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Praying in the trenches

by
10 November 2010

Arnold Harvey examines the contribution made by clergymen on the front line during the Great War

DURING the First World War, more than 3000 Anglican clergymen served as military chaplains. More than 100 died as a result of enemy action. More than 200 were awarded the Dis­tinguished Service Order, or the Military Cross, for their conduct under fire. Three were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration for valour.

“The more Padres died in battle doing Christlike deeds the better for the Church,” the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy MC (“Woodbine Willie”) told his distinguished colleague the Revd Theodore Hardy (see panel, below).

During the first year of the war, however, chaplains were strictly forbidden to go into the firing line. Their most important work was at the rear, setting up and running clubs and canteens — work that was later taken over by the YMCA, the Church Army, and other organisations.

The most famous of the clubs run by chaplains was Talbot House, established in the Ypres Salient by the Revd Philip “Tubby” Clayton MC, which was refounded after the war as Toc H, a movement to teach selfless service and the reconciliation of the different social classes.

Later on, chaplains were mostly assigned to casualty clearing stations, or to brigades. Those posted to brigades generally attached them­selves particularly to one of the three battalions that formed each brigade, and, as a result, spent much of their time at or near the front line.

Roman Catholic chaplains — regarded with some suspicion by the mostly Protestant combatant officers — tended to concentrate on hearing confessions, celebrating masses, and giving extreme unction, duties that were much in demand from RC troops. At least 40 per cent of the RC chaplains were monks, who had obtained partial dispensation from their monastic vows in order to serve outside the cloister.

The Anglican chaplains found that the majority of soldiers who were nominally Church of England had little interest in sacraments, and even less in sermons.

WOODBINE WILLIE, who was the Great War’s most celebrated chaplain, advised a newcomer to chaplain’s work: “Take a box of fags in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart, and go up to them, laugh with them, joke with them; you can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.”

A highly effective preacher, Stud­dert Kennedy was charismatic, haggard-faced, and had large, extra­ordinarily sad-looking eyes. So mourn­ful were they, it was said, that it was as if “the possessor of them had found God Himself in tears.”

Other chaplains, if perhaps less gifted, were no less motivated. Often they were men, no longer particularly young, who had abandoned com­fortable livings and families of grow­ing children in order to join what was seen — from one end of the country to the other — as a veritable crusade against the forces of darkness.

A Welsh audience in London was told by David Lloyd George — later to be the Prime Minister who presided over the final victory in the struggle against Imperial Germany: “We can [now] see great everlasting things that matter — Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of Sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to Heaven.”

IT WAS in such terms that most Anglican clergymen saw the war. For some, working as welfare officers behind the lines was not enough. For instance, the Revd Robert Furley Callaway, a missionary in South Africa before the war, became a military chaplain less than a week before his 40th birthday.

After 11 months of frustration in the rear echelons, he applied for an ordinary commission. A year later, he was killed in action at Ginchy, as a second lieutenant in the Sherwood Foresters — a fragment of a cross on a cord was found with his remains on the battlefield.

Once chaplains began to be assigned to front-line brigades the temptation to go forward into no man’s land was irresistible. The Victoria Crosses awarded to the Revd Edward Mellish and the Revd William Addison were for rescuing wounded soldiers under fire.

Hardy had already been awarded the DSO for remaining with a fatally wounded soldier until he died, despite being under fire and in pain from a broken wrist. He won his VC for repeated instances of aiding the wounded — on one occasion staying with an injured officer only ten yards from a German machine-gun post.

Many Anglican chaplains seem to have been of the frontiersman type. Before he was ordained, Mellish had ridden with the British South Africa Police in the Boer War, and later worked in a diamond mine at Jagersfontein.

Addison was said to have worked in a lumber camp in Canada before embarking on a career as a military chaplain. The Revd Charles Steer, like Callaway, had been a missionary in South Africa. A senior colleague described him as “a big-hearted, fine vigorous man”.

The Chaplain General, the Rt Revd John Taylor Smith, preferred men of this stamp. (He had himself been a missionary, and later a bishop, in Sierra Leone.) Consequently, nearly 60 per cent of the 7169 Anglican clergymen who applied to be chap­lains were turned down on the grounds of being too young and inexperienced, too Anglo-Catholic, or simply too wimpish.

Of course, chaplains were not the only Church of England “profes­sionals” who went to war as Christian soldiers. The Revd Noel Hudson, later Bishop of Newcastle, was still training for the ministry when war broke out. He joined up in September 1918, and, by the time of the Armistice, he had won the DSO and bar, the MC and bar, and was commanding a battalion.

The Revd Bernard Vann was school chaplain at Wellingborough in 1914. Impatient at the delay in response to his application for a military chaplaincy, he became a combatant officer, and won a VC as a battalion commander in 1918, but was killed a few days later.

It is possible that more than 100 Anglican clergymen served as com­batants during the First World War. Most intriguing, but least docu­mented, were a small number who served as Privates, at the foot of the distinctly uncomfortable military pile.

Some, at least, of these men must have been motivated by a wish to share the hardships of the common soldiers to the very fullest extent. Perhaps it was in the nature of this form of apostleship that neither then, nor later, did they seek to draw attention to what they had done.

‘The most wonderful man’

Theodore Hardy, the most decorated chaplain of the war, was described by the adjutant of the 8th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment as “the most wonderful man I have ever met”. He was not the rugger-playing stereotype beloved of the Chaplain General.

Already aged 50 when the war broke out, he had been ordained while on the staff at Nottingham High School, where D. H. Lawrence had been among his pupils. After six years as headmaster of a small country grammar school, he had become Vicar of Hutton Roof, in what is now Cumbria, partly to enable him to nurse his dying wife.

When the war started, he was recently widowed, and, it seems, psychologically and professionally exhausted. “I love my children intensely,” he said, “but I believe I could do no better, if God so willed, than join my beloved wife in the presence of the Lord.”

In fact, like so many others who volunteered for the Army, he thought he had no real choice: in the pocket New Testament he carried with him to the front line, he had marked the passage in Revelation 3.8: “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.”

He was wounded in the thigh on 10 October 1918, and, worn down by exhaustion after nearly two years of stress, grief, and sleepless nights visiting the men in the trenches, he died of pneumonia on 18 October 1918, two days short of his 55th birthday.

Already aged 50 when the war broke out, he had been ordained while on the staff at Nottingham High School, where D. H. Lawrence had been among his pupils. After six years as headmaster of a small country grammar school, he had become Vicar of Hutton Roof, in what is now Cumbria, partly to enable him to nurse his dying wife.

When the war started, he was recently widowed, and, it seems, psychologically and professionally exhausted. “I love my children intensely,” he said, “but I believe I could do no better, if God so willed, than join my beloved wife in the presence of the Lord.”

In fact, like so many others who volunteered for the Army, he thought he had no real choice: in the pocket New Testament he carried with him to the front line, he had marked the passage in Revelation 3.8: “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.”

He was wounded in the thigh on 10 October 1918, and, worn down by exhaustion after nearly two years of stress, grief, and sleepless nights visiting the men in the trenches, he died of pneumonia on 18 October 1918, two days short of his 55th birthday.

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