Chaplains

On the University of Birmingham’s website there is an interesting essay by Michael Snape on the role and reputation of Army chaplains in the First World War. It attempts to defend them from the accusation of being distant and ineffectual figures who kept away from the front line. It is well worth reading and partly, but not, I’d say, completely convincing.
Much of Professor Snape’s evidence comes from fiction and memoirs. He is properly sceptical of the credibility of Robert Graves, and writes well about C.E.Montague, whose background and preoccupations made him unsympathetic to Anglican chaplains. The chapter of Disenchantment about ‘The Sheep that were not Fed’ criticises actual chaplains, but Montague’s fantasy about a possible spectacularly successful mission among soldiers strains credibility


Professor Snape is less analytical when considering texts that support his position. He writes about Ernest Raymond’s best-seller Tell England, for example, the novel that established firmly in the popular mind the idea that Gallipoli was a noble and glorious failure (and by implication worth more than many successes). He argues that the novel’s success is proof of the public standing of chaplains in the early twenties, and gives an enthusiastic account of Raymond’s ecclesiastical hero:

Far from being a hapless and confused parson, Padre Monty is portrayed as ‘spare, lean and vigorous’, a veteran of the Western Front who had already been buried alive by a German shell; when Doe is fatally wounded, it is Monty who braves Turkish fire to bring him in from no-man’s land. In addition, Monty is full of pastoral sympathy for his wider flock, touring hospital tents with his gramophone and admonishing his adoring neophytes that ‘No one has a right to condemn them, who hasn’t floundered in mud under shell-fire.’

Padre Monty is a memorable character, and probably did much to arouse the respect for chaplains that Professor Snape sees the book as a symptom of. But what relation does he have to real life?
As Professor Snape notes, Ernest Raymond was himself an Army chaplain. But his autobiography, The Story of My Days shows him to be very different from Padre Monty. Unlike Monty he did not come to Gallipoli as a veteran of the Western Front; he was sent there without any appreciable training just a few days after being fully ordained as a priest. His autobiography records none of the wonderful conversions, wise utterances or acts of moral courage that are ascribed to Monty. Doubtless he did his best, but it is pretty clear from the autobiography that Monty was a fantasy figure, the chaplain that he would like to have been.
In 1930, Ernest Raymond published another war novel. The Jesting Army follows a battalion from Gallipoli to the Middle East and the Western Front. Its most spectacular character is Quickshaw, a chaplain even more dynamic and independent than Tell England’s Padre Monty. At Passchendaele he disobeys orders by going over the top with the soldiers. he then rallies a retreating force and leads them in an attack. By 1930 Raymond’s  enthusiasm for the glory of futile heroism was no longer in tune with the mood of the times, and this novel was not a success.
As further evidence for the respect given to chaplains, Professor Snape cites the fact that Tell England was the basis for a major film in 1930. Perhaps he has not seen the film; if he had, he would know that in it the religious theme that is so important to the novel is cut to the very minimum.
Despite all of which, the essay is well worth reading, as a reminder that texts we might be tempted to take for granted (like those of Sassoon and Graves) are formed as much by their authors’ temperaments and prejudices as by the facts that they are ostensibly reporting.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted November 21, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    The attempt to defend the performance of establishment institutions (i.e. the Army and the Church) during the First World War is never-ending, isn’t it? The absence of Anglican clergymen from the field hospitals was noticed by nurses. ‘She turned to me threatening, accusatory. “Have YOU ever seen a clergyman hold out the cross or make any decorous gesture to a dying man?” “Catholics I have,” I said soothingly; “nobody else.”‘ Lesley Smith, Four Years Out of Life (London: Philip Allan, 1931), p. 189.

    • Posted November 21, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      I’ve been trying to think of any complimentary references to chaplains in fiction. The only ones I can think of are in novels actually written by chaplains.

      • janevsw
        Posted November 25, 2016 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        Frank Alban in John Buchan’s ‘A Prince of the Captivity’ is a former army chaplain and described as having been a good one. (The more I read that book, incidentally, the stranger I find it).

  2. Posted November 21, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    On Twitter Bryn Hammond has suggested that the padre in The Jesting Army might be based on a real figure, Frances Gleeson of 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, an inspirational Catholic priest who during First Ypres was said to have taken command of the battalion after all the officers were incapacitated by the enemy.
    This possible basis in fact does not stop the fictional character from coming over as rather too good to be true.

  3. Posted November 21, 2016 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    As I understand individual clergy were somewhat hamstrung by their orders not to go too far forward, though some of course ignored this. RC chaplains were perhaps more inclined to do so due to the importance of administering the Last Rites.

    There certainly were well-known clergy in the 20s who had served as chaplains, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy MC aka “Woodbine Willie” perhaps the most prominent, but also Dick Sheppard (who was involved in the beginnings of the Festival of Remembrance that continues today, and also the beginnings of the social programme at St Martin-in-the-Fields). Eric Milner White perhaps another, with his interest in what would now be called “Fresh Expressions” leading to the introduction of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s Cambridge (I should declare an interest here as my grandfather was a protege of Milner White, and it was due to his influence that my grandfather served as a chaplain in the Second World War, though he opted for the navy, partly because naval chaplains wear no badges of rank).

    Then there’s “Tubby” Clayton, founder of Talbot House and Toc-H, well-known as vicar of All Hallows-by-the-Tower after the war.

    Theodore Hardy VC DSO MC of course did not survive the war, but is certainly a counter-example for the Anglican chaplain hiding away behind the lines.

    • Posted November 21, 2016 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      Yes, there were definitely exceptions, and doubtless many chaplains did their sincere best, and some men were inspired. But by and large soldiers do not seem to have been impressed by their chaplains, and many resented the requirement to assemble for corporate worship. A favourite song was:

      When this bloody war is over
      No more soldiering for me
      When I get my civvy clothes on
      Oh how happy I will be
      No more Church parades on Sunday…

    • Bill
      Posted November 25, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      It should also be remembered that Doick Sheppard founded the Peace Pledge Union and that wearing the white poppy should be seen as an equal act of remembrance alongside the red.

  4. Posted November 21, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    The link to Michael Snape’s essay does not seem to be working. It worked last night, so I’m not sure what has happened. I shall try to investigate.

  5. Posted November 21, 2016 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Alan Hewer sends me this, by Bruce Bairnsfather:
    chaplin.jpg

  6. Posted November 21, 2016 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading that an end to Church parades was high up on the list of soldiers’ demands during the, er, acts of collective indiscipline that followed the Armistice. Andrew Rothstein, The Soldiers’ Strikes of 1919 (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1980).

  7. Tom Deveson
    Posted November 22, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Roger Mortimer in Winifred Holtby’s Poor Caroline is baptised as an adult just before he joins his infantry regiment, leads a ‘Franciscan’ life in the trenches, has an awful vision of dead friends in the spring of 1919, and then decides to take Holy Orders. So he isn’t a chaplain during the war but plays a quasi-religious role whose ‘exaltation’ dulls ‘the perception of horror, which might otherwise have driven him mad’.

    • Posted November 22, 2016 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

      Tom – On your recommendation I’ve started to read ‘Poor Caroline’, and am enjoying it greatly. Thanks.

  8. janevsw
    Posted November 24, 2016 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Naval chaplains don’t seem to have attracted the same amount of attention in life or fiction, although it was hardly possible in a ship for them to be farther away from the action than anyone else. I don’t have much first-hand evidence, but what I do have suggests that they were often in charge of first-aid parties; indeed, the chaplain of HMS Barham died of wounds received while on such duty during the Battle of Jutland.


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