“I Was Jacob”: Another Student’s Memoir of Our WWI Travel Course

As the calendar turns to March, today we share one last post from our January travel course in Europe on the history of World War I: a second example of the memoirs that students wrote as their final assignment. This post comes to us from History major Angela Stephens ’16, who also contributed several beautiful images to our four-part photo essay.

I volunteered. As soon as I heard about this trip, I found the recruiting office — Professor Gehrz’s office — and put my name on the list. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I was truly British… I mean Bethel. I could not wait to get our trip details; I was leaving school to go learn of war. It was not until the Last Post in Belgium that I realized my emotional journey though the trip had been somewhat similar to what the soldiers of World War I experienced. I started off very excited, then I became disenchanted, angry, then I eventually came to terms with what I had seen and heard.

The Houses of Parliament
The Houses of Parliament (Angela Stephens)

We arrived in London after some exciting travel hiccups. The night we finally landed in our hostel, I was already fully in love with London. Something called me to it, something wild and lively. I felt comfortable walking the streets with my luggage at two in the morning. I was in a group of students that I did not know very well at all and I was actually more comfortable moving about alone through crowds and metro stations than with my peers. I believe this experience may have been similar what to brand new soldiers would have experienced. Before joining the military with many of your friends, soldiers probably did not know many of the men they were stationed with. I was in a foreign land, with foreign people, learning to be one.

As our group toured the streets and major sites of London — Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, and St Paul’s Cathedral — I felt a change in my attraction to London. There was something behind my admiration for it. A slight darkness, a small doubt, something lurking. I walked the streets of London alone, and often, at night. I was surrounded by loud life and bright lights, and yet, a silent darkness. After visiting museums, art galleries and monuments, this shadow of stillness grew.

Something is only magical and mysterious if it can only be seen from a distance. Once up close, eye to eye, with war and the memories skulking through London, I was disenchanted. The glorification of man and machine was so apparent, it was suffocating. Where was God in all of this blood and metal? On one of my many rides on the Tube, a song came through my headphones and a line struck me and became my summation of London: “This city breathes the plague of loving things more than their creator.” London, plastered with fashion, metal and man, gave little notice to God.

An Oxford street
An Oxford street (Angela Stephens)

Oxford was a different story. This ancient-feeling city was sweet and comforting. Our tour guide, Alastair, probably had a hand in this. I was able to touch buildings that were almost four times older than the United States of America. This realization made me feel extremely small in the scope of time and space. This old city felt like a haven from the dry London. I imagine soldiers who came to the many hospitals in Oxford felt similarly. We passed lush green gardens, quiet, cool and soft. A welcoming embrace compared to London.

Belgium resembled Oxford in soft deep greens, but it was dissimilar in atmosphere. There was a sorrow that had grown deep into the ground. Quiet, but ever present. Reality struck in Belgium, the front lines of battle, death. It was easier to find God in suffering and silence. Like Wilfred Owen, “I, too, saw God through mud,” though not the mud that cracked on cheeks; I saw God in the mud of the fields and hills, now rolling and beautiful. What Satan meant for evil, God meant it for good. Out of the mud, God brought fertile beauty. He brought production out of destruction.

And yet, I could not help but be more confused and frustrated. How could God allow these horrors? How could man, either side of the line, think what there were doing was noble? ​

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower (Angela Stephens)

Paris was, at first, welcomed after the solemn trenches. It was as if we were on leave, allowed a distraction from the burdens we saw on the Western Front. Yet, it was a hollow comfort, which, in the end,was no comfort at all. Still, man and machine were glorified. The sight of beautiful buildings and magnificent structures comforted my eyes, but my mind still twisted with frustration and confusion. The Palace of Versailles had gardens that had no end, magnificent paintings and rooms for a select few honored guests to watch the king and his family eat dinner. This was tainted by the knowledge that while this line of kings ate lavish meals, Paris was a Band-Aid for a broken bone.

Leaving Paris, we went to Germany, where my final and most influential realization occurred.

Dachau was the end of my rope. I came to the limits of my faith in God’s goodness, or at least his power. Dachau was the product of a world that had lost sight of its creator. Man was so glorified that he was willing to place his brother on a scale. If that brother did not weigh enough, he was snuffed out. It was a place of death and absolute silence.

I was so angry and once again, God spoke to me through a song. It is well with my soul. It is not! It is well with my soul. How could he allow this to happen to so many innocent people? It is well with my soul.

Something inside broke. It was my anger. God is God even when I hate what man has done. He is God even when I could not see any goodness. He is good, he makes it well with my soul and he made it well with the people who suffered, and the people who caused the suffering. I had to let go of my confusion. I had to realize that faith can not be questioned, only lived.

Dachau grounds
The grounds at Dachau (Angela Stephens)

In the end, I came out alive, a little bruised, but still healthy. I heard once a sermon in which the preacher said “we can never fully trust God until we have wrestled with him.” I became Jacob. I wrestled and I have been blessed tremendously. This trip helped me see that, no matter how I feel, God sees, knows and feels infinitely more than I ever could. It also gave me a warning to watch what I am glorifying. I could end up putting myself in a spiritual Dachau, and probably being angry with God for allowing it. I experienced excitement, disillusion, sorrow, anger, that all wrapped into restoration.

I hope many soldiers were able to come to the last, but this trip also helped me gain insight to what the soldiers were going through mentally. I had no fear of death, but I could comprehend what was going through their minds.


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