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Ministry transformed by the trenches

08 November 2013

Alan Wilkinson reads books shedding lighton religion's part in the Great War

Woodbine Willie: An unsung hero of World War One
Bob Holman
Lion £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT611 )

Muddling Through: The organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One
Peter Howson
Helion £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50 (Use code CT611 )

Stretcher Bearer! Fighting for life in the trenches
Charles H. Horton
Dale Le Vack, editor
Lion £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20 (Use code CT611 )

BOB HOLMAN in Woodbine Willie memorably retells the story of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the slum priest, heroic First World War chaplain, and post-war prophet to English society (Comment, 1 March). In recent years, he has been commemorated in the Church of England calendar. How many churches remember him liturgically? How many Anglicans remember him at all?

This quick forgetting illustrates our destructive obsession with the contemporary and our lack of belief in the communion of saints. Are we scared of being inspired and changed by heroic figures? This eloquent and passionate book enables an astonishingly self-giving person to step out of the shadows and become our contemporary.

He learned comradeship with the poor from his vicarage upbringing. Like three of this brothers, he felt called to the priesthood. At theological college, he seemed possessed by a force that would not let him go, with fire that would blaze out. He accepted a Worcester parish because it had a small stipend and destitute people. He enlisted as a chaplain on 21 December 1914. Four days later, he was conducting a carol service in the pouring rain in a French square.

During one bombardment, he knelt up to his waist in water, ministering to the men. Dodging shells, he pulled the wounded out of the mud. He held a man down while the doctor operated without anaesthetic. Ministering in an advanced post to 20 "smashed-up" men in the Ypres Salient, he realised they needed morphine. To fetch it, he ran through a German barrage, sheltering in shell holes (where he rescued the wounded, German as well as English) on the way. For this he was awarded the MC.

He returned to his parish, believing war was evil and Church and liturgy needed reform. "On two points I am certain: Christ and His sacrament; apart from these I am not sure that I am certain of anything." He was in great demand as a speaker. His books, particularly his poems, quickly sold out. He campaigned for the poor and greater equality, but could not support Labour until it became "thoroughly Christian".

In 1921, he became chief missioner for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, recently formed to attract working-class people to church and to bring conciliation to industry. Travelling all over the country, he worked himself to death in 1929, aged 45. The streets of Worcester were lined for his funeral at the cathedral.

Holman tells us in a challenging epilogue that he himself resigned as a professor to work among people in great poverty. Just as Studdert Kennedy devoted himself to the poor, so he hopes more Christians will live and work in poor areas, invest in ethical banks, and shop with firms owned by workers.

Muddling Through provides carefully researched information about the organisation of First World War army chaplaincy. By contrast with Holman's passion, Peter Howson presents his material coolly, rather surprising in someone who was 25 years a Methodist chaplain. There have been many studies of the work and personalities of chaplains, but he regrets the lack of attention to the ways chaplaincy was organised.

During the war, there was a continual debate about the best location for chaplains - advance dressing posts, or nearer the fighting in greater danger? There were continuing tensions between the Churches over whether each had been allowed enough chaplains, and whether they were answerable to an acceptable authority. At first, because of lack of proper deployment, chaplains were either under-used or overworked. But, by the end of 1915, chaplaincy provision had improved: there were more chaplains and a better structure.

At first, chaplains were thrown into this new ministry without preparation. Sadly, Howson only sketches the new training courses. From the Battle of the Somme onwards, chaplains ministered closer to the fighting; so more were killed: 185 died; and of these 111 were Anglican. Many received awards for bravery, including three VCs.

Howson provides scholarly appendices. Too many verbatim documents make the narrative lumpy. The cover, depicting an immaculate chaplain holding a book and standing aloft in a plane cockpit, addressing seated troops many feet below, is depressing and unrepresentative. A much preferable alternative picture would have been one that showed a chaplain kneeling by the side of a stretcher.

Stretcher Bearer! is one of the few accounts of what the war meant to those in the ranks. Charles Horton was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Although he volunteered to join the army, he had no wish to kill. By becoming a non-combatant, he could not become an officer; for RAMC officers had to carry weapons for self-defence.

This autobiography, written half a century after the Armistice, has been helpfully edited to provide the military, topographical, and historical context. Horton was very restrained in his descriptions of terrible conditions and fearful suffering. We are told that he never missed Sunday worship, but unfortunately we are not allowed to enter into his Methodist beliefs and attitudes. Perhaps the editor removed them?

Horton had a strong sense of place as he took the reader through the various stages by which he approached the French and Italian fronts. What he called a "protective fatalism" was widely cultivated, and enabled people to cope. Singing songs that mocked war, sex, and religion, while marching, interposed humour between war and fear. This book tells us graphically what it meant to carry a stretcher

Canon Alan Wilkinson is an honorary assistant priest at Portsmouth Cathedral. The Lutterworth Press is to publish a third edition of his book The Church of England and the First World War at the turn of the year.

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