Captain Hedley Vicars - A Christian soldier
Captain Hedley Vicars
A Christian soldier
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, minister of St Peter’s Church in Dundee, Scotland, died in March 1843 at the early age of twenty-nine. When Captain Hedley Vicars died in March 1855, twelve years later, it was at much the same age. Writing of the similarities in their experiences an eminent contemporary, William Arnot, says the following: “Upon both, in diverse spheres, the Spirit of God was poured out in great measure. Both in early youth were raised by Divine grace to measures of attainment in the life of faith seldom attained by the ripest believers, and then suddenly removed from conspicuous positions.” He then adds, “The result of this peculiar providential arrangement in regard to both was, that through their early removal they became the means of advancing the Redeemer’s kingdom more than, in all probability, it could have been advanced by lengthened, even though devoted, lives” (Life of James Hamilton, p.148-9).
In M’Cheyne’s case, a key factor in this growing influence was a memoir written by his close friend, Andrew Bonar, which appeared shortly after his death. In the case of Hedley Vicars it was exactly the same. Before the end of 1855 Memorials of Captain Hedley Vicars, 97th Regiment had appeared. It was from the pen of a close friend, Catherine Marsh, and had a vast readership. In a subsequent article we will glance at the life of Catherine Marsh herself. In this at the man of whom she wrote so movingly, Hedley Vicars.
We may begin with the beginning of their friendship. In October 1853 Catherine Marsh was on a visit to one of Hedley Vicars’ sisters. A letter arrived at breakfast one morning which caused “a tumult of joyous excitement” among the children. Their much-loved uncle Hedley was coming that day! Hedley and Catherine sat together at dinner and when she related to him the story of a remarkable conversion it was immediately apparent where his sympathies lay. “On his renewing the conversation in the evening”, she writes, “I said, half-enquiringly, ‘These subjects seem to have an interest for you?’ ‘Nothing in the world is worth calling interesting by their side’, he answered, with a fervour which told its own story; and then gave me an outline of the manner in which God had worked the great change in his own life”.
Hedley Vicars was a Captain in the 97th Regiment of the British army. He had joined the army in the spring of 1844, at the age of seventeen, and by the time he met Catherine Marsh had completed three tours of duty, one in Corfu, a second in Jamaica, and a third in Nova Scotia. It was during his time in Nova Scotia that “the great change” took place. One evening in November 1851, whilst casually leafing through the pages of a Bible that lay on the table of his room, his attention was arrested by the words of the Apostle John in his first letter, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin”. Could this be true for him? If so, he would henceforth live, by the grace of God, as a man should live who had been washed in the blood of Jesus Christ. “That night”, says Catherine Marsh, “he scarcely slept, pondering in his heart whether it were presumptuous or not to claim an interest in these words”. With the coming of the morning peace came to his heart. “The past”, he said, “is blotted out. What I have to do is to go forward. I cannot return to the sins from which my Saviour has cleansed me with His own blood”.
Hedley Vicars had grown up in a godly home and had long been familiar with the gospel. During, too, his early years as a soldier he had known periods of conviction of sin. But they had always been short-lived. When a fellow-officer was converted a few months after himself he could write, “He was, like myself, about the last in the regiment one would ever have thought likely to become religious”. Three of his men, converted through his witness, he could describe as “once great sinners, nearly as bad as myself”. Writing at a subsequent time to the Garrison Chaplain he could say, “I do not believe there is a man in the regiment who had plunged deeper in sin than he who now writes this…I was in the full career of vice…” And in a diary entry he confesses that looking back on his past life he could “see nothing but an accumulation of transgression and sin. Oh, my soul, let me remember with disgust and horror that for nearly five and twenty years I was a willing servant of Satan”.
The transformation was correspondingly great. “As he felt he had been much forgiven”, writes a friend, “so in proportion was the ever-burning and increasing love to Him whom he had so long grieved by his sins. The name of Jesus was ever on his lips and in his heart. Much grace was given him to confess Jesus boldly before others”. He began to teach a Sunday-school class, to visit the sick, and to read the Scriptures and pray with his men individually. And what hope he had for their conversion! “Knowing, as I do, the sin-stained course of my past life, and how utterly undeserving I was of being an object of God’s pardoning mercy, I never despair of even the foremost in the ranks of Satan being brought to the feet of Jesus”.
