If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Five Minutes for the Padre

Thank you all for your patience with a lack of update last week.  The post for Remembrance Day was so well received, I didn't want to bump it from the top while it was still getting so much attention.  We are now back on schedule for weekly updates.  Want to be sure you don't miss out?  Check us out on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Religion can be a very personal, divisive and contentious subject to discuss.  It’s not my object here to bring my own views on faith or to open debate on the nuances and intricacies of the topic.  Rather, I’d like to explore the nature of the men so devoted to their professed belief that they actively sought to be, often at disregard to their own safety, where their calling dictated they were most needed.  They are the spiritual element of the armed forces, a comfort to the hurt and dying and a font of moral direction; the chaplains.

Men of holy orders have long followed fighting armies into the field, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the Nineteenth Century they began to be directly incorporated into the armed forces in a permanent and established basis.[1] The cause for a creation of a permanent militia chaplaincy was pressed in Canada by Lt Col Roy of the 9th Voltigeurs in 1896.  When the nation mobilised for war in 1914, chaplains were appointed by nomination of officers commanding battalions.[2]

It may be important, from this remove in a more secular and perhaps cynical age, to recall “that a century ago (the church) exercised a much more prominent role in daily life”[3] While this is probably more true in smaller communities and rural areas, where a village church was more of a unifying edifice than only a place of worship, outright practice of religion had begun to decline at about the same time as the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding surge in urban population.  In “March 1851 the Church of England conducted a national survey to see how many people attended church....More than half the people of England and Wales had not gone to church at all.”[4] Fifty years later, it was estimated that 98 people in 1,000 had taken Holy Communion.[5] While these numbers reflect only those professing the Anglican (Church of England) faith, it serves as a good sample and for the purposes of comparison, those numbers have much further declined.  Although, by 1914, church parade in the British Army on Sunday was a usual and mandatory practice.[6] Despite a recession of religious service attendance, military historian Richard Holmes offers a salient point: “Religion and those who championed it divided men’s opinion, but there was a far more powerful spiritual undertow on the Western Front than we sometimes think.”[7]

In WWI, with a structural chaplaincy in place, as it was a fairly new aspect in such a capacity there was a lack of clarity in both how many chaplains would be required and what their role would be defined as.  Crerar notes: “In 1915 they (chaplains) had been too few and far between.  They had no time to venture into the trenches, despite clear signs that this was necessary to win the affection of the men and assist them where they fell.  Forced to wait in the rear, of minister at Casualty Clearing Stations as men were brought in long after being hit, often unconscious, dead or dying, most padres chafed under British and Canadian army regulations which forbade them access to the front line.”[8] This was particularly distressing for clerics and practitioners of the Roman Catholic faith who place a high comforting value to the Sacramental rituals, significantly at time of death.[9] The restrictive policy was first overturned by Lt General Julian Byng, Officer Commanding the Canadian Corps making “it clear that all his padres would be welcome to serve in the front line, and the British Army soon withdrew it’s regulation forbidding padres to go ahead of the dressing stations.”[10]

As the armies grew, so too did the requirement for men to minister to them.  In August 1914 there were a total of 117 chaplains in the British army, the majority being Church of England, and the remainder either Presbyterian or Roman Catholic.  Four years later that number was 3,146 including the above denominations as well as Wesleyan, United Board, Welsh Calvinist, Jewish and Salvation Army.[11] Denomination depended upon the majority religion and assignment of chaplains remained usually at one per battalion.  For representatives of less common denominations, chaplains of these faiths were attached to divisions of corps and acted in a “roving capacity,”[12]

There was, of course, the difficulty in reconciling the encouragement of men to do things either contrary to usual spiritual practices or that the one making the encouragement was unwilling to do themselves.  Chaplains were required to endure the cynicism of soldiers for this paradox-but it was a good chaplain who could understand that soldiers are generally cynical towards all things and tempered his role as a measure between being a spiritual advisor and a welfare officer.  A padre should be walking a line between providing for the moral and morale of his charges.  Whatever role these men of faith took on, they seemed to have done so with appropriate devotion.  During the war, 201 British Army chaplains were killed on the Western Front.[13] This is a ratio of approximately 1:20, about half of the overall army fatality rate of 1:10; but a considerably high rate for non-combatants.

