Military Chaplains in World War I

This past Monday I was privileged to give a talk to the chaplains corps of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Not only did it give me a chance to reach an audience well beyond the university (increasingly a goal of mine), but the suggested topic — military chaplains in World War I — let me address a curious gap in knowledge. (Curious because the topic provides a rare point of convergence between two of my primary interests: the history of World War I and the history of Christianity.) I’m hoping that some of what I learned in preparing the talk will enhance my WWI travel course the next time I offer it, in January 2015.

But Monday, as I told the chaplains, my hope was that the talk would shed light on a topic few know much about, but also strike some notes that were quite familiar to them — some universal hopes, dreams, frustrations, and tensions that have been experienced by clergy as long as they’ve served in armed forces.

I won’t try to repeat the entire talk here, but I did want to share three perspectives from participants in the war: two laity, and one a chaplain. (I also made extensive use of Hartmut Lehmann’s history of German Protestant chaplains from 1713 to 1918 — see my post last week on the reason for his choice of 1713)

Bird, Ghosts Have Warm HandsFirst, the Canadian writer Will Bird, who volunteered to serve after his younger brother was killed in combat and then wrote about his two years on the Western Front in books like his 1930 memoir, And We Go On (later republished as Ghosts Have Warm Hands). While Tim Cook concludes that Bird’s account managed to be naturalistic “without rancour and disillusionment” (Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars, p. 79), fellow historian Duff Crerar uses And We Go On to illustrate the complicated views that Canadian soldiers had of their chaplains (quoted in “‘Where’s the Padre?’ Canadian Memory and the Great War Chaplains,” his contribution to The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, ed. Doris Bergen). The excerpt quoted below by Crerar features a soldier named Tommy, sharing his disillusionment with the church in an exchange with a student-turned-soldier:

“Where’s the padre? Before I came over I fancied they were always with the soldiers, helping the wounded ones and having little services every chance they got.”

“Don’t start that argument. I was a member of the Methodist Church when I enlisted. Now I don’t know or care about anything connected with it…. Preachers and padres are not any better than brass hats. They’re out of touch with the men, and they’ve lost their hold.”

“Don’t you believe in God?”

“I do. If I didn’t I’d quit everything. But I’m going to have my own belief in my own way.”

We’ll hear more from Bird before this post is over, but here suffice it to note that he’s touching on a key problem facing chaplains: that they risked being identified with the powers-that-be, both ecclesiastical and military, rather than seen as trustworthy pastors. Indeed, there was debate as to whether chaplains should even be commissioned as officers. Like everyone else, the American Army did, but replaced officer insignia on chaplains’ uniforms with a Latin cross — Jewish chaplains were understandably displeased with this solution…

So many chaplains bent over backwards to relate to their men, and some, to distance themselves from those powerful institutions that were losing the respect of WWI soldiers. But this presented its own problems, as the English journalist C.E. Montague (who volunteered at age 47, dying his white hair black, and was promoted to lieutenant in 1916) documented in his 1922 memoir Disenchantment. (The full text is available via Google Books.) Montague noted that chaplains were remarkably diverse, ranging from courageous heroes like Theodore Hardy (one of three British chaplains to win the Victoria Cross in WWI — posthumously, as he was also one of the 179 who died) to those like the one “drunk at dinner in Gobert’s restaurant at Amiens on the evening of one of the bloodiest days of the first battle of the Somme.” But most commonly, Montague found

the large, healthy, pleasant young curate not severely importuned by a vocation, the ex-athlete, the prop and stay of village cricket-clubs, the good fellow whom the desires of parents, the gaiety of his youth at the university, and the whole drift of things about him had shepherded unresistingly into the open door of the Church. Sudden, unhoped-for, the war had brought him the chance of escape back to an almost solely physical life, like his own happy youth of rude health, only better: a life all salt and tingling with vicissitudes of simple bodily discomfort and pleasure, fatigue and rest, risk and the ceasing of risk; a heaven after the flatness, the tedium, the cloying security and the confounded moral problems attending the uninspired practice of professional brightness and breeziness in an uncritical parish. He abounded so much that whenever now one hears the words “army chaplain” his large, genial image springs up of itself in the mind. (pp. 86-87)

