It was called “The Great War” and, contemporaneously, “The War to End All Wars.”
History knows it as World War I — a four-year (1914-1918) global conflict that claimed millions of lives, defined a generation and served, ironically, as a prelude to a second world war two decades later.
The United Kingdom was a major player in World War I. Millions fought under the Union Jack, including hundreds of Latter-Day Saints.
Now, a century after the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice, members in the U.K. will gather with their fellow Brits to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
An interfaith theatrical devotional entitled “Voices of the Great War” will be staged on Sunday, Nov. 11, at London’s Hyde Park Chapel. Sponsored by “friends and members” of the Church, the live performance will offer musical tributes to the “love, hope, faith, courage and service sent home from the Front.”
"The UK has a strong tradition of observing Remembrance Sunday, with congregations participating in two minutes’ silence to remember those who gave their lives in the two world wars," said Elder Paul V. Johnson, a General Authority Seventy who presides over the Europe Area. "This year is unique because it is the commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the signing of Armistice and the ending of WWI. Many wards and stakes throughout the UK have chosen to participate in 11 days of service as a way to thank those men and women who served during the war, and those that never returned."
“Voices of the Great War” features characters and events gleaned from the journals and letters from front-line soldiers and loved ones on the home front. More than 70 percent of the script was fashioned from the words of wartime letters woven into a story of family and freedom, loss and redemption, as program chairman Nicholas Read explained.
Participating stakes “have rehearsed this for months, joined by friends from other faiths, civic leaders and representatives of the Armed Forces,” added Read.
The Church-sponsored event will salute all who sacrificed in the cause of freedom.
“By honoring them, we remember and honor Him whose example they followed, even unto death,” said Read. “This is the principle at the heart of this work. So it’s no coincidence that so many Saints and friends of the Church here have been motivated to seek out their WWI family at this time, learn of their service, and pay it forward. That’s the power of remembering our war dead, lest we forget."
A live broadcast of the Nov. 11 event is being streamed at 7 p.m. (British Standard Time) on the Church’s U.K. Facebook page .
A historic first for Church
Church representatives in the U.K. have also been invited for the first time to take part in the National Service of Remembrance on Nov. 11 at the Cenotaph in Westminster.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long link to Britain’s Armed Forces, and I am delighted that the National Service of Remembrance will now be truly reflective of the diverse faiths and beliefs which help to make Britain the great country that we are today,” said Faith Minister, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth in a Newsroom release.
For the past 90 years, the Cenotaph has been the location for the annual Remembrance Service. In keeping with tradition, hymns, prayers and a two-minute silence will be offered. Wreaths will be laid on the steps of the Cenotaph and the ceremony will end with a march of British war veterans in honor of their fallen comrades.
Latter-day Saints in the British ranks
James Perry is a British historian and a member. His research — much of which was recently published in the Journal of Mormon History — is evidence of World War I’s deep impact on Latter-day Saints living in the United Kingdom. While hundreds of members wore their nation’s uniform, many others supported both their soldiers and the restored gospel in their homes and local congregations.
Church membership in Britain “was approaching a total of 6,000 at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. By this point, some families had been in the Church for two or more generations,” wrote Perry in his paper “British Latter-day Saints in the Great War, 1914-1918.”
It’s unknown just how many Latter-day Saints served in the British Armed Force “but we can estimate it was several hundred,” wrote Perry in an email to the Church News.
In 1917, British Mission President George F. Richards stated: “Many of the local brethren — in one locality 50 percent, were in the service of the country.”
A year earlier, about 40 members from the Leeds Conference were serving in the army.
Not surprisingly, members were counted among the million-plus British military personnel killed in World War I. “We know there were more than 60 British Latter-day Saints who died during the war,” wrote Perry.
The suffering was felt on the battlefront and at home. Niels Anderson, who was serving in the Burnley Branch, Liverpool Conference, at the beginning of the war recorded how the branch members reacted to the departure of their fellow members:
“It’s sure awful. Three of our men saints went today — Duckworth, Holgate and Brierly; Kelly Jowett’s sure cried for her brother going out to war.”
Challenges and opportunities amidst conflict
Latter-day Saints serving in the British military during World War I endured hardships, made lifelong friends and even discovered missionary opportunities.
Perry’s research includes the telling personal account of Private Jesse Edmund Simister, who had presided over the Leeds Branch:
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.
Another British member in uniform, G.E. Gent from Leicester, spoke of the assuring power of his testimony:
“The hardships of active service have strengthened my testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and given me a stronger determination to fulfill my mission on earth.”
Missionary work, Relief Society service continues
Even as the battles raged, the gospel offered peace to British soldiers who discovered the Church and were baptized, including Private Harry Ashdown.
Sadly, Private Ashdown’s personal witness was published in the Millennial Star newspaper in the same issue as the notice of his death in 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. … I certainly enjoyed the time I spent with the saints at Norwich. I have never met happier people than the Latter-day Saints.”
Hundreds of British women were called as local missionaries during the war years, wrote Perry.
The 500 sister missionaries described by President Richards in 1919 formed part of a “lady missionary system” — making them responsible for tracting and distributing literature.
The Relief Society in the British Mission worked together to support the war and strengthen the soldiers, added Perry.
As part of a “literature for the soldiers” effort, Relief Society sisters collected books and magazines and shipped them to the front. Relief Society sisters also made clothing for wounded soldiers, visited hospitals, performed missionary work, all in addition "to holding their meetings and teaching the principles of life and salvation.”
Lest we forget
In the days leading up to the Nov. 11 Remembrance Day, members in the United Kingdom are invited to “remember those who have gone before” by joining in a variety of unity-building activities.
- Researching: Ancestors from World War I or from local communities and others taking part in other family history related work.
- Serving: An event "service calendar" offers 11 suggestions for each day in November leading up to 11/11/2018, of ways to remember those who have gone before, to include service opportunities and ideas, an original letter and videos for each day of the week.
- Planning: A special sacrament meeting to be held on Sunday, November 11, 2018.
- Inviting: Families and friends to an evening devotional of music & spoken word, with the option of staging a 60-minute show written for the occasion.