Conflict on the home front

by
25 July 2014

The Church of England broadly supported the war, and many clergy wanted to enlist. But the effects of fighting overseas meant a critical ministry in parishes. Robert Beaken explains

PA

British infantrymen in a shallow trench, before an advance during the Battle of the Somme

British infantrymen in a shallow trench, before an advance during the Battle of the Somme

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 of Napoleon.

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."

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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 all." 

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 cause."

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 it.

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 chaplains.

 

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 Christian Association.

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 bereavements.

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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 breakdown.

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 2015.

 

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.

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