Review of recent books on army chaplaincy

The publisher’s introduction and biography of the author of “Faith of our fathers” includes the statement that “[Army] Chaplains have in general been ignored” in the context of the historiography of the Great War. I am not sure that this has ever been true and it certainly is not nowadays. The life and work of army chaplains seems to have become a rich seam for PhD students and biographers to mine in recent times. The three books covered on this page follow on from studies of chaplains David Railton, George Kendall and Herbert Cowl, all reviewed elsewhere on the “Long, Long Trail”. They are, of course, not the only examples of work in this particular arena but I suppose that you could say that as more than 3000 army chaplains saw service in the Great War that they still only represent a tiny fraction.

“Faith in conflict” by Stuart Bell (Helion & Co, 2017) is subtitled “The impact of the Great War on the faith of the people of Britain” and as such is a broader examination than a simple study of chaplaincy. It is based on the author’s PhD. I was most interested to find that although he is a Methodist minister, Stuart Bell began life in computer science: I share with him the experience of computing from the days of punched cards and when the computer itself was a large thing in a room to itself, despite having far less computing power than even the most basic of smartphones. So I liked him from the outset! I also liked that he began the book with a clear, short glossary of ecclesiastical terms.

I have often wondered about how Christian faith was affected by the war. On one hand, there were fire-breathers who portrayed God as being wholly behind one’s own side; that it was a righteous war and that God was somehow a field marshal; onward Christian soldiers. On the other, how did this all square with love for your fellow man and living by the commandments? How could a loving God allow such vile slaughter and pain? These were also serious questions that were asked during the Great War, not only by individuals but by the various churches official attitudes to the war. I found “Faith in conflict” to provide a valuable exploration of these matters, with discussion of prayer for the dead and of commemoration and remembrance to be of particular interest. It does not, except in the broadest of terms, study religious conscientious objection to military service. One of the individuals discussed (and there are many in “Faith in conflict” is G. Studdert Kennedy, of whom more below.

The subject of “Faith of our fathers” by Stephen Bellis (Helion & Co, 2018) is made clear by its subtitle “Catholic Chaplains on the Western Front 1916-1919” and will be familiar to many readers of this page by its reference to a militant Roman Catholic hymn. The opening stanza asserts that faith is and would be “living still, in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword”. It later says “we will love both friend and foe in all our strife”: touching on that fundamental and troubling issue of faith during wartime. Again, this book is based on a PhD and like that of Stuart Bell it has all the hallmarks of good, broad and deep research and is well referenced and with a good bibliography and list of sources consulted. Central to the book are two recently discovered diaries, of Fathers Fred Gillett and Robert Steuart: they are quoted extensively and reveal both to be men of great personal courage and no doubt of considerable comfort to the soldiers of the units to which they were attached.

Linda Parker’s “A seeker after truths” covers the life – and perhaps even more so, the philosophy and ideas of faith – of “Woodbine Willie”, as chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was known. As such, he is perhaps the best known and most recognised of British army chaplains of the Great War. The author has previously written “A fool for thy feast”, a biography of that other chaplain “Tubby” Clayton, best known for his work at “Talbot House” in Poperinge from which developed the worldwide charitable organisation, “Toc H” and up there with Studdert Kennedy in terms of general public recognition. “Woodbine Willie” was certainly an interesting and rather complex man: his acts of personal battlefield bravery (including earning a Military Cross at Messines) are mixed with reflection, changing thoughts on his theology and in the writing of published volumes of poetry. He was an experienced local curate and vicar by the time he volunteered for war service in December 1915 and it soon proved to be that he was of a type for which a cushy job in the rear was of no value, quickly taking him to the squalor and violence of the front lines. He no doubt considered his position very carefully: he came down in support for a battle that he believed was right, yet his war experience gradually drove him to reject it; moving him towards a Christian form of socialism and pacifism. I enjoyed this book and learned much from it, particularly of his life in the post-war period (which takes up almost half of the work). Studdert Kennedy, a man that we could perhaps characterise of one of the war’s genuine heroes, died at the terribly early age of 45. A good biography and well worth reading.

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