HE part played by parish churches and their clergy during the
First World War has, understandably, been overshadowed by the work
of military chaplains. But their response is no less fascinating.
Modern research shows that they made a more significant
contribution on the Home Front than has long been appreciated.
On 4 August 1914, when Germany refused to withdraw its invading
armies from Belgium, Britain declared war, and thus became involved
in a major conflict in Europe for the first time since the defeat
King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony of
Buckingham Palace that night, and were cheered for three hours by
enormous crowds. Queen Mary's biographer later wrote: "Once warwas
declared, bewilderment and incredulity gave way to determination,
and, on the part of those who set off for France, to crusading
zeal." Individuals and organisations threw themselves into
supporting the war effort from the outset.
Churches were not exempt from this upsurge of enthusiasm: in
many parishes, special collections were held for organisations such
as the Prince of Wales' National Relief Fund, the Order of St John
of Jerusalem, the Red Cross, and other charities. Services of
intercession for victory were held in cathedrals and churches, and
from these evolved weekly, and sometimes daily, services of
intercession in many churches.
Some clergy became carried away by it all. The Revd Andrew
Clark, the level-headed Vicar of Great Leighs, Essex, kept a diary
throughout the war (a version was later published as Echoes of
the Great War (OUP 1985), and is un-put-downable). On 16
August 1914, he noted that his neighbour, the Revd Thomas Sadgrove,
Vicar of Fairstead, had "preached a horrifying sermon on the
horrible scenes of the battlefield, and exhorted all the young men
to join the Army. He had a big Union Jack hung in front of the
pulpit, instead of the pulpit-hanging."
HAVING said that, patriotic sermons of this sort seem to have
been the exception rather than the rule, and attitudes appear to
have been more nuanced. The poet and First World War soldier
Geoffrey Dearmer, once said of his father, the Revd Percy Dearmer,
Vicar of St Mary's, Primrose Hill: "My father would have been very
disappointed if we [he and his brother Christopher] hadn't joined
up, [though] he took the general view of the tragedy of it
Percy Dearmer's attitude replicated the attitude of a great many
Anglicans. They were not blind to the destructive character of war,
but they believed in the righteousness of their country's cause in
the face of German aggression.
Five days after Sadgrove's sermon, the Bishop of Colchester,
Robert Whitcombe, and thus Sadgrove's suffragan bishop (who, like
Andrew Clark, may have heard of the bloodthirsty sermon at
Fairstead), delivered a more thoughtful and balanced address.
"They had entered this great war with clean hands," he said.
"Their leaders had striven for peace, and they had only taken up
arms in the cause of national honour, for the defence of the rights
of smaller states against oppression, and to relieve Europe from
the strain of an intolerable despotism. . . They embarked on this
awful enterprise with clear consciences as to the justice of their
The clergy were soon confronted with a raft of problems
connected with military service. Britain hada long tradition of a
voluntary Army: conscription was seen as un-British.
The clergy began to be asked by young men: "Ought I to fight?"
It quickly became clear that Britain's small, peacetime regular
Army needed to be enlarged. Some individuals and businesses used
what looks suspiciously like moral blackmail to persuade men to
enlist: for example, by refusing to employ men of military age.
Punch magazine published cartoons of "shirkers", designed
to embarrass them into volunteering.
THE clergy and laity of the Church of England tended not to
stoop to such depths, but sermons, parish magazines, and church
literature were all used to encourage men to enlist. Organisations
such as the Church Lads' Brigade, and the Church of England Men's
Society, promoted recruitment among their members, and tried to
stay in touch with them once they had joined the Army.
Churches sometimes displayed lists of men serving in the Army
and the Royal Navy, so that their fellow parishioners might pray
for them. These soon changed into lists of men killed. In 1915, the
government reluctantly recognised that relying on volunteers for
military service was not working, and, in January 1916,
conscription was introduced.
In 1914, many of the clergy had portrayed the war as a just
cause. Fairly quickly, many priests began to ask themselves, "If I
am encouraging my parishioners to fight, and perhaps be killed,
ought I not to go with them and minister to them?"
There is a long tradition that forbids priests from shedding
blood, and the Church of England actively dissuaded its clergy from
enlisting in the Army. Some priests did serve as combatants, for a
variety of reasons, and there was little the bishops could do about
A more attractive alternative was to seek a commission as an
Army chaplain (see feature).
