Tommy, p.58Richard Holmes
The Reverend Charles Doudney described the smell of the once-pretty garden of Potyze Chateau, near Ypres, home to an advance dressing station.
The flowers are gone, and their perfume is replaced by the all-pervading stench that one is even beginning to become accustomed to – of putrefaction fraught with chloride of lime; in some parts of the ground one has the predominance, in some the other. But it’s the smell of a charnel house, and in places is added the strange effluvium, indescribable, of newly-shed blood.53
Some chaplains collapsed under the impact of such things. On 17 August 1916 the level-headed Reverend Harold Davies reported:
Found a new Chaplain… in No I Field Ambulance. Apparently he was suffering from dysentery and shock. As usual he had no previous military experience and had just been sent out here. Someone had sent him to the 108th Brigade at Bully Grenay, where he was not really wanted and he had seen bad sights, which had unnerved him.54
Alan Hanbury-Sparrow thought that ‘the priests, with the exception of the Roman Catholics, did not seem sufficiently equipped to withstand, without harm to themselves, the arguments of an earnest doubter’.55 At its worst the experience of the front could break a chaplain’s faith, as Bishop Gwynne had seen all too clearly.
Many chaplains who survived the physical and psychological assaults of the front rejected the Winnington-Ingram view of the great crusade. Harold Davies admitted ‘I shall never be a soldier’ after being chided for holding an impromptu service in what turned out to be the trench-mortar bomb store, putting his congregation somewhat closer to their Maker than he had intended. But he was firmly committed to the war, and was perfectly prepared to help doctors usher numerous unwounded stragglers out of the Royal Naval Division’s casualty clearing station during its attack on Beaumont Hamel in November 1917: ‘It’s worse than the tramp ward of a workhouse’, a surgeon told him. However, he agreed with a gunner officer in wishing that ‘the chattering magpies of our English Parliament who draw £400 a year and talk so much hot air could have been compelled to spend an afternoon in this valley of horrors’.56
Father Francis Drinkwater, a Roman Catholic, spent much of the war at the front, was wounded and gassed, and emerged with his strong faith undimmed. But on 2 July 1916 he wrote that: ‘I shall soon be a pacifist and a conscientious objector – to modern warfare anyhow. It becomes more impossible every month, and the ghastly mangling of human beings en masse seems disproportionate to any conceivable object.57 Julian Bickersteth also saw the war out to the end, but it strained even his determination. He wrote at the end of 1916:
Oh! To get this wretched business over. There is only one question that no Tommy is ever tired of asking, ‘When do you think it will end, Sir?’ Yet I do think it is true that no one wants to see the business half done. Peace must not be returned to Europe for a year, but if possible for all time… Who can stick it longest? That is the question.58
And in 1918 he acknowledged that:
The war becomes more terrible and soul-corroding as month succeeds month… It has lost all the romance of some years ago. It is now a perpetual round of dull, prosaic murder, with one desire in the hearts of all – to keep alive a little longer and to see an end to the business. No one has any heart in it… We are in it and we can’t get out of it now, even if it costs the lives of all who are now in France.59
The crusade of 1914 had become, four years later, a matter of sheer endurance.
Many soldiers, and indeed some Anglican priests, felt that Roman Catholic chaplains’ requirement to be on hand to administer the extreme unction encouraged them to spend more time in the front line. Robert Graves argued that if Anglican regimental chaplains
had shown one-tenth of the courage, endurance and the other human qualities that regimental doctors showed… the British Expeditionary Force might well have started a religious revival. But they had not, being under orders to avoid the fighting and to stay behind with the transport. Soldiers could hardly respect a chaplain who obeyed these orders, and yet not one in fifty seemed sorry to obey them. Occasionally, on a quiet day in a quiet sector, the chaplain would make a daring afternoon visit to the support line and distribute a few cigarettes before hurrying back… [But] the Roman Catholic chaplains were not only permitted to visit posts of danger, but definitely enjoined to be where the fighting was, so that they could give extreme unction to the dying.60
Guy Chapman echoed similar sentiments.
These Catholic priests impressed one. [Father] Leeson never dropped a word of religion in my hearing; but one felt a serenity and certitude streaming from him such as was not possessed by our bluff Anglicans. Already there was a growing dislike of the latter. They had nothing to offer but the consolation the next man could give you, and a less fortifying one. The Church of Rome sent a man into action mentally and spiritually cleaned. The Church of England could only offer you a cigarette. The Church of Rome, experienced in propaganda, sent its priests into the line. The Church of England forbade theirs forward of Brigade Headquarters, and though many, realizing the fatal blunder of such an order, came just the same, the publication of that injunction had its effect.61
And Julian Bickersteth confessed that: ‘It makes me despair of the Church of England. Rome makes no mistakes…’.62
Yet many Anglican chaplains recognised, as did Bickersteth himself, that they would only gain men’s respect if they entered the crucible with them. ‘I must admit that I find it increasingly difficult to face enemy fire,’ he wrote, ‘but our task is absolutely nothing compared to what the brave lads in the trenches have to endure when they take part in an attack.’ He made a practice of carrying a pyx containing Sacrament in one kind, bread marked with wine, and going forward to give it to the wounded and dying. The universally-admired Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy, a fifty-five-year-old Church of England clergyman, earned the MC, DSO and VC during a year’s service at the front and was eventually killed in action. On one occasion he spent two days in the mud with a half-buried soldier, working with the men who were trying to extract him. Other chaplains shared similar risks. Anthony French was lying wounded in a crater in September 1916.
