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Faith on the front line

21 October 2022

Rebecca Paveley visits the army chaplains’ new museum

The new Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, Shrivenham,

The new Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, Shrivenham,

THE strapline for the newly relocated Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, “Faith in the forces”, shifts the focus of the part that chaplains play away from the heroism of individuals to the beliefs that they follow.

The museum’s collection looks at the interconnection of faith with military life through the centuries. The earliest exhibit on display in the museum is a coin from the Constantinian period, which shows a standard bearing the chi-rho, the earliest symbol for Christ.

Although many of the exhibits relate to the Christian faith, the increasing diversity of those serving in the army is reflected in the new museum’s displays. The curator, David Blake, says that the relocations of the museum — from the village of Amport to Shrivenham, in Oxfordshire — “gave us an opportunity to refresh the exhibition and the artefacts we have on display, and our artefacts today represent most of the world’s faiths. Our remit is to tell the story of faith in the forces and educate and inform the wider public of the important of faith in the forces.”

The army now has a rabbi commissioned as an army reservist, and civilian chaplains to the military from the Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim faiths.

Artefacts from other faiths include a Qur’an belonging to Regimental Sergeant Major Abbas Salihu, which he took on deployment, most notably to Iraq in 2006; and a kara worn by Mandeep Kaur when she was appointed as Britain’s first civilian Sikh chaplain to the military, in 2005. The turban of Lance Corporal Sarvjit Singh, one of the first Sikh soldiers to wear one on guard duty at Buckingham Palace, is also in the museum’s collection.

The collections also include memorabilia from women commissioned as army chaplains. The first female chaplain commissioned to the Territorial Army in 1996 was the Revd Rachel Lewis, and the first full-time female chaplain was the Revd Juliet Hulme, commissioned in 2001. There is a name badge that reads “Madre” — given as a “tongue-in-cheek” gift to one female chaplain from a friend, Mr Blake said.

HISTORIANS are not sure when army chaplains, as we understand them today, first appeared. St Martin of Tours, the fourth-century bishop and former soldier, is credited as the founder of chaplaincy, and remains the patron saint of soldiers, chaplains, quartermasters, and cavalry. In the early medieval period, Edward II had three different grades of chaplain, who held services before the Battle of Crécy in 1346. There continued to be chaplains to the royal cavalry throughout the medieval period.

Chaplains became prominent on both sides during the English Civil War. Charles I had a recognisable system of chaplaincy, as had the Parliamentary army. The museum has a copy of the soldier’s catechism composed by the New Model Army from 1644, which it declares was “written for the encouragement and instruction of all that have taken up arms in this cause of God and His people; especially the common soldiers”.

The catechism was written by one of the army’s chaplains, Robert Ram, and given as a pamphlet to every soldier. Its two main sections — the justification of the Parliamentarian soldier, and the qualification of the Parliamentarian soldier — cover everything from a biblical basis for fighting in war to whether it is appropriate for soldiers to burn the Book of Common Prayer. (Answer: it was, because “it hath been the fomenter of a most lazy, lewd, and ignorant Ministry”.)

Clergy have not been allowed to engage in military action since the Synod of Westminster decreed in 1175 that clergy could not take up arms or armour; so all chaplains were, and continue to be, unarmed.

The Bible that the Revd Henry Press Wright took to the Crimea in 1854

The chaplain’s duty in medieval times was as a preacher and teacher, but they also had moral responsibility for the soldiers’ behaviour, and ministered to a whole body of soldiers instead of offering the pastoral, personal mode of ministry practised by chaplains today.

In 1796, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the first army chaplains’ department was formed in the War Office. During the Napoleonic Wars, there are thought to have been about 30 chaplains; in today’s army, there are up to 130.

In the intervening years, numbers of clergy swelled in wartime and shrank afterwards, most notably during the First World War, when numbers rose hugely. At other periods in history, an increase in chaplains was demanded by the public.

Mr Blake explains: “A few chaplains went out with the army in the Peninsular War, and there were clergy, if not right on the battlefield at Waterloo, then definitely in the areas where the troops were. The regular army chaplains were paid by the War Office, and were paid then at the rate of a Major. The small print also says that they were entitled to fodder for their horse as well.

“After the Napoleonic War, the key development was during the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856, when there was a public outcry, as there had been a reduction in the level of chaplaincy, and people demanded more chaplains for the army. We have a Bible on display which was carried by one of the senior chaplains in Crimea, and which lists all the places he carried the Bible, all the major battles in the war. This is particularly significant now, as battles are being fought again in these places, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“One of most significant things about chaplaincy in the First World War was the sheer number of chaplains commissioned between 1914 and 1918. In 1914, there were a couple of hundred chaplains, but, by 2018, there were more than 3000 chaplains, who were all volunteers. No one was forcibly conscripted. The majority were Church of England, purely owing to the size of the Church of England, but there were Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists.”

