Faith under fire: Anglican army chaplains and the Great War

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Reviews, Volume 20, World War I

Faith under fire: Anglican army chaplains and the Great WarEdward Madigan (Palgrave Macmillan, €55) ISBN 9780230237452

Faith under fire: Anglican army chaplains and the Great War
Edward Madigan
(Palgrave Macmillan, €55)
ISBN 9780230237452

The focus of Edward Madigan’s book on the conduct of Anglican chaplains in the First World War is provided by something akin to a post-war literary consensus castigating army chaplains, and more specifically Church of England chaplains, for being ineffective at best, commanding little respect in the ranks, as having nothing more to offer than the kind of consolation the next man can give, while being unwilling to be exposed to fire on the front line. By comparison, Catholic chaplains received whatever accolades were spared for this genre of non-combatant officer in what amounts to a generally hostile literary press, typified by Robert Graves’s Goodbye to all that, first published in 1929. Much work has been done in the last two decades on the role of chaplains in the armed forces, both in the Great War and in later conflicts, notably by Stephen Loudon, Richard Schweitzer, Alan Robinson, Linda Parker and Michael Snape. Madigan’s concentration is, however, on the Anglican chaplain’s experience in the most destructive war in British history as it was played out in the horrifying conditions of the Western Front.What follows is a systematic deconstruction of the literary myth, drawing on an impressively wide range and variety of sources, in the course of which the chaplain emerges with considerable credit as someone whose role, particularly in maintaining morale, was widely acknowledged by commanding officers and men alike. Anglican chaplains faced many difficulties. To begin with, their social background—the great majority of them were Oxbridge or Trinity graduates—meant that they had little or no direct experience of the industrial working-class recruits who made up the mass of the infantry. They had no appropriate training and no job description, at least for the first two years of the war. They held the rank of captain, which only reinforced the existing social division. Until the Somme, they were confined to rearguard zones, an exclusion that only served to diminish whatever respect they might have enjoyed from the troops, since they were not exposed to danger. Most problematic of all, they quickly learned that the great majority of soldiers had little time for organised religion, and how in the extreme conditions of the battlefield men were in no position to reflect deeply on whatever faith sustained them. Faced by the absence of God and the disconnection of the mass of the troops from the Church of England, the chaplain found his own faith profoundly challenged. The whole issue of combatant faith is brilliantly and incisively analysed by Madigan. Later in the war, chaplains were admitted to the front once their contribution to troop morale was understood and appreciated. In fact, a significant number of Anglican chaplains received awards for gallantry or meritorious service, including 121 Military Crosses and two VCs, and not a few were killed at the front. In spite of the odds, many chaplains made their mark by striving to overcome class divisions by force of personality, by applying themselves usefully to recreational and morale-building activities, helping the wounded, communicating with families, and by courageous conduct under fire.Among the great merits of this book is its analysis of the ministry of the Church of England in the decades leading up to the war, which provides the necessary context for understanding what followed. Equally absorbing is the chapter on ‘Veteran padres and the idealism of fellowship in post-war Britain’, which describes how the bitter lessons learned by chaplains on the Western Front were applied by the post-war Church of England through social and political involvement, the broadening of the base of clerical recruitment and pacifist movements. In such ways one can see the connections with pre-war Christian Socialist idealism, the harsh disciplines of combatant faith and the shaping of a very different post-war social and political landscape. Faith under fire is an excellent and completely absorbing study of a wide range of issues relative to wartime chaplaincy. It is easy and compelling to read, carefully and closely argued, and a model of sound scholarship.  HI
Adrian Empey is the former Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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