Yesterday, while shifting books around to freshen up the display at the check-out counter, I decided I needed a mass market Christian novel to round things out. So over I tootled to that section, and dug around – and picked out a book by Grace Livingston Hill, who still sells well decades after her death. But… After I got it spotlighted in a primo location, the book kept catching my eye (always a hazard if you’re a booklover working in a bookstore), and so I brought it home to read (always an option if you own the bookstore). It turns out to be not a romance novel after all, but a history of the Salvation Army in World War I, co-authored with Evangeline Booth. Although I’m only to page 22 in my copy of the book, it’s looking very much like I’m going to be able to recommend The War Romance of the Salvation Army to history lovers (whether Christian or not) as well as Christians (whether history lovers or not).
Here’s a taste (via GraceLivingstonHill.com, and Project Gutenberg):
The advance guard of the American Expeditionary Forces had landed in France, and other detachments were arriving almost daily. They were received by the French with open arms and a big parade as soon as they landed. Flowers were tossed in their path and garlands were flung about them. They were lauded and praised on every hand. On the crest of this wave of enthusiasm they could have swept joyously into battle and never lost their smiles.
But instead of going to the front at once they were billeted in little French villages and introduced to French rain and French mud.
When one discovers that the houses are built of stone, stuck together mainly by this mud of the country, and remembers how many years they have stood, one gets a passing idea of the nature of this mud about which the soldiers have written home so often. It is more like Portland cement than anything else, and it is most penetrative and hard to get rid of; it gets in the hair, down the neck, into the shoes and it sticks. If the soldier wears hip-boots in the trenches he must take them off every little while and empty the mud out of them which somehow manages to get into even hip-boots. It is said that one reason the soldiers were obliged to wear the wrapped leggings was, not that they would keep the water out, but that they would strain the mud and at least keep the feet comparatively clean.
There were sixteen of these camps at this time and probably twelve or thirteen thousand soldiers were already established in them.
There was no great cantonment as at the camps on this side of the water, nor yet a city of tents, as one might have expected. The forming of a camp meant the taking over of all available buildings in the little French peasant villages. The space was measured up by the town mayor and the battalion leader and the proper number of men assigned to each building. In this way a single division covered a territory of about thirty kilometers. This system made a camp of any size available in very short order and also fooled the Huns, who were on the lookout for American camps.
These villages were the usual farming villages, typical of eastern France. They are not like American villages, but a collection of farm yards, the houses huddled together years ago for protection against roving bands of marauders. The farmer, instead of living upon his land, lives in the village, and there he has his barn for his cattle, his manure pile is at his front door, the drainage from it seeps back under the house at will, his chickens and pigs running around the streets.
These houses were built some five or eight hundred years ago, some a thousand or twelve hundred years. One house in the town aroused much curiosity because it was called the “new” house. It looked just like all the others. One who was curious asked why it should have received this appellative and was told because it was the last one that was built–only two hundred and fifty years ago.
There is a narrow hall or court running through these houses which is all that separates the family from the horses and pigs and cows which abide under the same roof.
The whole place smells alike. There is no heat anywhere, save from a fireplace in the kitchen. There is a community bakehouse.
The soldiers were quartered in the barns and outhouses, the officers were quartered in the homes of these French peasants. There were no comforts for either soldier or officer. It rained almost continuously and at night it was cold. No dining-rooms could be provided where the men could eat and they lined up on the street, got their chow and ate it standing in the rain or under whatever cover they could find. Few of them could understand any French, and all the conditions surrounding their presence in France were most trying to them. They were drilled from morning to night. They were covered with mud. The great fight in which they had come to participate was still afar off. No wonder their hearts grew heavy with a great longing for home. Gloom sat upon their faces and depression grew with every passing hour.
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