Not untypically, the different churches could also fall out over their individual contributions to the war effort. No religious group wanted to appear less supportive than the other and the issue of priest, ministers or vicars joining the ranks became a sore point between the Church of England and Non-conformist clergy.

Bishop of Birmingham exhorting the troops to do their Christian duty

At the start of the war the Anglican Archbishops and Bishops agreed that their priests and curates were most needed to bring pastoral comfort to their parishes at home. The ‘ecclesiastical authorities’ declared that vicars and curates should not be allowed to obtain commissions or enlist in the ranks. That had not stopped young men who had not yet completed their divinity courses from joining up. The Bishop of Birmingham pointed out that, ‘our theological colleges, which are ordinarily full of young men about to take [holy] orders…are practically empty because the students have gone to take colours.’ [1] But keeping the ordained clergy out of the firing line remained a bone of contention. In fairness 2,000 Anglican clergymen offered their services at the start of the war to the Chaplain-General to serve with the armed forces [2] The Church of England tried to justify its position. The Bishop of Birmingham wrote in September 1914:

“I know the delights of being at the front and I confess a great longing to be there again…My young clergy think that I am hard because I disapprove of them becoming combatant soldiers…but the clergy are serving England bravely when they minister comfort to the soldier’s widow wife or mother, when they help to send out to help fight for their country, young men who fear God and fear no-one else.’”[3]

death in trenches... what 'delights'?

Delights of being at the front? He penned that letter just after the retreat from Mons and the first Battle of the Aisne, where the prolonged valour of the British Expeditionary Force bought invaluable time for the defence of Paris at enormous cost. Soldiers would have shuddered at the very notion of the ‘delights of being at the front.’ The mayhem of attack and retreat was steadily replaced by the entrenchment ordered by Sir John French. Thousands on both sides had already been slaughtered but the myth persisted that it would all be over by Christmas. The concept of serving England bravely by comforting those in need of solace hardly acted as inspiration but the roll of recruitment sergeant in holy orders had a powerful effect.

A storm broke after a short letter to The Times on 19 February, 1915 in which the question was raised as to why Anglican vicars stayed ‘comfortably at home’ while Non-conformist and Roman Catholic clergy were enlisting. Chaplains were invaluable in the field, ministering to the wounded and dying, consoling those who had suffered mental and physical exhaustion and providing comfort in desperate situations. The problem was that other clergymen were fighting at the front. A number of non-conformist ministers joined the ranks. [4] The contrast with France was embarrassing. Prior to the war the rift between the Catholic Church and state in France had been absolute, but the necessities of war closed the breech. The Times gave extensive coverage to The Church Militant in France where military chaplains had been reintroduced and priests and monks had joined the army as soldiers. Sympathetic stories of noble Catholic priests found expression in newspapers that had previously ignored them and religion merged into propaganda with unconscionable ease.

French chaplain walks amongst the recent dead

And the Bishop of London? Winnington-Ingram continued to enjoy his war. He wrote to Sir John French and invited himself to the Western Front for two weeks over Easter  in 1915. [5] He took a large box of hymn sheets and ten thousand copies of a short pamphlets of prayers and meditations which he himself had written. He met the Field Marshall and ‘every General in the British army to whose quarters he came.’ [6] He addressed the troops as often as he could. His carefully chosen texts included, ‘Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ’ and he praised the virtue of ‘fortitude’ by which he meant sticking it out in the trenches. His itinerary had been personally approved by Sir John French and it included a promise that he would not go up to the trenches. The Bishop kept his promise. The drama of the recorded visit contained an assurance that although he could not go up to the trenches, shells fell close to his entourage ‘once at least’. [7]  He was of course a precious cargo. On another day they ‘had tea close to the German lines in what was known as a warm quarter’. [8] Winnington-Ingram’s only stipulation was to spend Easter Sunday with ‘his own regiment’, the London Rifle Brigade. [9]

He held around sixty services at all the army bases. He visited, ward by ward, twenty-two hospitals in France and spoke to hundreds of men individually and thousands at meetings and services. [10] Sir John French sent a dispatch to Lord Kitchener, which though correctly fulsome in its praise of the bishop’s mission to the troops, added that

“personal fatigue and even danger were completely ignored by his lordship. The Bishop held service virtually under shell fire and it was with difficulty that he could be prevented from carrying on his ministrations under riffle-fire in the trenches.” [11]

Why spoil a good story by sticking to the facts? By such twists of truth, legends are born. He was exactly the kind of hero that the Secret Elite needed to keep recruits flooding across the channel to fuel their war.

Bishop of London preaching from steps of St Paul's Cathedral to troops

There can be no doubt that the Church of England saw it as its duty to maintain the flow of recruits to the great slaughter. It turned Christianity into a jihad for Britain, the Empire and a spurious notion of ‘civilisation’.  When one thinks of the abandonment of humanity, the undermining of civilisation in the name of God and a Holy War, the arrogance of a ‘Christian’ justification that Germany alone was the instigator, the psychological damage inflicted on young minds from the pulpits of certainty, the Church of England has much to ponder in offering an apology for its role in the First World War.

[1] The Times, 20 February, 1915, p.9.
[2] E H Pearce, Letter to The Times 20 February, 1915, p.9.
[3] The Times, 30 September 1914.
[4] The Times, 23 January 1915, p.4.
[5] Rev G Vernon Smith, The Bishop of London’s Visit to the Front, p.10. https://archive.org/details/bishoplondonsvi00smitgoog
[6] Ibid., p. 19.
[7] Ibid., p. 46.
[8] Ibid., p. 49.
[9] Ibid., p. 58.
[10] Ibid., p. 84.
[11] Ibid., p 89.