Strong convictions prohibited me from taking up the weapons of war to kill. But for an able-bodied young man to be assigned noncombatant duties was unheard of. There seemed to be only one way around this, register as a conscientious objector. Although this was expedient, in many aspects it was very unpalatable. Nevertheless the inherent principles and ideals woven into the pattern of one’s life could not be ejected at this time of crisis.
The day came for me to appear before the Tribunal in Edinburgh. Five men sat on the bench, and it was not without a certain amount of trepidation that one faced them. A judge, a professor, two ministers from the main religious denominations, and a prominent businessman comprised the hearing board. They read the letters from my employer, from the Assembly where I fellowshipped, and from some of the prominent spiritual leaders in the Country who confirmed my deep conviction. When they finished reading they asked me to speak.
Very simply, and as sincerely as I could, I gave testimony to my deep convictions and to the inviolable Scriptural truths involved then sat down.
“Would you be willing to go into the Medical Corps?” the Tribunal Chairman asked.
“Certainly, sir,” I said, “I count it an honor to serve my King and Country.” For the sake of my employer, I was given a six-month exemption after which came the greatest change of my whole life.
On November 9, 1940, I became a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps. My first assignment was at Dalkeith near Edinburgh. This was quite a shock. From the sheltered atmosphere of a Christian home to the loud ribaldry of the barrack room was a transition too shattering for words.
The ensuing weeks were veritable nightmares. To meet the challenge of Army life head-on as a Christian was baffling and frustrating. It was a constant battle, there was no respite, and the evening presented my greatest problem. It had been my custom for years to read and pray on my knees before retiring, but this was different. Rather halfheartedly, I would read a portion of Scripture with my Bible well concealed, then slip quietly under the blankets and continue my prayers there. I felt terrible about this at first but as the nights passed it seemed to get easier. Then my conscience erupted in protest and I knew that somehow I must find a way out of this lukewarmness.
Wednesday night found me in the local Assembly prayer meeting in Dalkeith. At the conclusion, Mr. John Fraser asked me to accompany him home for a little fellowship and refreshment. I considered this a God given opportunity to share my problem. I unburdened my heart and laid before him the innermost longings of my soul. Mr. Fraser was visibly moved, and then he broke what seemed to be an eternal silence by suggesting that we kneel and pray. First there pored into the ear of our Heavvenly Father the voice of experience, interceding earnestly for a young son in the faith. Then the stammering yet sincere cry of one who had defected somewhat from a rather strict course, found ready acceptance with the God of all grace.
As I trudged the mile and a half through the slush and snow back to the barracks, I made up my mind that it was tonight or never.
I opened the door into the barrack room and was immediately jolted back to reality. The air was thick with cigarette smoke; a heated argument was reaching a climax. Loud laughter and barroom singing all burst with unnerving force upon my timorous soul. The old fears and qualms rushed back unbidden. Slowly I took off my coat and wet boots, taking plenty of time in the process. A fight was raging in my breast. “Don’t do it, leave it till tomorrow night, what will they think of you? Why be a fool -- Christ’s fool?” That did it. I dropped to my knees, and quickly a deathly stillness crept over the room. My heart was pounding and my brain was in turmoil. Being unable to pray I peeked through my outspread fingers, curious to see what was going on. First one, then another, of the boys reached for something to throw. Scared, I awaited the barrage and the repercussions, which would follow.
Then to my surprise, one of the veterans across the room jumped out of bed and challenged the younger soldiers, “The first man who throws anything at this boy has me to deal with. I have been in the Army for fifteen years and have never seen anything like this before. He’s the only real Christian I’ve met.”
Slowly, the surprised and subdued soldiers put the missiles down, quietly bade goodnight to their buddies, and slipped into bed. This was unbelievable. As I continued on my knees in prayer, I thanked the Lord for His protection and prayed earnestly for the boys in my room. What joy filled my heart as I slipped between the rough Army blankets; trials indeed, but they were the very gates of Heaven.
I grew to love these men and I found that they respected reality. Within weeks we would all gather around the potbellied stove just before lights-out for Bible reading and prayer. Many of them asked for prayer for their loved ones in the bombed areas of our Country. Many a precious time was spent in counseling, and although none of them came out openly and confessed Christ as Savior, I feel confident that I will meet some of them in Heaven.
The bewildering days at Dalkeith came to an abrupt end. Orders were received to report to the 196 Field Ambulance, stationed at that time in the little village called Yetholm on the borders of Scotland and England. Six of us arrived in the darkness of a cold, miserable night. Quite unexpectedly I was thrust into another ordeal greater than the former.
Assigned sleeping quarters in the village hall with the five other men, I had to place my mattress out in the center of the floor. All the available bed space around the walls had been taken. Strengthened by my previous experience at Dalkeith I committed the situation to my Heavenly Father and fell on my knees in the middle of the room. The seventy fellows around gradually became quiet as they saw this strange action, most of them for the first time. I prayed for strength and spiritual deportment. A few of the fellows made disparaging remarks, which they lived to regret. Because of this testimony I discovered a few secret disciples in the company.
Most of this group stayed together throughout the war and I have reason to believe that a few of them eventually put their trust in the Lord Jesus. These were days of spiritual awakening and growth for me. The real meaning and value of my faith thrilled my heart. In the past, to a large extent, it had been pleasant theory. Now it was a precious reality, a way of life. My concept of the Person and power of my Savior grew as I saw Him work in my own life and in the lives of others.
Conversely, it was a very unnerving experience to see just how far a person could go when released from the influence of home and family. Even some professing Christians were drawn into the quagmire of sin. I wept for these men; I felt the Lord had placed me among them for a purpose. I prayed for them and thanked God for those who responded to kindness. Many crooked paths were made straight and some wayward sheep brought back into the fold.
In 1941, while temporarily stationed at Presteigne, Wales, we heard the news, which we had awaited for some time: we were heading abroad. Though not unexpected, this news gave us all a jolt. We were beginning to realize what our training and indoctrination really meant. The comfort of the Scriptures at this time was immeasurable: one that came with significant assurance was, “As your days, so shall your strength be” (Deuteronomy 33:25).
A short visit home brought to an end one year of training. Before leaving my mother to catch the train, she took me into my room and said, “Son, remember this, at eight o’clock every morning I will come to your bedside and pray for you.” With a fond embrace and a tender kiss I left her sobbing quietly. Thank God for mother’s prayer and for this trysting place. Wherever we went in the world I tried to calculate the time change and, when possible, I joined her in spirit at the Throne of Grace.