I heard movement coming my way and I thought of rats, bloated rats, and felt weak and defenceless. I lay stork still. Dimly I saw a figure passing to and fro, here and there, bending low. My heart beat uncontrollably.
His head was bent over mine. I stared unbreathing. I saw a white collar and the familiar tin hat. He spoke in cultured English, and his voice had a deep, rich timbre.
‘Are you asleep?,’
‘Could you walk?’
‘Afraid not, but I can crawl.’
‘Better lie still. You’re some way off, but I’ll try to send the stretcher bearers. They’re all busy just now, but be patient and lie still.’
I thanked him. But he had gone, and I feared for him out there when the rattle of fire was resumed.63
Father Drinkwater particularly admired Canon Scott, Church of England padre to 1st Canadian Division, who certainly did not conform to the stereotype of the stay-back padre. ‘He wanders round all the most dangerous parts with a tin of bully and a biscuit; reads his own verses to the men in the trenches,’ wrote Drinkwater. Scott lost his son, an infantry officer, and found his body in a fresh shell hole ‘where the Canon recognized his son’s hand (by the ring) sticking out of the earth’.64
A few chaplains went much further. In 1918 Frank Crozier encountered a Welsh Nonconformist chaplain ‘indulging in rapid fire from a shell hole at fleeting enemy targets’. He disapproved, because these were ‘circumstances which called for no emergency’. Crozier disarmed the chaplain, gave him lunch, and told him that he should never have been a clergyman at all. ‘He renounced his vocation,’ wrote Crozier, ‘and joined up as a private. He did quite well, and I was told that he had the finest flow of language in the regiment which, being Welsh, was saying a great deal.’6
However, because chaplains carried the authority of a commissioned officer there were rare moments when a commanding officer might expect his padre to exercise military command. Father John Groser, trained in the tradition of Catholic socialism at Mirfield, and later a great East End priest, was ordered to take command of a party of men who, so his CO thought, would only stand if led by an officer. He refused. ‘I reminded him of the scores of men he knew who had fallen that day after doing their utmost,’ said the colonel,
and I was conveying to him – in what words I cannot remember – my despair of a religion that could teach that such a patronizing stand-offish attitude was the right one, when my words were drowned by a terrific burst of fire from our guns, who had spotted a counterattack forming up. When the firing was over Groser told me that he would do what I wanted provided he didn’t carry arms. To that I readily agreed.66
Father Groser was awarded the Military Cross, and wounded and sent home in 1918. On 8 October 1918, 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers lost its Nonconformist padre, killed in action.
The padre should not have gone with A Company in the early morning. He was told that he would be an embarrassment to them, but he was impulsive, he insisted on going, and was killed while seeking an MC to please some fool of a girl in Liverpool who had taunted him with having no decoration.67
Many chaplains were unsure whether their main role was spiritual or temporal, whether they were, as one put it, ‘Mr God or Mr Cinema’. It was easy to slip into the latter role, and to concentrate on providing the troops with much-needed welfare support, like tea and cake at the base or cigarettes in the front line, or to offer advice with problems that arose at home. The majority of private mail, except that in strictly-rationed green envelopes, had to be censored by an officer, and padres – often less busy than combatant officers – were frequently busy reading soldiers’ letters, which gave them a few useful insights. The Reverend John Sellors, a working-class Anglican sent to France in 1917, was delighted to find that one of his letters had been written by
quite a wag. He said his doctor had ordered him a holiday abroad, and here he was, but he could give no answers as he had not decided what hotel to stay at. He could not say much owing to the censor, but he would tell one secret… ‘I am determined to finish this war’… I could not resist the temptation to put ‘Good old sport (censor)’ on the letter although I am told that this is strictly against orders.
The Reverend Pat Mc Cormick, an Anglican who had served in the Boer War, was amused to censor a letter betokening a fleeting relationship just before the writer left for France:
A Happy Christmas. I am sending this to my aunt to forward to you as I do not know the address. Please tell me your name when you write as I have forgotten it. Yours, Dick68
Slipping between the roles of welfare officer and priest did not come easily to many. Sellors had been advised by a friendly sergeant that he would be best advised to ‘mix with the boys, join in their lives and interests and see the boys made more contented and happy’. And Sellors hoped that by mixing with them in this way he could indeed help ‘bring them to higher things, the things of God’. But his was not an easy road. His diary makes it clear that he was gently teased by the NCOs, who asked him to speak to the other officers and get them to acknowledge salutes more politely. And then over dinner in the mess many officers suddenly affected ‘a bleating kind of laugh; all eyes turned in my direction and I assumed it was meant to imitate me…’’.69 The real question of whether he ever managed to be more than a decent sort who gave cigarettes to the boys must remain unanswered.
