Terry Buckingham remembers the sacrifice and witness of priests in the First World War

About 5,000 chaplains of all denominations served in the Great War, of whom just over 3,000 were Anglican. Some names, like those of Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’), Neville Talbot and Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton became well known, but most were quiet and self-effacing; relatively little is known about their work and, in many cases, their gallantry.

The Great War, the centenary of which we recall, has been described as the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century. It was one for which, thankfully, Britain was not unprepared; the Boer War in 1902 had exposed serious shortcomings in the army resulting in the Haldane Reforms. When Britain mobilized on 4 August 1914, therefore, she was able to send 100,000 troops, the best army ever fielded, as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France together with 54 chaplains. Almost without exception, these were regular service chaplains, many of whom had served in the Boer War. Most were Anglicans (57%), the rest comprising Free-churchmen (24%) and Roman Catholics (19%). Their role in the Great War has not been widely appreciated.

Just as the Great War went through different phases, so the role of chaplains changed. The chaplain’s role was envisaged as leading Sunday church parades, comforting the wounded, burying the dead, and upholding morale. There was also an implied sense in which the chaplain’s presence signified the rightness of the cause for which the army was fighting. Thirty-eight chaplains were attached to field ambulances, essentially mobile hospitals, closest to the fighting, each one comprising about 300 personnel.

In late August, the BEF took its stand south of Mons, intending to halt the advancing Germans at the Mons-Condé canal, a major waterway. When the French suffered defeat at the Battle of Charleroi, General Joffre, in overall command, ordered a retreat on 23 August, so the BEF began its retreat from Mons. The first significant engagement between British and German armies was at the small town of Landrecies, through which advancing troops had to pass, on Tuesday 25 August 1914. The Guards Division fought them to a standstill covering the retreat. Benjamin O’Rorke, chaplain with the 4th Field Ambulance a few miles outside the town, described the panic of fleeing civilians and the confusion; he could hear the noise of battle but could not be sure where it was taking place. As the Guards retreated they had to leave behind the dead and dying; O’Rorke, together with Major Collingwood, the medical officer, went into Landrecies to care for them and were taken as prisoners of war. On the other side of Landrecies the 7th Field Hospital retreated; chaplain James Hales (Fig 1) remained to protect the severely wounded and dying. Hales, together with O’Rorke were the first two chaplains to be taken POW in the Great War. Hales subsequently ministered under very difficult conditions in Sennelager Camp, being allowed out of the camp to buy additional food for the men. He was the first chaplain to be repatriated in February 1915 because the Germans suspected that he was a spy. He later toured Britain publicizing the plight of POWs, encouraging food parcels to be sent. Intriguingly, Hales was never allowed to return to the Western Front. During the war a total of 39 chaplains were taken POW, most (32) in 1918; they were detained, on average, for about nine months before being repatriated under the 1906 Geneva Convention.

The retreat from Mons saw a different aspect of chaplaincy. On 26 August General Smith-Dorrien, seeking to cover the army’s retreat, decided to stand and face the enemy. Divisional chaplains and field ambulances were warned to get clear for, unlike Landrecies, this would be an artillery battle and casualties would escalate. Chaplains were at the forefront in encouraging and supporting the retreating men ahead of the advancing Germans in a desperate fight to save lives. During the retreat, there was no time for services, even on Sunday, or for burying the dead. On 27 August chaplain Douglas Winnifrith, asking for the officer commanding the Suffolk Regiment, was surprised when a junior subaltern appeared; the regiment had been reduced from 1,000 to 180 men. Describing events of these days after the war, the Wesleyan chaplain Owen Watkins wrote:

‘In my own division Bickerstaffe-Drew (RC), Goudge, Burrough, Winnifrith (CofE), and that gallant Scot, Connor (Pres) were all earning the admiration and respect of all ranks. Never during the war was there a more gallant team to be found in any division. To them no service was too menial, no task ever came amiss. They washed the swollen filthy feet of the footsore infantry; the white-haired Bickerstaffe-Drew, on bended knees, swabbed up the blood-stained floor of the dressing station… But the most precious and most sacred was the service rendered to the dying, and when the end came, the last sad office to the dead. I had seen chaplains on service before… but without hesitation I declare that never before have men been so tested as these were during the fortnight of the retreat from Mons…’

