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Keeping the faith under fire

25 July 2014

Large numbers of clergy volunteered to be military chaplains during the Great War. They were responsible for a multiplicity of vital tasks, from keeping the troops entertained to burying the dead, says Peter Street


Service: a British padre says a prayer over a dying German soldier, near Epehy, 1918

Service: a British padre says a prayer over a dying German soldier, near Epehy, 1918

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 fighting.

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 Establishment.


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 Front.


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" to Anglicanism.

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 man's land.

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 heroic actions.


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

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