Worship service at WWI aerodrome
A British chaplain preaches at an aerodrome in France – National Library of Scotland

But while this type of chaplain had his good points (“a running fountain… of good cigarettes”; “He gladly frequented the least healthy parts of the line, and would frankly mourn the pedantry which denied him a service revolver”) and “had a tongue less rigidly tied in the men’s hearing” than other officers, Montague concluded that he was actually regarded warily by the soldiers precisely because he worked so hard to “not stand too coldly aloof from ‘the men’s point of view'”:

The vigour with which he threw off the parson and put on the man and the brother did not always strike the original men and brothers as it was intended. Your virilist chaplain was apt to overdo, to their mind, his jolly implied disclaimers of any compromising connection with kingdoms not of this world. For one thing, he was, for the taste of people versed in carnage, a shade too fussily bloodthirsty. Nobody made such a point of aping your little trench affectations of callousness; nobody else was so anxious to keep you assured that the blood of the enemy smelt as good to his nose as it could to any of yours…. surprising to say, [the men] secretly wanted a change from themselves; had the parsons really nothing to say of their own about this noisome mess in which the good old world seemed to be foundering? (pp. 88-90)

The result, for Montague, was that the church missed a massive opportunity among “The Sheep That Were Not Fed” (the title of his chapter on chaplains and religion, which I borrowed for my own talk):

When you want to catch the Thames gudgeon you first comb the river’s bed hard with a long rake…. For our professional fishers of men in the army the war did the raking gratis. The men came under their hands at the time of the most drastic experience in most of the men’s lives, immersed in a new and strange life of sensations at once simple and intense, shaken roughly out of the world of mechanical habit… living always among swiftly dying friends and knowing their own death at any time to be as probable as anyone’s…. Imagine the religious revival that there might have been if some man of apostolic genius had had the fishing in the troubled waters, the ploughing and sowing of broken soil…

Nothing perceptible came of it all. (pp. 99-100)

Chaplains and churches were well aware of their shortcomings. Noting polemics like The Church in the Furnace (1918), historian Richard Schweitzer writes that “The contents of books that criticize the chaplaincy and the Church are sufficiently uniform as to constitute a genre,” with most written by chaplains themselves (The Cross and the Trenches, p. 68). And some came through the “purgatorial fires” of 1914-18 (as The Church in the Furnace put it) both profoundly changed in their perspectives on war and politics and eager to do better with the postwar period.

The Wicket GateThat’s true of the Anglican priest who is perhaps the most famous chaplain of the war: G.A. Studdert Kennedy, known during the war as “Woodbine Willie” for bringing that brand of cigarette to wounded men. First known for publishing poems like “The Sorrow of God” in 1918’s Rough Rhymes of a Padre (“And the lovin’ God he looks down on it all, / On the blood, and the mud, and the smell, / Oh God if it’s true how I pity you / For you must be livin’ in hell”), Studdert Kennedy came to wider attention in 1919 for Lies!, which revealed him to be an increasingly confident spokesman for Christian pacifism (and Christian socialism — see ch. 3, “The Lie in the Industrial Revolution”). Here he wrestles with God’s relationship to war:

Does God will War? Is it part of His mysterious plan? Are the Militarist historians right? I answer: “If God wills War, then I am morally mad, and I don’t know good from evil.” War is the most obviously wicked thing I know. If God wills War then I am not an atheist, I am an anti-theist. I am against God. I hate Him. Does God hate War? Does He will its abolition? Does He will Peace on earth? Does God will that the Bible’s broken dreams come true? That to me is an obvious Truth—the first one. Why doesn’t He make them come True then? Because He can’t without our willing co-operation—that is to me another obvious Truth, the second one. Whatever God does for us must be done through us. (pp. 5-6)