Early in 1854 the 97th Regiment, along with many other British regiments, was ordered to Crimea. Conflict had erupted between Russia and the Ottoman Empire; Britain and France had come to the aid of the Ottomans; and the Crimean peninsula had become the main theatre of the war. Shortly before leaving Vicars got engaged to a young woman whose name is not disclosed. Marsh tells us that “the hope of returning to claim her as his own for ever was very near his heart, and, throughout the long months of his last miserable winter before Sebastopol had no unimportant influence in keeping his spirit bright and strong”. His impression was, however, “that he should not return”. When saying goodbye to Catherine Marsh he even asked, as a last favour, that when he was shot she would write to his mother, see her when she could, and comfort her as God would teach her. Marsh assures us that the thought of not returning “did not depress him, only gave him a more solemn trust in God, that He would make the name of the Lord Jesus Christ glorified in him whether by life or by death”. And it was, of course, by no means certain that he would die. Nevertheless, the “solemn foreboding” that he had said his final farewells “ran like an under-current through the remainder of his course, and deepened his earnestness in pressing after the prize set before him”.
The 97th did not proceed immediately to Crimea. Instead, it was sent to Piraeus, in Greece, to form part of an Anglo-French force there. A whole chapter of the biography, extending to some fifty pages, is devoted to Vicars’ experiences in Piraeus. It is entitled The Hospital. A month after arriving he writes, “We are quartered here with the French, who have upwards of four thousand men…The weather is very hot, and the climate bad. We are now in quarantine, as the cholera has broken out amongst the French. They have lost two officers and one hundred men”. He adds, “We have not lost a man”. But this was to so drastically change that within the space of thirty-four days cholera had claimed the lives of one hundred and twenty of the regiment’s finest. Vicars became the unofficial chaplain and his time was taken up with conducting funerals and visiting the sick and dying in hospital. There he would read and pray with the men and take every opportunity to speak to them about Christ. Writing of those who died he says, “I do hope that some, nay, that many, amongst them were enabled to look to Jesus in their last moments. God grant we may find such to have been the case when we all meet at the last day”.
The 97th eventually arrived in Crimea in November 1854. Vicars’ perspective on the war is especially interesting in the light of current Russian aggression in the same part of the world. “There cannot be a doubt that it is a just war we are engaged in…He [the Russian despot] has made an aggression upon a country (one of our oldest allies), which had given him no just cause of provocation, and has thus disturbed the peace of Europe, and let loose upon us the horrors of war…” Vicars and his men were eager to be at them. “The whole 97th Regiment…are delighted at the prospect of measuring their strength with the ‘Roossians’ (as the soldiers call them)…I say with them, the sooner we are ‘let loose’ the better”.
The concluding part of the biography is devoted to the notorious “winter before Sebastopol” of 1854-55. But the focus is not so much on the hardships suffered (“what are soldiers meant for?” he asked), as on the grace of God in Hedley Vicars’ life. We see it in his hospital work as he read and prayed with the sick and dying, just as in Piraeus. So too in his willingness to share what he had with those in need, his prayerfulness, his love of the Lord’s Day, and his cheerfulness. An unsent letter to his fiancé, discovered after his death, gives us a glimpse of what was uppermost in his heart. “I have been in many a danger by night and day since I last wrote to you, my own beloved; but the Lord has delivered me from them all, and not only so, but He has likewise kept me in perfect peace, and made me glad with the light of his countenance. In Jesus I find all I want of happiness or enjoyment, and as week after week, and month after month roll by, I believe He is becoming more and more lovely in my eyes, and precious to my soul”.
The end came with terrible suddenness. On the night of 22nd March 1855 it was discovered that a large force of Russian soldiers were approaching. With a cry of “Now 97th, on your pins, and charge”, he led his men into the fray. An enemy bullet, fired at close range, severed a main artery and within moments he had bled to dead.
A fellow soldier described him afterwards as “the most gallant, the most cheerful, the happiest, the most universally respected officer, and the most consistent Christian soldier”. Duncan Matheson, Scottish evangelist and missionary to the soldiers, writes similarly: “He was the most beloved officer of the regiment…He was growing much in the divine life…He fell as a Christian, nobly doing his duty…Lord, more grace, more grace, that we may follow him as he followed Jesus!”