ONE army chaplain is said to have remarked that he was not sure
whether his task was to be "Mr God, or Mr Cinema". The comment
highlights the dilemma that chaplains faced over the part they were
meant to play on the Western Front.
Similarly, if more prosaically, Field Service
Regulations stated that chaplains were responsible for the
Army's "spiritual administration and welfare". But although for
many soldiers, nicotine may have meant more than the Nicene Creed
(the fame of Edward Studdert Kennedy, the legendary chaplain known
as Woodbine Willie, persists), the army chaplaincy played an
important part in both secular and sacred matters. Field Marshal
Sir Douglas Haig, British Army Commander in Chief, believed that "a
good chaplain is as important as a good general."
Christian priests have been present on the battlefield since at
least the Middle Ages. Their job then was, in part, to grant
forgiveness to those about to violate the commandment not to kill,
and to oversee the burial of those slain. They were usually
chaplains to the feudal lords who were involved in the
What was known in 1914 as the Army Chaplains' Department dated
from 1796. Its organisation, when the Great War broke, out
reflected changes introduced in the wake of the Crimean War
(1854-1856), and the Boer War (1899-1902).
In 1914, the Department's chaplains were predominantly
Christian, although Jewish chaplains had been attached to it in the
1880s. It was about this time, too, that the term "padre", which
was first adopted by British troops in India from the Portuguese
for "father", was taken up more widely by the military.
The chaplaincy was hierarchical, and the position carried an
army rank. On appointment, most chaplains were made captains, and
the department's head was a major-general. He had responsibility
for Anglican chaplains, while a civil servant oversaw the others.
Chaplains for Dominion troops were under the control of their home
countries; those from India came under the Indian Ecclesiastical
THE Chaplain-General at the outbreak of war was the Rt Revd John
Taylor Smith. He had been appointed in 1901 (previously he was
Bishop of Sierra Leone), and was responsible for about 100 Anglican
chaplains. There were also, in smaller numbers, Presbyterian,
Wesleyan, and Roman Catholic chaplains.
By November 1918, chaplains totalled almost 3500, fewer than
half of whom were Anglican. The department now also employed
chaplains for, among others, Baptists, Congregationalists, and
Primitive Methodists. It had declined a Unitarian application.
The outbreak of war led to many chaplaincy applications from the
Anglican Church and other Churches. Roman Catholic priests were
recruited from both religious communities and diocesan clergy.
Taylor Smith's strongly Evangelical outlook, however, led to
claims that he had discriminated against Anglo-Catholics. He viewed
them as "extremists . . . out of place in the Army".
The issue achieved wider prominence with a letter from "T.
Atkins (C. of E.)" in the Church Times of 4 September
1914. He complained how few of the 50 chaplains whohad accompanied
the British Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of war were
Anglo-Catholic, and expressed the hope that they would form a
higher proportion when called upon to serve Kitchener's New Armies,
which were currently being formed.
The Church Times argued that such discrimination was
"bigotry of the worst kind", and campaigned for a change in policy.
This was partly achieved through an approach made by the
ecumenically minded Viscount Halifax, the President of the English
Church Union, to Lord Kitchener. In May 1915, the Rt Revd Llewellyn
Gwynne, formerly Bishop of the Sudan, was appointed Deputy
Chaplain-General, with responsibility for chaplains on the Western
SOME five million men passed through the British army over the
course of the First World War, and the Western Front was its
biggest theatre. The conflict as a whole saw the death of about
750,000 British participants. Chaplains had responsibilities both
for the living and the dead, and experienced the war in various
ways alongside both.
Clergy were never conscripted, although they came close to being
so in 1918. Similarly, Anglican chaplains were not initially
allowed on the front line, but were increasingly found there from
the spring of 1915. Like doctors, they were viewed as
non-combatants, and were not allowed to carry arms.
Some clergy resigned their livings or employment (as school
chaplains, for example) in order to enlist as ordinary soldiers.
Almost one third withdrew from theological college in 1914, or
delayed ordination - the number of candidates fell from 610 in 1914
to 114 in 1918.
About 70 per cent of army recruits registered as "C of E", and
church parade for them was compulsory - overseen by the chaplain.
For many, this was seen as another form of inspection, with the
chaplain included as a member of the officer class.
One soldier, hoping to escape both, announced that he had become
a Roman Catholic. Hewas then told that his servicewas four miles
away, and he had better get a move on. On hisreturn, he "returned"
The sermon delieved at church parade might not necessarily
engage everyone (and its tone might have been specified by the
officer in command), but most responded to hymn singing - even if,
on occasion, members of the congregation sang their own versions.
"When this lousy war is over, no more soldiering for me" was often
sung to the tune of "What a Friend we have in Jesus".
CHAPLAINS were mostly assigned to casualty clearing-stations, or
to brigades. Holding officer rank meant that chaplains enjoyed
officer privileges, including their own rooms, and the services of
a batman. Other officers might enjoy their comradeship because of a
common educational or family background (30 per cent of officers
were the sons of clergy).
