On April 6, 1917, America joined a war that had been raging in Europe since 1914. It was called the War to End All Wars; we know it as World War I. At the time, Machen was at Princeton. He had been there for quite some time. He was a student and then he was an instructor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Of course, he had been following the events of the war. Ever since war broke out in Europe, Machen was paying close attention, as it looked like America would enter the war. Right after Congress declared war on April 6, Machen wrote a letter in which he said, "I feel as though I ought to have some immediate part in the manifold work that is going forward." He looked into being a chaplain but he realized that, as a chaplain, he would be an officer and he did not think he would have enough connection with the enlisted men. He looked into being an ambulance driver, but in the end, Machen settled on working for the YMCA.
In those days, the YMCA provided social services for soldiers. They would help them write money orders to get their checks back home; they would give them letters and pens to help them keep up with the folks back home; they would give them magazines; and they would also make them hot chocolate. In fact, at one point, Machen wrote, "I have worn one uniform ever since leaving Paris and it is now all spotted up with hot chocolate."
He also witnessed very closely the horrors of war. He wrote of the planes and the shells, how they were relentless overhead. At one point, he called it "the concussion of the air. It is a rather brutal violation of the two elements, earth and air. I hate it, as I hate this whole business of war. But I am convinced that in the interests of peace, the Allies have simply got to win." At one point, Machen said, "The scenes that I have witnessed can never be forgotten. It is not easy to make anyone else realize what they were like."
Well, that peace that Machen wrote about finally did come. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, the armistice went into effect. It is known as Armistice Day, or, in the U.K., as Remembrance Day. We now know it as Veterans Day in the United States. It is when World War I came to an end. On that day, Machen wrote a letter home and said:
The Lord's name be praised. Hardly before have I known what true thanksgiving is. Nothing but the exuberance of the Psalms of David, accompanied with the psaltery on an instrument of ten strings could begin to do justice to the joy of this hour. Bless the Lord, O my soul. It seems to me that the hills must break forth into singing, 'Peace at last and praise to God!'
One of the things that Machen noticed the most after the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the silence. He reveled in the silence. He wrote, "But we heard something greater by far in contrast with the familiar roar of war, namely, the silence of the misty morning. I think I can venture upon the paradox, that was a silence that could really be heard." Machen continues, "I suppose it was the most eloquent, the most significant silence in the history of the world."
It would be another four months before Machen was able to leave France and make his way back to Princeton. He helped soldiers as they readjusted from the horrors of war and what they had seen and prepared them to return home to their families and to their work. When Machen returned to Princeton in 1918, he had a renewed purpose, a renewed sense of calling. He would need it, because the next few years would engage him in another battle, this time a theological battle. This time, he would be engaged in a battle for the soul of his own denomination.