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.