The human cost of the Great War was staggering. Over 800,000 British soldiers died and a further 1.6 million were wounded. Alongside their fellow countrymen, Latter-day Saints responded to the call to serve ‘King and Country’.
Many British Latter-day Saint men enlisted during the great recruitment. Later, as conscription was introduced, the army also drafted Latter-day Saint members. In total, 2.4 million British men volunteered and 2.5 million were conscripted.
It is difficult to determine how many Latter-day Saints were involved in the armed forces. Certainly, all of them were affected by the war itself. Niels Anderson was serving in the Burnley Branch, Liverpool Conference, at the time of the declaration of war. On August 5, 1914, he recorded how the members of the branch responded:
“It’s sure awful. Three of our men saints went today, Duckworth, Holgate, & Brierly; Kelly Jowett’s sure cried for her brother going out to war. Outside of that the rest are taking it very good”.
In 1917, British Mission president George F. Richards stated: “Many of the local brethren —in one locality fifty per cent —were in the service of the country”.
At the start of the war, newly enlisted soldier forty-two-year-old Private Jesse Edmund Simister was the Leeds Branch President.
He recalled his first experiences of being a Latter-day Saint in the army:
“Prior to my enlistment, I received little or no persecution, ridicule, etc. This made me think that my faith was unshakeable and that I was so strong that whatever came in my way I could face; but as soon as I was detailed off to the regiment I was to join, I found out how weak I was, when the following conversation took place between myself and the clerks in the orderly room.
“Clerk: —‘What religion are you?’
“I answered: —‘A Latter-day Saint.’
“The clerk looked at me; then at the other clerks, in astonishment, and said, ‘What is a Latter-day Saint? I’ve never even heard of them before.’
“Another clerk said, ‘Oh! He is a Mormon.’ Then I was told I could not be a ‘Mormon,’ or a saint, in the army, but I could be a Roman Catholic, or Wesleyan, or join the Church of England. So I decided to be a Wesleyan, while in the army.”
The war resulted in fewer missionaries serving in the British Isles. The mission and local congregations overcame the lack of foreign missionaries by calling male and female members to serve.
A large network of sisters supported the elders. For instance, on October 30, 1916, in the Nelson Branch, Liverpool Conference, seven sisters were called as ‘lady missionaries’ to “act under the direction of the conference president”.6Overall, local leaders set apart 326 women in 1916 and 1917.7As part of a new ‘lady missionary system’, they went door to door, distributed literature, and fulfilled a necessary role in continuing missionary work.
These missionaries had a profound impact on the Church during the national crisis. Isabella Blake from the Glasgow Branch reported: “A few weeks ago President George A. Simkins set aside fourteen of the sisters as lady missionaries, and I am pleased to say that they have already done good work. Thousands of tracts have been distributed, by means of which investigators have appeared at our meetings; doors have been opened to these dear girls, and tracts have been accepted by people hitherto out of the reach of the elders. They have been able to converse with the people and bear their testimonies, which seems to carry more conviction when it comes from a countrywoman. It is a splendid effort the missionaries are making, considering they are all employed in business in the daytime, the married ladies also having families to look after. They sacrifice their weekly half-holiday, and part of their Sundays to this work, which will surely have its reward.”
Mission president Hyrum M. Smith served from 1913 to 1916, and his wife, Ida. B. Smith, directed the Relief Society program to support the war work and to strengthen the soldiers. On November 26, 1914, she asked members to donate books and magazines for soldiers on the front.9Within a week there were positive responses.
Efforts continued, and British relief committees thanked the sisters for their donations in January 1915. By June, the Millennial Star summarised that the British Relief Society had produced over 2,400 pieces of clothing for soldiers and distributed 488 books and magazines in hospitals and army camps.
A handbill, “The Truth about the ‘Mormons,’” advertised ways British Latter-day Saint members supported the war effort and reported the number of clothes and books. It also stated that ‘Mormon boys’ had joined the army and gone to the front.13 Local and national leaders sought to publicise the efforts of the Church to counter popular negative stereotypes.
