Review of “Padre, prisoner and pen-pusher”

Padre, prisoner and pen-pusher
The World War One experiences of Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke
By Peter Howson
Published by Helion & Company, Solihull, 2015
ISBN 978 1 910294 70 3
Hardback 163pp including bibliography, no index, illustrated
Cover price not stated
Reviewed by Chris Baker

Benjamin O’Rorke had already seen military service as a Chaplain when he went to France at the age of 40 in August 1914, attached to the 4th Field Ambulance, for he had been in South Africa during the Boer War. His service was cut short in dramatic fashion on 26 August 1914, when he was taken prisoner at Landrecies. Any hopes of immediate release as a non-combatant were quickly dashed as he was sent rearward for incarceration in Germany. He was however sent back to Britain in 1915 after much diplomatic discussion. On his return he wrote a book about his experience: “In the hands of the enemy”. O’Rorke was eventually sent back to France, this time with 33rd Division where he had a co-ordinating responsibility for the Anglican Chaplains with that formation, but was soon appointed as Deputy-Assistant Chaplain General. He gained the DSO or his work in staff matters relating to the organisation of the army’s chaplaincy. We must be grateful that he left a diary covering the first half of 1918 – rather unusual in that it covers such rear-area affairs, for the work we have from other chaplains mostly concerns those who worked at the front line units – and it is this that forms the core of “Padre, prisoner and pen-pusher”.

Peter Howson, already the author of “Muddling through: the organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One”, has brought together a transcript of the diary together with biography, insights into O’Rorke’s ministry and theology, the relationships between those at the top end of the Anglican military chaplaincy and their emerging views about what the post-war world should and might look like. It makes for a most interesting read and will be invaluable for anyone who wishes to understand the subject in more detail. The research is impeccably referenced. I found the “dramatis personae” listing of mini-biographies of many of the Chaplains and others mentioned in the text to be of great value, too.

The production of the book is at the very high standard we have come to expect from Helion, with good paper and binding and a readable font. There are some maps included – mainly town plans of some of the rear-area places in which O’Rorke worked – from the National Archives collection. They are physically very large and I am sorry to say that on being reduced down to fit this relatively small format book the text simply becomes almost illegible. It’s a small gripe, for overall this is a well written and absorbing work that will also be a useful and lasting work of reference.