But chaplains often complained of insufficient support from the
officers. They also took exception to the relative indifference -
even hostility - shown to them on occasion because their exposure
to danger was normally minimal. Officers often assumed that a
chaplain had time on his hands, and could be asked to arrange
concerts, theatricals, or help ambulance staff and stretcher
bearers, or write letters for the injured.
The chaplain's ambiguous position sometimes led to a similar
reaction from the men - a provider of material comfort, but whose
spiritual sustenance would rarely be sought. When the Revd Dick
Sheppard, while a chaplain in France, invited some soldiers to a
celebration of the eucharist, they told him that they thought it
was only for officers.
Another Anglican chaplain in France acknowledged that the
soldier "has got religion; I am not sure that he has got
Christianity". Making long-term progress was difficult, since most
chaplains' postings lasted only a year.
Yet chaplains returned fromthe Front changed by the experience,
some even doubting their faith - if perhaps only temporarily.
Although, relatively speaking,many chaplains had a "safe" or
"uneventful" war, others werefully exposed to the horrors that
modern warfare inflicted on those involved.
THEY were also responsible for the pastoral care of servicemen
convicted of wrongdoing. During the course of the war, military
courts sentenced 2300 soldiers to death. Although "only" ten per
cent of sentences were carried out (most executions were for
desertion, cowardice, or murder), it still meant that one soldier a
week was shot by firing squad.
At Christmas 1917, the Revd Julian Bickersteth reported having
to attend a young soldier the night before he was to face a firing
squad. At the condemned man's request, they spent a few hours
singing hymns, ending with the National Anthem.
Moments before the young man took his place before the firing
squad, the chaplain gave the boy a reassuring kiss, saying "God has
you in his keeping." Bickersteth thenhad to witness the
execution,and officiate at the soldier's burial.
Some chaplains did make it to the front line - three Victoria
Crosses were awarded to chaplains. The first of these was to the
Revd Noel Mellish. Over the course of three days in late March
1916, he rescued almost 30 wounded soldiers, under fire, from no
The most highly decorated chaplain was the Revd Theodore Bayley
Hardy. He was commissioned at the age of 53, in 1917. He was
awarded the Distinguished Service Order for rescuing men stuck in
mud (despite having a broken wrist), being wounded in the process.
He then won both the Military Cross and the Victoria Cross for
rescuing the wounded under fire - on one occasion, staying with an
injured officer just ten yards from a German machine-gun post. He
died in 1918 from the wounds he received in the course of his
THE REVD DR PETER HOWSON (a former army chaplain) wrote, in his
book Muddling Through (2013), that almost 40 chaplains
were taken prisoner. This happened mostly during the German spring
offensive in 1918. Similarly, 185 army chaplains died between 4
August 1914 and 31 December 1919.
The first death in action was that of the Roman Catholic Fr
William Finn, on 25 April 1915, during the first wave of landings
at Gallipoli. The exact nature of his death is contentious, but one
account records his belief that a priest's place "is with the dying
soldier". By the end of the war, 96 chaplains had died as a result
of enemy action.
The dying and the dead were integral to a chaplain's duties.
Dick Sheppard, assigned to a military hospital, so completely
identified himself with every dying soldier that he became utterly
exhausted, and had to be sent home after three months.
As to the dead, there was no central system in place for
registering casualties when the war started. Chaplains played a key
part, not only in performing the burial service, but in aiding
subsequent identification - initially by sewing labels intothe
deceased's uniform. Later, they placed a bottle containing the
person's details in their grave.
CHAPLAINS were to make a significant contribution to the
national remembrance of the dead. It was an Anglican chaplain, the
Revd David Railton, who first proposed the idea of the tomb of the
unknown warrior. Railton was curate of Folkestone in 1914-20, but
was granted leave of absence. He was awarded the Military Cross in
1916 for saving an officer and two men under heavy fire.
Earlier that year, while in Armentières, he saw a grave in a
garden marked with a rough wooden cross, with the inscription "An
unknown British soldier". He realised how comforting a national
monument of this sort would be to those grieving at home.
In 1920, he suggested to the Dean of Westminster that the body
of an unknown soldier might be brought back to Britain, and
interred in Westminster Abbey. The Dean secured the Prime
Minister's approval, who, in turn, won over an initially reluctant
King George V. The selection of the soldier from the Western Front
battlefields was aided by a senior chaplain, the Revd George
Kendall, who helped select the anonymous corpses from which the
choice was made.
More than 3000 Anglican clergy served over the course of the
war, and the contributions of other Christian denominations became
increasingly important as the conflict unfolded.
At the end of the war, the Department was awarded its "Royal"
prefix in recognition of its chaplains' service during what it was
hoped had been "the war to end all wars".
Peter Street is a lecturer in religious studies and history
at the Open University.
More information: www.chaplains-museum.hampshire.org.uk