‘Even worse than the Somme’

Walter Young
WWI soldier Walter Young

Walter Young was a British soldier in three of the greatest battles of World War One: the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele – it is incredible that he lived through all three horrors.

Yet he would later describe his time as a POW (prisoner of war) as "the most miserable time of my life".

Walter signed up in 1915, serving in the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) for three years.

His last month in action was spent as a stretcher bearer, saving many lives. He was awarded the Military Medal for bravery under fire, but was shot and captured in March 1918 after enduring the horrors of trench life for three years.

Long after his death in 1957, his family discovered that Walter had written down his memories of the war.

Among those memoirs was the story of his time as a POW in a coal mine in East Prussia, where he and many others were put to work until their release in November 1918.

Despite being extremely shy and reserved, Walter arranged to hold a Christian service in the washroom where the men washed after working in the mine. As a Christian, he just felt he had to help his fellow prisoners, who were all suffering in the harsh conditions.

Using a New Testament (second half of the Bible) given to him by his church when he enlisted, it was the first of several services he led.

Even today, Walter's New Testament falls open at Romans 12, so it's highly likely that he would have read this chapter to his colleagues. It says: "Hate what is evil, hold onto what is good. Love one another warmly as Christian brothers and be eager to show respect for one another.

"Work hard and do not be lazy. Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles and pray at all times... Ask God to bless those who persecute you – yes, ask Him to bless, not to curse."

These words would have held particular relevance in the prisoner of war camp, but they were clearly precious to the 25-year-old former post office sorter from London. He read them repeatedly, not just through the War, but every week of his life.

Despite the horrors of battle, Walter wrote that his time as a prisoner was his worst in the war: "This was about the most miserable period of my life. True, life in the dirtiest and most dangerous trenches was worse while it lasted, but there was always the relief to look forward to if one survived. But life for me at this time seemed one long round of almost unbroken misery with hardly anything to relieve it."

Yet it was here that Walter felt that God was saying to him that his fellow prisoners were 'sheep without a shepherd'. And so he asked a German officer for permission to hold a service. It was granted, and the series of services began.

At the first service, "all the accommodation was occupied and some were standing, and the congregation included not only British but Frenchmen and Russians as well. I suppose we numbered about 40 in all.

"It was a strange scene for a service. There was only one light and that was partially obscured by the steam from some boiler, which made a fairly loud hissing noise all the time. Nobody had a hymn book and it was obvious that only a very few well-known hymns could be chosen.

"So from my hymn book I read out the words, verse by verse, and most of them joined in the singing, which was led by a violin player. It was a very simple Gospel service.

"If anything was attempted with a feeling of unfitness and inadequacy surely it was these few services. But possibly that very feeling of weakness was my greatest strength, for I could place no dependence on myself or on others."

He depended on God to help him serve his comrades, just as he had kept his trust in God on the frontline.

Returning home after the war, Walter married in 1922 and was a deacon at his church in North Islington for many years.

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