Chaplains Bickerstaffe-Drew, Goudge, Connor and Watkins were amongst the first chaplains to be mentioned in dispatches in October 1914. Goudge (Fig 2), who had served in the Boer War, was mentioned in dispatches each year of the war before being awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1918. The DSO was introduced in 1896 as a way of awarding junior officers who had distinguished themselves; in some cases—perhaps 10%—this could take the form of gallantry when the DSO ranked second only to the Victoria Cross. There is a slight quirk in this respect: it cannot be awarded posthumously, you have to be alive to be admitted to an order. About 60 DSOs were awarded to military chaplains during the war, eight for outstanding gallantry, including that awarded to the Royal Navy chaplain Samuel Peshall serving in HMS Vindictive at Zeebrugge in April 1918. Eight navy chaplains were killed in one day in the Battle of Jutland.

The first gallantry DSO awarded to a chaplain during the Great War was won less than three months after its outbreak. Following the retreat from Mons, the Germans continued their advance through Belgium and eastern France, halted by a decisive Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne in late September. Each army then tried to outflank the other on their way north with a ‘race to the sea,’ which ended in mid-October at Ypres. It was on 5 November 1914 that Major Clive Dixon, commanding the 16th Lancers, drew his sword to encourage French troops to hold their ground during a ferocious onslaught by the Germans. Dixon was hit by rifle fire and Wyndam Guinness (Fig 3), divisional chaplain, ran forward unarmed, under heavy rifle and shellfire, picked the major up and carried him back to the field ambulance. The chaplain’s action steadied the troops but the lancers were facing overwhelming odds and needed reinforcements. The chaplain, the only man with a horse, rode along the front line again under heavy rifle and shellfire to Divisional HQ with a request for reinforcements. Guinness was awarded an immediate DSO for outstanding gallantry, this decoration ranking second only to a VC and the first such award to a chaplain in the Great War. Guinness would later be mentioned in dispatches on two occasions and awarded a Military Cross (MC) for gallantry in East Africa in February 1917.

By late September 1914, trenches had begun to be built across France and Belgium, and the Western Front was established. The tremendous losses suffered during the retreat from Mons urgently needed replacing, conscription eventually being introduced in 1916. The number of chaplains needed to be augmented by the appointment of Temporary Chaplains to the Forces (TCF). At the end of the Great War there were about 3,500 chaplains serving on the Western Front, with 5,000 having served at some time. Clergy were not conscripted, but had to apply and were interviewed. Initial contracts were for twelve months and had to be renewed. At the outbreak of war some clergy took matters into their own hands. The Revd Ivor Davis enlisted with the Yorkshire Hussars and went to France as a trooper in April 1915 before being commissioned as TCF in 1916. He won an MC as chaplain with the 6th Battalion of the Dorset Regiment in October 1918. Similarly, the Revd Bernard Vann got fed up waiting for the Army Chaplains’ Department to make a decision about his application, so got his bishop’s permission to join the combatant force; he was to win two MCs and a posthumous VC. Understandably, many chaplains felt that they had to go to the Front to share in the privations of the men, often ministering to the wounded in no-man’s-land. Many earned MCs carrying wounded men back to the trenches under fire. The MC had been instituted in December 1914 as an award for army officers of Captain or lesser rank, including those of the Royal Flying Corps, for distinguished and meritorious service. During the Great War about 450 MCs were awarded to chaplains, about 250 going to Anglicans. Nineteen chaplains received a bar to the MC after it was awarded for a second act of gallantry (Fig 4); three chaplains received a second bar to their MC.