The list of chaplains killed in the war includes many, of varying denominations having been awarded decorations for valour as well as mentions in despatches.  The dedication of these men to their vocation in the face of mortal danger is a strong indicator of deep faith.  One deserving particular attention is the Reverend Theodore Bailey Hardy who was thrice decorated- with the Military cross, a Distinguished Service Order and the Empire’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.  On 9 July, 1918 the London Gazette reported: " His marvellous energy and endurance would be remarkable even in a very much younger man, and his valour and devotion are exemplified in the following incidents:
An infantry patrol had gone out to attack a previously located enemy post in the ruins of a village. He was at company headquarters. Hearing firing, he followed the patrol, and about four hundred yards beyond our front line of posts found an officer of the patrol dangerously wounded. He remained with the officer until he was able to get assistance to bring him in. During this time there was a great deal of firing, and an enemy patrol actually penetrated between the spot at which the officer was lying and our front line and captured three of our men.
On a second occasion when an enemy shell exploded in the middle of one of our posts, the Reverend T B Hardy at once made his way to the spot, despite the shell and trench mortar fire which was going on at the time, and set to work to extricate the buried men. He succeeded in getting out one man who had been completely buried. He then set to work to extricate a second man, who was found to be dead. During the whole of the time that he was digging out the men this chaplain was in great danger, not only from shell fire, but also because of the dangerous condition of the wall of the building which had been hit by the shell which buried the men 
On a third occasion he displayed the greatest devotion to duty when our infantry, after a successful attack, were gradually forced back to their starting trench After it was believed that all our men had withdrawn from the wood, Chaplain Hardy came out of it, and on reaching an advanced post asked the men to help him to get in a wounded man. Accompanied by a sergeant he made his way to the spot where the man lay, within ten yards of a pill-box which had been captured in the morning, but was subsequently re-captured and occupied by the enemy. The wounded man was too weak to stand, but between them the chaplain and the sergeant eventually succeeded in getting him to our lines. Throughout the day the enemy's artillery, machine-gun and trench mortar fire was continuous, and caused many casualties. Notwithstanding, this very gallant chaplain was seen moving quietly amongst the men and tending the wounded, absolutely regardless of his personal safety
[14]                                  Reverend Hardy died of wounds received in October 1918.

There is some speculation to their having been a religious revival in the post-war period. [15] Largely believed to be part of a popular feeling of a need to reconcile such a terrible event such an event would be a difficult thing to quantify and most ascertains that there was such a revival can be found to be propagated from the clergy who may have viewed the war as a call to deeper belief and repentance.

[1] Crerar, Duff, “In the Day of Battle: Canadian Catholic Chaplains in the Field, 1885-1945” CCHA Historical Studies 61, 1995 pp 53-77
[2] Crerar, Duff, ibid.
[3] Holmes, Richard “Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918” Harper Perennial, 2005, pg 504
[4] Bryson, Bill “At Home: A Short History of Private Life” Anchor Canada, 2010 pg 25
[5] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 508
[6] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 99
[7] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 508
[8] Crerar, Duff, ibid.
[9] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 519
[10] Crerar, Duff, ibid.
[11] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 509
[12] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 99
[14] London Gazette, No 30790, dated 9th July, 1918
[15] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 103

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Between Beloved Home and War’s Desolation

There is a quote of which I am quite fond, of all things from a science fiction novel, though the author understood the nature of military sacrifice on a personal level himself: "The most noble fate a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war's desolation."-Robert A Heinlein, 'Starship Troopers', 1959

Please take a moment to remember those who gave all so that we might live free.

With winter drawing near, it was becoming apparent to either side that the defensive lines which were being established- what would become known as the Western Front- could not, or would not, be broken until the spring of 1915 at the very least.

