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

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