Soldiers from the Victorian era onwards were asked their denomination when they joined up. There had been protests from the Baptist Church, as Baptists had complained that they were being recorded as Methodists when they signed up. Most soldiers during the First World War still declared for the Church of England.

IT IS from the First World War that some of the best-known reports of the individual heroism of chaplains, affectionately known as “padres”, emerge.

“Woodbine Willie”, the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, is famous for giving out cigarettes to soldiers after services (Feature, 9 November 2018); but it was the Revd Theodore Hardy who became the most highly decorated chaplain, collecting a Distinguished Service Order for rescuing wounded men from no man’s land while he had a broken wrist, and the Military Cross for going out under heavy fire to help stretcher-bearers. He was then awarded the Victoria Cross for rescuing a man under enemy fire.

Despite a suggestion from King George V that he return to become his own personal chaplain, Hardy declined the invitation. Just a month before the Armistice, he was hit by machine-gun fire while trying to tend the wounded, and died a week later.

Hardy, who was 51 when he signed up, had been inspired by Studdert Kennedy, whom he had met on the way to the Front. Studdert Kennedy’s advice to him was “Live with the men. Go everywhere they go. Share all their risks and more if you can do any good. Take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart. Laugh with them, joke with them; you can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.”

The Countess of Wessex at the opening of the museum

The collection also tells of the heroism of the Revd Noel Mellish, the Countess of Wessex’s great-uncle. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916 for “most conspicuous bravery”, the citation reads. He had a cross made from a German shell case, which he continued to use in his ministry after the war. The Countess opened the chaplains’ museum in its new location in May this year.

The museum also has the cricket bat carried by the Revd Anthony Feltham-White throughout his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. “He carried it so he could play games of cricket with children — in times of peace it was a sign of good humour and friendship,” Mr Blake said.

But it is a tin mug that the curator finds one of the most moving artefacts. He says: “One of the exhibits in the final part of museum is an ordinary soldier’s tin mug, which was used as a chalice in a prisoner-of-war camp in Korea by the Revd Sam Davies, who was Chaplain to the Gloucester Regiment.

“The regiment was overrun, and men were captured, and the mug was pressed into service as a chalice. It's a completely mundane item, but it is so powerful when you know the story behind it. Sam Davies was put in solitary confinement, as authorities were particularly suspicious of him as a spiritual figure.”

During his solitary confinement, he and Anthony Farrar-Hockley, the Gloucesters’ adjutant, who was in the cell next door, developed a code of knocks, and quietly recited the Lord’s Prayer together at night. Davies emerged from the camp in 1954, and died in 2009, aged 91.

THE training offered to army chaplains has grown extensively; training for chaplains was introduced only during the First World War, and the syllabus, which the museum has on display, was largely practical. Topics included how to wear a gas mask and how to organise games for the soldiers, as well as first aid and map-reading. Included in the syllabus in 1917 was “How to promote goodwill, cheeriness, esprit de corps, and the spirit of help”, as well as tips on “soldiers’ pets”.

Most of those who signed up in the First World War were ill-prepared for the scale of death and the horrors that they encountered, as were the men to whom they ministered. Many clergy came from country parishes, and were thrust into the war with little preparation, or support afterwards. Many died.

By the Second World War, the training programme was more formalised, but still lasted just two weeks. Mr Blake said: “One of the changes between the Crimean war and the First World War was the chaplain’s position on the battlefield. They were officially recorded as part of the medical unit, and under the Geneva Convention were put under ambulance personnel, and wore a Red Cross armband, helping with the pastoral care of patients.

“They were burying huge numbers of people in the First World War, and the brief training of chaplains was introduced only towards the end of the war. Nowadays, chaplains have several weeks’ training, and seven weeks at Sandhurst.”

Contents of a training course for Army Chaplains in 1943

The collection also tells the story of two of the 20th century’s greatest Christian writers, who, though not chaplains, fought in the First World War. Both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien experienced life in the trenches in France. Tolkien later said that his desire to write stories “was quickened to full life by war”.

Mr Blake said: “If you know their books, like The Last Battle, and think of the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings, it helps to understand that these major Christian writers were authors who had served in the army on major battlefields.”

The Revd David Barrett is the Deputy Chaplain General. He said that the museum’s job was to seek to improve public understanding of the value of religion and belief in the military. “It tells a powerful and moving story about the value and place of faith in the military community — not only in the past, but right up to the present day.”

The Royal Army Chaplains’ Museum, Faringdon Road, Shrivenham, in Oxfordshire, is open Mondays to Fridays, 1.30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Phone 07917 790916. No admission fee. Group visits can be arranged out of hours.


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