In addition to national concerted efforts, branches across the country helped in their local areas. The Glasgow Branch sisters “visit[ed] the hospitals in which the wounded soldiers are treated, and we always go armed with a bundle of magazines, which we distribute. They are eagerly read by the ‘boys’”. The Gateshead Branch Relief Society (organised during the summer of 1916) also supported the war effort and the local branch members.
On June 20, 1917, the Gateshead Branch women “entertained twenty-five wounded soldiers, and about one hundred and twenty-five persons enjoyed a successful social following the tea served to the men who have been to the front. A very large number of friends were in attendance”.15 Other novel activities included an ‘egg’ Sunday, where the Sisters collected 103 eggs that they donated to the Norfolk War Hospital for wounded soldiers. In Glasgow, women sold their work and cleared £13 14s. 2d.16 In October 1917, the Hyde and Stockport Branches in the Manchester Conference held a joint meeting and Harvest Festival: “A table extending across the front of the hall was loaded with fruit, vegetables, and flowers, tastefully arranged. The purpose was to use the money obtained from the sale of these for Christmas parcels for soldiers at the front”.
Harold McKnight, a Latter-day Saint soldier from Liverpool, demonstrated an unashamed resolve to stand up for the Church. Many other Latter-day Saint soldiers shared their experiences in the Millennial Star. McKnight explained: “I experienced my first march down here. And what a nightmare such efforts are, to be sure! With my pack on my back, straining on my shoulders, and the road burning hot, so that it could be felt through my boots, it was not at all pleasant. But there are plenty of things to make me forget these discomforts. The first is my thought about the great and glorious work which has been recommenced on the earth, through the instrumentality of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and turning from this thought, my mind goes to God’s handiwork here on this earth, and what a sight meets my eyes when I raise them to look on it!”
Another soldier, G. E. Gent from Leicester, described his gratitude at surviving and being spared from a major offensive during his fifteen months away from home. “The hardships of active service have strengthened my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and given me a stronger determination to fulfil my mission on earth”.19 He served with a man who attacked the Latter-day Saint chapel in Sunderland before the war: “He made the remark that I was the first ‘Mormon’ he had met in the army, and, since our first conversation, he has read several Church publications, including the Millennial Star. We are now friends and comrades on active service somewhere in Russia. For the present, there is no fighting in our vicinity, but we are sharing the hardships on active service together. The Lord works in a mysterious way, and it is our duty to take advantage of all opportunities for preaching the gospel.”
Although being Mormon in the army was a distinctly solitary and isolating experience, many members of the Church remained valiant to their testimonies. Private John Manton, a member of the Gainsborough Branch, Hull Conference, described his worship services: “During church parade, recently, when the men were ordered to ‘fall out’ and arrange themselves in groups, according to their church affiliations, Brother Manton stood alone. There were men belonging to the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and many other churches. When asked about his religion, Brother Manton, to the surprise of his comrades and officers, replied, ‘I am a Mormon’”.
Private Harry Ashdown, a convert to the Church in 1917, felt the Church and the gospel strengthened him during the war. His testimony was published in the Millennial Star on April 4, 1918: “I desire to give my humble testimony to the readers of the Star, for I am thankful that I am a member of the Church. I was baptized last summer at Norwich, while home on leave, and I am happy in the knowledge I have of the gospel. I have enjoyed good health since I began keeping the Word of Wisdom. My prayers have been answered, and the protecting care of God has been over me when I have been in action, and I have been saved in places of danger, so far.”
The same issue included Ashdown’s death notice. He died on March 12, 1918, and was survived by his wife, who was then serving as a lady missionary in the Norwich Conference.
Of course, we must understand that this war, although global, had its greatest influences at a local level. Our homes, schools, workplaces, and many other physical spaces were used or interacted with by the bygone generations. Alongside their compatriots, these Latter-day Saints, over sixty in all, gave their lives in the defence of their country and with their testimonies firm in Jesus Christ.
This article is part of the https://www.lds.org.uk/church-history section.