The Western Front is foremost when thinking of the Great War but it was not confined to Europe. At its outbreak, Frank Weston had been a missionary in Africa for 16 years, six of them as Bishop of Zanzibar. In 1916, the pro-British Sultan of Zanzibar, having declared war on Germany, decreed that native bearers must go to support the Allies fighting in East Africa, as pack animals were unable to survive the conditions. Bishop Frank, together with the Roman Catholic bishop, begged the Sultan to rescind his order since an earlier expedition had been wiped out. The Sultan refused, so Bishop Frank asked if he might personally lead them. Thus Bishop Frank, given the rank of Honorary Major, was found equipping and drilling a corps of 600 native bearers. Sailing for the mainland, they disembarked at Tanga to be joined by others, such that the corps numbered over 2,000 men. The march inland was arduous, the Handeni road was broad, hard and clean but beyond Korogwe it was two feet thick with a brick-red dust ‘made… from all races of men.’ Half-eaten carcasses lay around, together with the stench of death. Their journey, carrying stores to the troops, is one of the epic stories of the war in East Africa. Later, Bishop Frank succumbed to a high fever, collapsed and was carried back to the coast but refused to leave for Zanzibar without the men. The death rate amongst native bearers in the campaign was around 20–25%. Yet Bishop Frank brought all his men safely home, not one was lost; he was mentioned in General Smut’s dispatches and was awarded an OBE for ‘organising and personally leading a corps of native carriers in connection with the campaign in German East Africa’ (Fig 5).

As the combat on the Western Front settled into trench warfare, chaplains were keen to arrange some form of recreational activity when men were withdrawn from the Front. They found themselves organising sporting events and other distractions, aside from their usual work of burying the dead, arranging services, preparing men for confirmation, writing letters of condolence, and distributing cigarettes and magazines. The names of chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip ‘Tubby’ Clayton are well known in connection with the Great War as the founders of an ‘everyman’s club,’ a house in Poperinge where anyone could go, regardless of military rank. Similarly, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’), who had an effective and much publicised ministry. About 10% of chaplains were called upon to exercise a yet more challenging ministry. Not every soldier serves honourably; some are guilty of desertion, cowardice, sleeping at post, mutiny or striking a superior officer, occasionally they murder civilians. Courts martial sentenced almost 3,000 soldiers to death. About 90% of such sentences were commuted at the last hour; generally, it was persistent offenders or those guilty of the most serious crimes who were shot. In Great Britain, only adults committing the most serious of crimes could be sentenced to capital punishment; on the Western Front about 30 soldiers under the age of 21, technically minors, were executed by firing squad. Generally, the chaplain was asked to tell the condemned man that his death sentence had been confirmed. The chaplain would spend the night with the condemned man, accompany him to his execution, and arrange his burial. Very rarely did a chaplain have to undertake this ministry more than once.

The highest gallantry award is that of the Victoria Cross. Three chaplains won the VC during the Great War for their outstanding gallantry: they were Mellish (April 1916), Addison (September 1916) and Hardy (July 1918). Of these, the story of Theodore Bayley Hardy is the most remarkable (Fig 6). He had been headmaster of Bentham Grammar School before accepting a living at St. John’s, Hutton Roof, Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria in 1913. Hardy was quite old as a chaplain, being 51 when appointed TCF in 1915, and was awarded a DSO for gallantry in September 1917. Going out to help bring in the wounded, he found a man buried in mud whom it was impossible to extricate; he remained, under fire, ministering until the man died. Hardy was further awarded an MC in October 1917 for repeatedly going out under heavy fire to bring in wounded men. In July 1918, Hardy was awarded a VC for outstanding gallantry with, perhaps, one of the longest and most detailed citations for such an award. Hardy, as many people anticipated, was killed in action on 18 October 1918; one of the 185 chaplains killed during the war. Terence Cuneo’s portrait of Hardy receiving his award from the King is particularly striking, although there is some artistic licence: he is shown wearing a tin hat rather than the service cap he wore for the occasion. The nurse in the background is his daughter, who served with the Red Cross in France. Hardy’s son served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in the eastern Mediterranean. Hardy’s wife had died earlier in 1914.

Generally, chaplains had no military experience, or training, for their role amidst the horror of warfare together with the emotional pressures acting upon them. Their ministry was shaped by prevailing circumstances, whether in hospitals or with troops at the Front, often requiring initiative to act in the best interests of the souls under their care. Many brave acts went unnoticed; when decorations were won it was not in the heat and anger of battle, but through cool, tenacious courage. In warfare, the conventional rules of morality may, and do, break down. The presence of chaplains moderates behaviour and strengthens individuals. Senior officers were unstinting in their praise of chaplains and, at the end of the Great War, King George V decreed that the department would henceforth be known as the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. Perhaps chaplains needed no accolade; for theirs was a sacred presence, a holy battle.

Fr Terry Buckingham SSC is a member of  the Orders and Medals Research Society.