathers asked Jef to stay but he refused, wishing to return instead to his parishioners in Gelrode. A decision that would place his life in grave danger.
Whilst crossing the Market Square in Aarschot, Jef and his driver were arrested. Both were imprisoned in City Hall until 5pm the next day. Afterwards, Jef was kept outside the town’s church where inside, there were 3,000 prisoners. Jef was subjected to violent physical attacks by the Germans as they tried to get him to renounce his faith. He was stoned, beaten, bound and prisoners were encouraged to urinate on him.
Jef was then moved to a nearby house, Blykershuis, 200 yards from the church. Behind the property, he was killed with 2 rifle shots and thrown into the river Denier. His naked body was found two days later by Red Cross volunteers, 5 kilometres from Aarschot. Identification had only been possible because of a watch discovered inside his tunic that was discovered floating near the body.
The British and American press widely reported Jef’s murder. His death and the circumstances that led to it, saw him elevated to the status of martyr. The exact cause of Jef’s death was not confirmed until1948 when his body was exhumed in order to carry-out forensic tests. It was revealed that he had indeed been shot twice, in the head and through his vertebra. Following a special ceremony in Gelrode churchyard on 4th September, 1949, Jef was reinterred.
Lilian Hayman used Jef’s example of self-sacrifice and unwaivering commitment to his faith as a lesson to her boys’ Bible class in Bournemouth on 28th January, 1915. Lilian compared his betrayal with that of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. (Ibid p.140).
- Fight The Good Fight can be ordered online from the publishers, Pen and Sword. Click here;
- Fight The Good Fight can also be brought directly from John Broom, personally inscribed and signed. Contact John via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
- John’s 2nd book, Fight The Good Fight: Voices of Faith From The Second World War, will be published by Pen and Sword on 30th April, 2016. Pre-order your copy now. Click here;
- John blogs regularly at Faith In Wartime. Click here;
- Read a selection of articles written by John for The Bible Society. Click here;
- Follow John on Twitter – @johnbroom1970;
- Listen to John on BBC Radio Solent (October, 2014) discussing the Stratton War Memorial located in Stratton, near Dorchester, Dorset.