Church Army Through the World Wars

Church Army began as a movement to step outside the church walls; to turn the idea of inviting people into Church on its head and take church out to the people on the street. Britain, in 1882, was in desperate need for the church to roll up its sleeves and engage with the many practical and social needs of the time. More than anything, the country needed to hear the Good News of the Gospel. For Wilson Carlile, this was an all or nothing mission that would require nothing less than Church Army’s best efforts to be on the frontline of every challenge it faced. It was this faithful, determined, and pioneering spirit over the first 32 years that began preparing Church Army to carry a shining light into some of the darkest moments in recent history.

The Great War 1914-1918

Wilson Carlile was 67 at the start of the First World War, and although his contemporaries were nearing retirement age, Carlile threw himself into the war effort with the energy of a younger man. Church Army immediately set up a military sub-committee and plans were put into action to make provisions for canteens and recreation tents both at home and at the battle front. A war hospital was set up in a school building in France under the French Red Cross. The hospital had the capacity to care for 105 soldiers. Church Army Evangelists with medical training, or at the very least a first-aid certificate, worked there supporting the nurses and medical staff and assisting the chaplains.

On the home front Church Army was setting up canteens and centres. Men’s hostels were repurposed to receive soldiers who had become disabled, and others as clubs to be used by servicemen on leave. In London “Soldiers Welcomes” and “Soldiers Cabins” provided refreshments, as well as advice and information.

Services were also set up for women. In his book Chariots of the Gospel, Donald Lynch (Chief Secretary for Church Army from 1960-
1975) records that recreation rooms and hostels were opened for women who were employed in manufacturing munitions for the war and 36 centres were devoted to caring for the wives and widows of men on active service.

Thousands of parcels were also sent to the trenches and also to prisoners of war, containing some food, an item of clothing and something to read such as a New Testament or a Soldier’s Pocket Companion. Church Army also escorted the wives and mothers of seriously wounded soldiers on visits to the hospitals where they were being cared for in France.

As the war developed, Church Army centres were established overseas. By the end of the war, 800 CA centres had been in operation in Europe as well as in Malta, Egypt, Gallipoli, British East Africa (now Uganda & Kenya), India, Italy and Palestine. Church Army clubs, institutes and coffee shops were also set up along all the main Channel Ports, quays, large railway stations and junctions where long delays were frequent.

Church Army Review, Oct 1917

“…winter will be upon us, and our brave men on the West Front will again be in the grip of rain, mud, slush, snow, and frost. For many of them this daily handicap of wet has hardly ceased at all during the summer, but, bad as the weather has been, it is going to be very much worse.

Our Church Army Huts are appreciated at all times, and never more so than when the weather is at its worst. It requires no very vivid imagination to realise what the mere dryness of a Hut means to men who perforce live and move and have their being in a land which is certainly not dry land, but is rather a sea of mud. Even the simple convenience of being able to dry clothing and kit is a great thing in the midst of damp dug outs and billets. And then there are the brightness and warm welcome, the games and music, the hot drinks and other refreshments, the reading and writing facilities, the opportunities of quiet time for thought, the spiritual privileges and these last are prised by thousands who would probably never admit it.

Our Huts and Tents are doing much for our men keeping watch and ward over the North Sea, and those in Malta, Egypt, Sinai, Palestine, Macedonia, Mesopotamia, East Africa, and India, and above all in France and Flanders as well as those in training at home.”

The SeCond World War 1939-1945

Early in 1939, Church Army set up a committee to plan Church Army’s response in the event of future wars. Wilson Carlile’s fast response during the First World War meant that Church Army made a significant impact on those involved in the conflict, some even credited Church Army for contributing to Britain’s victory. But should war ever occur again CA needed to be prepared. Little did they know that those plans would need to become operational that very year.

By the time it was announced across radio sets nationwide in September 1939, that Britain was at war with Germany, Wilson Carlile was 93 and although still active and travelling frequently, he was aware that younger leadership would be needed to direct Church Army through the times ahead. Immediately plans were turned into action in order to make evangelistic and welfare resources available both on the home front and overseas. Church Army’s hostels and services were adapted to be used by men and women in the service and by August 1939, recreation centres were beginning to open in different parts of Britain. By now the CA wartime committee was meeting everyday but Church Army’s war-work had become so extensive that separate committees were launched to organise huts and caravans, the hostels and mobile

canteens, welfare facilities for women in the services and other affairs. The invention of the Mobile Canteen van was a turning point for Church Army and vastly expanded the scope of the work. By not being restricted to stationary huts, Church Army Captains and Sisters were able to visit all battle fronts.


The Taunton station canteen in 1940 received warning that French and Belgian troops evacuated from Dunkirk would be arriving. In two days, the team of 50 Church Army volunteers served 25,000 buns and 10,000 cups of tea and coffee as well as many other types of food.

They regularly visited those posted to remote gun-sites and listening-posts to provide relief from the intense loneliness. These visits brought with them more than just company; they served day and night on the airfields and provided emergency relief to victims of air raid attacks.

After war broke out, Church Army’s men’s training colleges remained open for six months so the men could complete their training before being deployed oversees to work in Church Army canteens. Through Church Army’s huts and recreation stations, soldiers had the opportunity to rest and socialise in comfort, write letters home in peace and receive spiritual nourishment through Bible teaching and space to pray. Providing for the spiritual needs of soldiers in the huts was paramount. Usually, a chapel or quiet room for regular prayer was set up and a chaplain or local clergy would often hold Communion there.

These services proved invaluable during the struggle of war-time where comfort and rest were not readily available, particularly during the cold months. Within the pages of this magazine alone, it would be impossible to capture more than a snapshot of Church Army’s work during the World Wars. Its history is made up of many thousands of stories and individual accounts of how God’s love shone in some of the simplest acts of kindness, such as visiting a soldier on a lonely outpost. Church Army brought light into some of the darkest days. The impact of that struck a chord in history which has vibrated through the generations since and is still being felt today.

Escape From Normandy

In France, December 1939 a canteen was opened in Boulogne and soon after another one opened near the railway station at Arras. This was open from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. the next day and included a games room and Chapel. More Church Army Centres continued to open in France until mid-May when a German advance wiped out 12 CA Centres along with three mobile canteens. All the Church Army staff escaped, except for two clergymen who stayed with the wounded soldiers and were captured. They were both repatriated in 1943. Three Church Army Sisters working in Rouen escaped on the last boat out of St. Malo. Two more working at Nantes escaped via St. Nazaire on the RMS Lancastria which was deployed to evacuate British nationals and troops from France.

During the return journey, the Lancastria was hit by bombs from a German combat aircraft, one landing down the funnel and blowing the bottom out of the ship, sinking it in under 20 minutes. The vessel’s capacity was 1,300 people with 16 lifeboats and 2,400 lifejackets onboard, but on this occasion the Lancastria was carrying over 7,200 people. Many of those escaping the sinking ship died in the attempt, some drowned due to the insufficient number of lifejackets, others of hypothermia and others were choked by the fuel oil that leaked from ship’s ruptured oil tank. The two CA Sisters were thrown into the sea and swam under machine gun fire until they were picked up by one of the ship’s lifeboats. When aboard they tore up their clothing to make bandages to treat those that were wounded or had been shot by the circling German aircrafts. As they made their escape, they again came under German machine gun fire twice but eventually were rescued by a French trawler which reached port in due course.