Like so many immense human endeavours, time was the most critical commodity.  The Allies and the Germans both required time to improve their standing and thus their chances of a successful offensive campaign, but had to do so more quickly than their opponent and before the cost of a long war would wear down the economy and popular support.  This was a large factor in explaining the management and prosecution of the war- the idea of having to win the war as quickly as possible balanced against taking all the time required to achieve the most advantageous circumstances to procure that victory.  It necessitated, even in the face of great loss, putting into battle undertrained and inadequately led troops.

It is often considered that man for man the British fielded the superior force in 1914.  There were just so many more Germans as to negate this professional advantage; and after several costly battles there were far fewer left.  “More than half of the one hundred and sixty thousand men Britain had by then sent to France were dead of wounded.”[1] Fortunately, Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener had put into place a system for volunteers to join the army for wartime service.  By September, nearly half a million men had joined, and had been organized into four Armies.[2]

As the battalions within the “Kitchener’s Armies” (as they became known) were numbered and integrated with regiments of the Regular Army, the bond, traditions and esprit de corps such a system entails was retained.  Geographic recruitment or professional and recreational associations forming bases for volunteers ensured a high level of camaraderie among men and a deep connection to the home front.  “All this made for tremendous strengths: the men had shared interests…had the same friends…and were adamant that their battalion would be better than any other.” [3]

Numbers alone do not an army make.  The regulars who had taken the field, and those who took a permanent place in the fields had years of training, employment and practical experience behind them.  These New Armies could not have the luxury of years, and wouldn’t have much opportunity to learn directly from that experience during their initial training.  “”There were far few trained officers and NCO’s” writes Brig. Richard Holmes on the wartime volunteers, “there was a sprinkling of ex-regulars among the NCO’s but most (men of the 11/East Lancashire) had no military experience.” [4] Though Holmes is only referring to one battalion, which was commonly referred to as the “Accrington Pals”, their lack of experienced leadership, and likewise depth of training is not atypical.  The sheer numbers; taking on hundreds of thousands of men in months when it was usual practice to induct thirty thousand in a year stretched established structure and resources to the limit.  “It was one thing to find men, quite another to provide officers and NCO’s to command and train them.”[5]

Making enlistment criteria flexible so as to allow the recall of retired ex-regulars, transferring men from the Territorial Force and the Indian Army helped, but couldn’t be enough.  Ironically, these very conditions were attributed to the high losses of German recruits at Ypres- in what became known as the Kindermord- “The volunteers went into action two months later not just under- but improperly trained. Their instructors had been mainly older NCOs who taught the close-order tactics favored at the turn of the century, in which men charged in waves, shoulder-to-shoulder, or in squares that would have done justice to a Napoleonic battlefield. Regular officers, especially lieutenants, were in short supply, and the few the reservists did have often led them into battle without maps. It was hardly surprising that they occasionally blundered into enemy lines. As a rule, the better the reserve regiments were trained--which is to say, the smaller the proportion of raw volunteers--the less likely they were to move forward in vulnerable tight-packed skirmish lines, or to rely on song under stress.”[6]

Even allowing for months of training wouldn’t be sufficient, as a soldier’s life- even a regular soldier- is so much more than battle craft.  In a Spectator editorial for 1st September 1900, a professional soldier wrote “How can you train men for the field unless men and officers are all present in the ranks, prepared for a march into suitable country? To do this you must shut up the barracks, officers' mess, ser- geants' mess, canteen, cook-house, tailors' shop, and all other regimental offices and institutions which absorb so large a proportion of the ‘strength’ of a battalion. Finally, if you aspire to make professional soldiers of our three-year and five-year men you must pay them a living wage, and alter the system of promotion for officers, substituting competition for seniority, and rewarding industry and zeal at the expense of slackness and incapacity.”[7] Many of the New Army formations would be sent to the front with only the most rudimentary of military skills, some even having not fired more than fifty live rounds in target practice before being expected to do so in earnest.  As they began to reach the front in the spring of 1915, their training and experience meant that they could not be relied upon to undertake the complex operations which would be required of them.  It was doubtful they would even have the ability to hold a defensive line.