Many clergy wanted to become chaplains, but the bishops were
chary of letting them volunteer willy-nilly, for fear of causing
problems with the Church's parochial system. Policies varied from
diocese to diocese, but, generally, bishops were happier to see
curates volunteer than vicars, although some incumbents did become
NOT all clergy passed their interview with Bishop John Taylor
Smith, the Low-Church Chaplain-General, who could be difficult and
made no bones about rejecting any clergy he felt unsuitable
(Anglo-Catholics tended not to hit it off with him), or whom he
felt would be of better use staying in their parishes (and
sometimes, it must be said, his judgements were spot-on).
Some clergy volunteered to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps
(RAMC). One newly ordained deacon from Colchester left his title
parish after only three weeks, in order to join the RAMC, much to
the chagrin of the Bishop of Chelmsford, John Watts-Ditchfield, who
tried unsuccessfully to get Lord Kitchener to intervene. Other
clergy went to France with the Church Army or the Young Men's
For those clergy who remained in their parishes, the First World
War was to prove a time of opportunity, suffering, and hard slog:
673,375 Britons were killed while serving in the Army, and another
1,643,469 were wounded.
The parish clergy, wherever possible, tried to minister to the
families of those whe were killed or wounded. Even allowing for
Roman Catholics, Nonconformists, and those who simply did not want
a visit from the vicar, there were many devastated or grieving
families for the clergy to see.
Priests found themselves walking up garden paths, ringing
doorbells, and wondering what they were going to find when the door
was opened. Sometimes, they found themselves visiting the same
house several times, as the family suffered multiple
Some clergy began exhibiting signs of what we would today call
stress - they referred to it then as "anxiety" - which often
manifested itself as illness, or premature death.
Like everyone else, the clergy were short of sleep, and food.
Wartime inflation caused money worries: prices increased but their
stipends remained the same. They also suffered their own
bereavements. A high proportion of the sons of clergymen were
commissioned as Army officers, and a great many were killed.
ONE example is Canon Greville Brunwin-Hales, the Rector of St
Mary-at-the-Walls, and Rural Dean of Colchester. Brunwin-Hales was
a devoted and popular priest, who did not spare himself during the
war. He had two sons, who were killed while serving in the Army and
the Royal Flying Corps.
Shortly afterwards, one Sunday afternoon, Brunwin-Hales baptised
two babies. Perhaps they reminded him of his sons - certainly, he
then went home to his rectory, and suffered a complete
His wife managed to get him to Eastbourne, where he remained for
many months. At first, his curates tried to conceal their rector's
illness, but at length they had to tell people.
One day, the postman delivered a large envelope to Brunwin-Hales
in Eastbourne. He initially thought it must contain legal papers
from his solicitor, but when he opened it, he found a letter of
good wishes for his recovery signed by hundreds of people, many of
whom he had helped with their own bereavements.
THERE were many other faithful priests, working tirelessly in
parishes up and down the country during the war, shouldering their
own burdens, and helping other people to cope with theirs.
The clergy of the Church of England may be said, on the whole,
to have responded to the crisis of 1914-1918 with resourcefulness,
compassion, and self-sacrifice. At a parochial level, the Church of
England fared significantly better during the First World War than
has been recognised for much of the past century.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is the author of Valiant
Hearts: Civilians, soldiers, and the Church of England,
1914-1918 which is to be published by Boydell and Brewer in
THE BATTLING BISHOP
ROBERT HENRY WHITCOMBE was born in 1862, and educated at
Winchester, and New College, Oxford. He was ordained in 1888. After
serving in parishes in Aylesbury and Romford, he was consecrated
Suffragan Bishop of Colchester in 1909.
A broad-churchman, he got on well with clergy of all types, and
had a reputation for being a good listener.
Three of Whitcombe's eight children who were of military age -
Philip, Cyril, and Maurice - served as Army officers in the First
World War. Whitcombe offered his services as an Army chaplain in
1915, but was rejected because he was a bishop.
In 1918, he learned that there was a backlog of troops on the
Western Front waiting to be confirmed. He wrote again, offering his
services, and was told, rather unhelpfully, by the Army Chaplains'
Department that he could not go to France with the rank of a
bishop. He replied that he was willing to go as an ordinary
chaplain (fourth class).
Whitcombe served as a chaplain on the Western Front in 1918-19,
where he is believed to have confirmed soldiers, returning to
England from time to time to help with diocesan work. He died in
Colchester, greatly mourned, in 1922.