In an Easter sermon published in the 1923 collection The Wicket Gate, Studdert Kennedy reflected on Jesus’ words from the cross asking God to forgive his persecutors:

The Christ is faced with His enemies; and you realise the startling truth, that Goodness has no enemies; that it for ever separates the sinner from the sin; that it never deals with evil persons, but only with evil thoughts and evil dreams. You realise that for God, under any provocation whatsoever, hatred is impossible. He simply cannot hate. Nothing justifies it, not even this Crucifixion. This is the Goodness that would bring us back to realities. Nine-tenths of our wars and battles are fought in the land of dreams, with unreal people and unreal nations, which our hatred and our fear create. Germany hates and fears a monster called Britain, which does not exist; and Britain retaliates by hating and fearing an equally unreal Germany.

I’m grateful to CH (COL) John Morris — formerly the state chaplain for the Minnesota National Guard, now serving with the National Guard Bureau — for inviting me to give this talk in the first place, but also for encouraging me to read up on Studdert Kennedy, whose embrace of pacifism presents one way to resolve the tension inherent in serving in the military as a minister of the Prince of Peace (though surely not the only or most common way, as we talked about Monday).

At the same time, I closed the talk on an ambivalent note (I don’t know how else to resolve any presentation on World War I) by turning back to Will Bird’s And We Go On. Later in that memoir, the disillusioned Tommy runs into a padre determined to prove that he’s not just an apologist for the “brass hats.” It’s easy to imagine Studdert Kennedy being the model for this particular chaplain. But Tommy doesn’t respond in the way the chaplain expected:

“No,” said Tommy. “I don’t want to hear any more twaddle. I’ve had to go on church parades but this isn’t compulsory, and once I’m out of this rig no man will ever make me listen to your stuff.”

The padre tried to argue. “We’re going to teach a real gospel now,” he said. “The war’s over and we’re going to, first of all, prove to the people what a horrible crime it is.”

“Don’t do that,” cried Tommy. “You’ll lose the few you’ve still got if you turn hypocrite. The war hasn’t changed. If it’s wrong now it was wrong in ‘14, and what did you shout then?”

The padre’s eyes flooded full. He could not talk.

Further Reading

Crerar, Duff. Padres in No Man’s Land: Canadian Chaplains and the Great War. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

Faith on the Battlefield (a Tumblr blog that has a number of images of chaplains in WWI and other conflicts)

Harris, Stephen L. Duffy’s War: Fr. Francis Duffy, Wild Bill Donovan, and the Irish Fighting 69th in World War I. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2006.

Hoover, A.J. God, Germany, and Britain in the Great War: A Study in Clerical Nationalism. New York: Praeger, 1989.

Lehmann, Hartmut. “In the Service of Two Kings: Protestant Prussian Military Chaplains, 1713-1918.” In The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, ed. Doris L. Bergen, pp. 125-40. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004.

Piper, John F., Jr. The American Churches in World War I. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.

Schweitzer, Richard. The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt among British and American Great War Soldiers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Stover, Earl F. Up from Handymen: The United States Army Chaplaincy, 1865-1920. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Chaplains Department, 1977.

Studdert Kennedy, G.A. After War, Is Faith Possible? An Anthology. Edited by Kerry Walters. Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2008.


2 thoughts on “Military Chaplains in World War I

  1. I’m surprised to find no reference to Canon Scott, surely the greatest padre of WWI, nor to “Tubby” Clayton of Toc. H. fame.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bob. This certainly wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the subject, and I’m sure others have covered those two chaplains in more depth. (Can’t recall if Scott shows up in the chapter I cited here, though I’ve no doubt he’s in Crerar’s book.) But aside from Studdert Kennedy (whom I covered because Col. Morris had specifically requested it) and Montague’s brief mention of Hardy, I was trying to avoid well-known chaplains in order to delve into some less famous accounts. (From America, I skipped Father Duffy, though noted Stephen Harris’ book on him in the reading list.)

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