J. Gresham Machen was a volunteer with the YMCA during World War I. When the United States joined the war in 1917, he wanted to serve in some noncombatant capacity. Thirty-five years old at the time of the declaration of war, he was somewhat old for military service in any case. He thought of serving as a chaplain, but eventually decided on the YMCA. During World War I, the YMCA provided material comforts to the troops, such as hot chocolate, tobacco, magazines, and paper for writing letters home. (In World War II, this function would be carried out by the USO.) Machen sought opportunities to preach and do Bible teaching with soldiers as well, but this was limited both officially and by the constraints of his schedule. Much of his time was spent working close to the front lines, and he was subjected to some of the same dangers and discomforts as the soldiers.
On May 27, 1918, when Machen was located at Missy-sur-Aisne [about three or four miles east of Soissons on Aisne river—see the map above], the Germans launched a spring offensive which became known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. Machen found himself in personal danger from a gas attack and shelling, and fled with the troops to avoid capture. In the process he had to leave behind his YMCA “foyer” and many of his personal belongings. On the 29th he wrote his mother the following letter, recorded in Barry Waugh’s collection of Machen’s WW I letters, Letters from the Front (P&R, 2012).
War provides an opportunity for people to do things that they would never choose to do on their own. Though J. Gresham Machen’s service was that of a non-combatant, he was still faced with conditions that required a considerable ability to adapt to dangerous and culturally different situations. In France, Machen worshipped God as he had the opportunity in churches and special services. Surely, he would rather have been home in a Presbyterian
Barry Waugh has edited a new book of letters written by J. Gresham Machen during World War I. The book is entitled Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War I. Waugh sat down recently with Camden Bucey and Jeff Waddington at Reformed Forum’s Christ the Center for an interview devoted to his book. Together they discuss Machen’s service as a YMCA secretary in France during WWI, the content of the letters, why Machen served, and how he sought to relate to French culture. You can listen by clicking here.