By 1916 there was little choice but to put the New Armies into an attack.  The war had to be won, and could only be won by breaking the German line in the main European theatre.  Given more time, the results may have been better, but that commodity was spent.  In July of 1916, men who had little ability beyond very basic military understanding were sent into battle by officers who had never commanded such large numbers or in this type of war.  The cost was devastating.  In twenty-four hours Britain took as many casualties, 60,000, as it had in the first months of the war.  In Holmes’ example of the 11/East Lancashire- “The Accringtons lost 7 officers and 139 men killed, 2 officers and 88 men missing, believed killed, and 12 officers and 336 men wounded.  The battalion…was never the same as it had been at 7:30 on the morning of 1 July 1916.  And neither, for that matter, was Accrington which had lost too many of its dearest and its best that day.” [8]

It was the very nature of the close knit recruiting of the New Armies which would have, and continue to give such a localized sense of loss.  “The British, however, unlike other participants, had no conception of the casualties likely to be caused by war on the European scale.  All that said, there was a further major factor that influenced British perception, then and now, of the loss of a generation.  That factor was the way in which the British raised the manpower to fight the war.”[9] The losses didn’t affect the country at large; they struck small, insular localities suddenly and all at once.  The war and the common grief of death visited households interconnected through family and community.  Remembrance became so important because the sacrifice was so personally felt.

[1] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 234
[3] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 68
[4] Holmes, Richard “Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918” Harper Perennial, 2005, pg 83
[5] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 65
[6] The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Robert Cowley, 1998 
[8] Holmes, Richard, ibid. pg 85
[9] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 63

Monday, 3 November 2014

Factory Floor to Flander's Fields

In anticipation of Remembrance Week, "If Ye Break Faith" presents a two part series looking at the very nature of Britain's citizen army and how that has impacted on the resonance of the First World War.  Your comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome.  You can follow this column through Facebook and Twitter

By autumn of 1914, the state of affairs for the British army in the field was very dire indeed.  Three months of battle had smashed its core of professional soldiers.  Of the nearly 120,000 men put into the field by the end of October 1914, a total of 29,562 had been killed, wounded or been declared missing.[1] These regulars without question had performed with great √©lan against odds which were at times 12:1,[2] but the supply of such seasoned men was finite and quickly reaching its limit.  “This defence of Ypres is in a dual sense the supreme memorial to the British Regular Army, for here its officers and men showed the inestimable value of the disciplined morale and unique standard of musketry which were the fruit of long training.”[3] For Britain to stay active in the war, it would have to do something never done on such a scale- and in doing so would create the reason why the First World War remains in the public consciousness: the entire country would mobilize.  In a broad sense this would reflect the efforts of the population in economics, agriculture and manufacture but the reason why it seems the war touched so many ordinary lives was that Britain was beginning to make soldiers of ordinary men.

Mid November of 1914 bore witness to the final acts in the opening stages of war.  Along the Western Front the hasty
trenches which had been dug to protect men and deny ground were being sunk deeper.  Fortified with sandbags, wood riveting and in some cases- mostly on the German side-concrete these initial scrapes were linked to other defensive lines north and south with supporting trenches being established in lines to the rear.  The first strands of what would soon be ubiquitous and copious barbed wire were being emplaced.  All this was done in great haste, before the ground froze and to get the men into shelter from the increasing number of big guns being brought up to pulverise these static works.

Defence had been a mutual necessity.  The Allies and the Germans in the beginning war of encounter and manoeuvre had proven too evenly matched for one side to dominate the other.  Germany had always had numerical advantage, but couldn’t press this as being so far from bases of supply required time to build logistics, and the looming shadow of Russia in the East was drawing attention there.  Neither France nor Britain could continue offensively until suitable reinforcements could reach the front.

