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Great War’s long shadows

14 August 2015

Alan Wilkinson on a prophetic legacy, and the Armenian horror


Atrocity: a 1915 photo of Armenian victims of the massacres in Turkey, which refuses to call them genocide

Atrocity: a 1915 photo of Armenian victims of the massacres in Turkey, which refuses to call them genocide

Shellshocked Prophets: Former Anglican army chaplains in inter-war Britain
Linda Parker
Helion & Company £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


Remembering the Armenian Genocide 1915
Patrick Thomas
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch £8.50


LINDA PARKER notably contributed to the religious history of the Great War by her study of Anglican chaplains The Whole Armour of God (2009). The arresting title of her new and meticulously researched book Shellshocked Prophets is derived from an essay in The Church in the Furnace (1917), a remarkably prophetic symposium by 18 chaplains. We are now indebted to her for exploring the hitherto neglected subject of how former Anglican chaplains challenged and enlivened both Church and society after the war.

Of the 3030 Anglican chaplains who served during the war, a significant number became bishops, deans, and royal chaplains. Most returned to parish life. By 1940, more than a quarter of bishops were former chaplains.

Some chaplains became popular national figures. Tubby Clayton founded Toc H, which spread its gospel of egalitarianism and mutual care. Studdert Kennedy became chief missioner for the Industrial Christian Fellowship. Charles Raven became Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge as well as a scholarly pacifist. David Railton was instrumental in the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. More famous still was Dick Sheppard, a pioneer of religious broadcasting, and founder of the Peace Pledge Union.

Three chaplains declared in 1918: "As a body of men we shall be unable to go back to the old pre-war grooves." Chaplains came to believe that the Church should be more participatory and ecumenical and its liturgy more accessible (especially the eucharist) to working-class people, whose religion was often "inarticulate". At the end of the war, more working-class men offered themselves as ordinands. Courses were created by chaplains to prepare them for theological-college training. Everyone had come from "the same fiery furnace".

Politically, some ex-chaplains moved to the Left and campaigned for a more just society. When, in 1923, 500 Anglican clergy published their welcome to Ramsay MacDonald as first Labour Leader of the Opposition, 16 per cent were ex-chaplains. Of these, three became bishops. Chaplains knew how much the war strained marriages, and, therefore, advocated changes to the divorce laws and supported contraception (which was approved cautiously by the 1930 Lambeth Conference).

It is a pity that Parker, in this otherwise very comprehensive history, did not take seriously enough, or fully explain, the scathing dismissal of Anglican chaplains by some noteworthy ex-officers and servicemen. Her discussion of the effects of the war on the theology written by chaplains is, sadly, brief.

The Armenians were the first nation to embrace Christianity officially. They were frequently persecuted. In 1915, Ottoman Turks became suspicious that Armenians were disloyal and supported Russia. They began an appalling campaign of genocide, in which a million and a half Armenian Christians were killed, often by barbaric means. Patrick Thomas, Chancellor of St Davids Cathedral, has written The Armenian Genocide, an intensely moving and harrowing account, after many contacts with Armenians and very extensive research.

In 1915, criminals were released from prison to enforce the deportation of Armenians. Men were shot. Women and children were sent on death marches towards the Syrian Desert. Few survived. Some died of starvation or exhaustion at the roadside. An observer reported: "There were only women and children, about two thousand in number . . . terribly emaciated, skin burned brown, clothed in rags, hungry, thirsty, they seemed like madwomen. The dust of the soil was stuck to their faces. . ."

The Minister of the Interior had circulated an order: "Burn, demolish, kill." A school containing 2000 sick and wounded people was set on fire, as were two hospitals. In one place, prisoners were beaten to death every evening, watched by the local governor, glass in hand. Evidence of the massacres was collected not only from survivors and trials, but also by missionaries, diplomats, and foreign soldiers.

Ever since the massacre, Turkey has tried to bury the story. Pope Francis recently described the massacre as an act of genocide. Turkey withdrew its ambassador. It is afraid that a declaration of genocide would lead to cases of reparation and restitution under international law.


Canon Alan Wilkinson is a Fellow of the George Bell Institute, Chichester University.

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