When the Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy arrived in France he spoke to the more experienced Studdert Kennedy.
He asked me about purely spiritual works. I said there is very little: it is all muddled and mixed. Take a box of fags in your haversack and a great deal of love in your heart and go up to them. Laugh with them, joke with them. You can pray with them sometimes but pray for them always.70
But even Studdert Kennedy, eccentric and outgoing as he was, questioned his own role.
What the bloody hell is the Church doing here? An amateur stretcher bearer or an amateur undertaker? Was that all a Christian priest could be in this ruin of a rotten civilisation? I have pondered as I sat down after singing a comic song to the men at rest. An amateur comedian struggling to make men forget for one short hour the horrors in the midst of which they live and are called upon to die; always an amateur, always more or less inefficient and untrained, I was typical it seemed to me of the Church I loved and served.71
And in The Unutterable Beauty, the volume of poetry he published in 1927, he acknowledged the burden:
Of unpaid – unpayable debt,
For the men to whom I owed God’s Peace,
I put off with a cigarette.72
It was perhaps in their ability to shift easily between roles that Roman Catholics had the greatest advantage. They were, suggests Stephen Louden, ‘able to minister as priests, dispensing not fags but forgiveness, not just cheer but communion’.73 Sacramental rituals were at their most valuable when men confronted the terrifying unknown, and there was something ‘commendably professional’ about the average Catholic padre. Irish regiments containing an overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics sometimes celebrated the sort of grande messe militaire once seen in the French army, whose drummers beat the long roll of au champs at the elevation of the Host. Rowland Feilding’s Connaughts heard High Mass in the village church at Locre on 17 December 1916.
Three priests officiated. Soldiers, accompanied by a soldier organist, composed the choir, and the battalion bugles sounded the ‘General Salute’ during the Elevation. All was very impressive and, considering that they are only out of the trenches for a few days’ rest, the smart and soldierly appearance of the men was very remarkable. But there is never any difficulty – no matter what the circumstances – in getting a good Irish battalion to turn out well to go to Mass.
‘The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable,’ he reflected later, ‘and I had under-estimated it.’74 Father Francis Gleeson, mounted, with a stole over his service dress, gave absolution to 2/Royal Munster Fusiliers at a wayside shrine as the battalion moved up to attack Aubers Ridge in May 1915: the men, heads bared, within sound of gunfire, then sang the Te Deum. The Munsters lost nineteen officers (including their commanding officer and adjutant) and 374 men the next morning: only eight were taken prisoner. The incident formed the basis for Fortunino Matania’s well-known painting The Last Absolution of the Munsters.
But not all approved of the line taken by Roman Catholic clergymen. C. P. Blacker attended Mass with the Irish Guards and was shocked to see how the congregation was visibly horrified by Father Leahy’s description of hell. ‘I could not overcome a feeling of distaste,’ he wrote, ‘over the picture of this group of fine men weeping and striking their breasts when what they really wanted was a renewal of faith and a message of comfort.’75
Many Church of England chaplains had to improvise. The Reverend Victor Tanner was in a trench at Passchendaele.
After another shell fell close I said ‘Now, lads, I am going to ask you to do something which perhaps you have not done yet. I am going to ask you to close your eyes and pray that God will protect and keep the boys in the front line, and that He will extend the protection to us,’ and every man closed his eyes. We could scarcely hear one another’s voices amid the whistling and bursting of the shells. But God heard those prayers. That very trench was blown in during the afternoon and several men were killed or wounded.76
But if Anglican clergymen could not produce anything to equal the Connaughts’ High Mass, it is clear that the good ones could indeed engage the spirituality of their flock. Julian Bickersteth put considerable effort into preparing willing soldiers for confirmation, though he noted sadly how death constantly raided his flock. When Charles Doudeney was mortally wounded by a shell fragment his widow received letters which t
Your dear husband was the means of getting a party of us ready for our Confirmation for which we all owe an allegiance to our dead comrade. He is greatly missed by us all – a brave and plucky gentleman. We will do our best to get to your dear husband’s resting place, and do our best to make it up properly. While I am writing these lines I must thank you for the copies of the C. F. N. [Christian Fellowship News] which I distribute among my comrades, who find a very healthy bit of literature very acceptable in this awful place.77
And there were Scots and Welsh battalions where Protestantism was firmly founded. On Easter Sunday 1915 John Reith attended Communion with officers and men of 5th Scottish Rifles:
On this occasion the Minister took service behind the bar of a common drinking shop; silver flagons were ordinary bottles, chalices were tumblers. For long years this grey-haired padre had ministered to a congregation in a Scottish border town. He had dispensed a hundred Communions but never one so solemn as this, for all its undecorous setting. It had a circumstance of its own, a dignity and a compelling pathos. Drone of an aeroplane overhead, intermittent gunfire, rattle of a passing limber, these the organ undertones. As at home, we sang the 35th paraphrase to the tune Rockingham, but with new and pregnant significance. I looked from Minister to congregation, a hundred or so mostly very young, but with five months of war strain.78
Charles Douie attended a service in a barn at Henencourt at much the same time.
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