A vast pool of manpower was readily available to both; that of the native contingents of their colonial forces.  Both the Lahore and Meerut Divisions of the British Indian Army had begun to arrive- the Lahore Division proving instrumental in holding the line during the First Battle of Ypres.  These troops, like their British counterparts, were professional soldiers and could be relied upon the instant they were available.  “Eventually contributing over one million troops, the British Indian Army would become the largest source of volunteers from the Empire.”[4] Forces from the rest of the Empire were underway as well, but as they had been raised through militias and wartime volunteers their deployment would be delayed while they underwent training.  These deficiencies were due in part to very few in positions of power having foreseen- or even believed- a protracted continental war possible.  Mobilisation, deployment and campaign plans on both sides had been made around the assumption of a quick victory.

Britain’s initial plan upon involving in a European conflict reflected this.  Prior to the war, Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War 1905-1912) had initiated striking reforms in the organisation of the British Army which would be of inestimable value, including a training corps for officers and a general staff[5].  Haldane is also credited as the creative mind behind the notion of an Expeditionary Force.  “Without the certainty of a European war, Haldane had to plan for any number of possible scenarios; this limited his ability to make plans for the future role of the army on the continent and plan for its reinforcement.[6] Eventually it was determined that the BEF would be constituted of seven divisions, only four being initially sent to France in August.  As the threat of a German invasion of Britain dissipated, the remaining three divisions were dispatched to the front.  The Territorial Force (another Haldane brainchild) was composed of part-time soldiers and ex-regulars whose purpose of home defence would release more Regular units to be sent to the front.  To further increase numbers of available men, the Territorials were encouraged to volunteer for overseas service which the terms of their enlistment did not oblige them to do.

One day after declaring war on Germany, Parliament appointed Field Marshall the Lord Kitchener, a popular military hero, as Secretary of State for War.  Kitchener did not feel the plans Haldane had laid out, which relied heavily on the Territorial Force could be relied upon.  This had mainly to do with his own opinion that the Territorial Force itself could not be relied upon.  A long serving professional officer, he disdained “Saturday-night soldiers” and held the view that most Territorial outfits were little more than private drinking clubs.  The kind of numbers he felt would be required in the conflict just joined was beyond what was available either through the Regular Force or the Territorials.  While Haldane had posited that the Territorials had the foundation in existence for rapid and measured expansion through intakes of war-time volunteers, Kitchener wanted to attach these volunteers to existing Regular Force units; essentially creating a mass army based upon the professionalism he himself espoused.  “Kitchener had grasped, in contrast to Governments and General Staffs alike, the probable duration of the struggle.... (He) took the view that Britain could only exercise a decisive influence through the creation of mass armies.”[7]

Parliament sanctioned an increase in army establishment of 500,000 men on the 6th of August, the first appeals for volunteers was made public on the 7th.  Between the beginning of the war and the 12th of September, 478,893 men joined; 33,204 having volunteered on the 3rd of September alone, the largest daily total of the entire war and more than the average annual intake. (14-18)  “Apart from a bedrock of patriotism and a widespread collective sense of duty to King and Empire, two factors, in particular, helped to generate this boom in enlistment. One was the formation on 31 August of the
Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC), which placed at the disposal of the War Office the entire network of local party political organisations. The assistance which the PRC provided included the issue of a series of memorable recruiting posters designed by leading graphic artists of the day. Another key factor in stimulating enlistment was the granting of permission to committees of municipal officials, industrialists and other dignitaries, especially in northern England, to organise locally-raised ‘Pals’ battalions, which men from the same community or workplace were encouraged to join on the understanding that they would train and, eventually, fight together.”[8] An Army Order (Number 324) issued on the 21st of August authorised the establishment of six divisions, to be collectively known as “K1”, for “Kitchener’s Army[9].  The structure of the divisions would be made up of battalions numbered sequentially from existing Regiments of the Line. 

These measures ensured a rapid expansion of Britain’s army, and structuring them as subsequent components of regular regiments, along with the geographical recruitment of these “Pals” battalions instilled the appropriate esprit de corps while keeping men with established personal bonds together.  Taking a name from a line regiment was one thing, though.  Expecting these “New Armies” as they became known to perform to the standard of the regulars was another.