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Faith under Fire

Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War


Edward Madigan


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Hardback. vii-296 pp. ISBN 978-0-230-23745-2. £55.00 / $85.00


Reviewed by Michael Marino

The College of New Jersey


Faith under Fire begins with an interesting anecdote. The author, Edward Madigan, paraphrases a section of Robert Graves’ famous memoir Goodbye to All That in which Graves rails against the Anglican clergy that he encountered over the course of World War One. According to Graves, these Anglican chaplains were lazy shirkers who did little to ease the psychological burdens of the troops they were assigned to minister. Graves also draws a strong contrast between these Anglican chaplains and their Catholic counterparts, whose bravery and dedication he admired greatly. The introductory section of the book then discusses a number of other World War One memoirs, written by both officers and enlisted personnel. Although not as popular as Graves’ work, these memoirs collectively tell similar stories about the incompetence, arrogance and general uselessness of Anglican chaplains during the Great War. The introductory section also discusses several novels about World War One which are similarly critical of the work of these Anglican ministers. Madigan concludes his introduction by noting that “taken together the work of the authors outlined above presents a mixed, but largely negative picture of the war record of Army chaplains in general, and Anglican chaplains in particular”.


This introduction establishes the underlying premise of Faith under Fire, as Madigan uses the book to examine the reality behind these images of Anglican clergy. Over the course of his analysis, Madigan provides a detailed account of the experience of Anglican chaplains during the war. In so doing, his book makes a valuable contribution to the social history of World War One and to the history of everyday life during that conflict. In this sense, the book is more about life in the trenches and the experiences of the enlisted soldiers than it is about the individual clergymen themselves. The book also offers understanding of British social history and the class issues that dominated British life during the early 20th century. Faith under Fire thus uses the experiences of Anglican chaplains as window to explore wider issues about British history and the history of the First World War.


About midway through the book, Madigan discusses the differences between Catholic and Anglican chaplains during the Great War. Here he concludes that Catholic clergy did seem to have certain advantages over their Anglican colleagues. For one, many of the Catholic troops were intensely religious and had been brought up in a way that conferred an innate respect on the Catholic Church and its priests. Catholic clergy were also more accustomed to ministering among poor and working class people and were perceived as receptive and sensitive to the needs of the enlisted men. Many of the Catholic chaplains also lacked the upper-class British accent that served as a mark of separation between social groups in England. Conversely, Anglican clergy suffered from various negative stereotypes and realities. The Anglican soldiers were not religious and their attitude towards the Church of England ranged from indifference to outright hostility. The perception of Anglican ministers among ordinary British soldiers also suffered due to these ministers’ upper class backgrounds and elite public school educations. These figures were in essence living embodiments of the class divisions that existed in British society, and many British soldiers were predisposed to treat Anglican ministers with contempt and derision. Madigan relates several examples of stereotypically arrogant and aloof Anglican ministers acting as main characters in cartoons and comedy acts geared towards the troops.


Anglican clergy worked hard to overcome these negative perceptions, however, and Madigan discusses at length the dedication and commitment of these individuals over the course of the war. Most of the British rank and file soldiers were not especially religious, and the war did little to change their attitudes about religion. As such, the soldiers had little use for officially sanctioned, mandatory church services (called “church parades”), and Madigan claims that much of the apathy and negativity soldiers felt for Anglican chaplains derived from their experiences at these church services. Here, soldiers were forced to sit and listen to lengthy religious rites under the watchful eye of officers. As Madigan concludes, “when the average soldier thought of religion in the army, he thought of kit inspection and perhaps standing in the rain for up to two hours”. In other respects, however, Anglican chaplains earned the respect of the troops. For example, chaplains performed the burial rites of fallen soldiers, and this work was much valued by the men. Chaplains also had the difficult task of writing notification letters to families of fallen soldiers and providing comfort to relatives of soldiers who had been killed. Madigan relates several examples of Anglicans chaplains’ diligent work in this area and the many letters and notifications they were forced to write. One chaplain, for example, worked tirelessly to identify the remains of hundreds of soldiers killed in a particularly bloody section of the Western Front.


It was in what Madigan called the exercise of “unofficial duties” that Anglican chaplains most proved their worth to the soldiers, however. These unofficial duties became increasingly important as the war in France settled down to dreary trench fighting under extremely difficult conditions. In these trying circumstances, chaplains worked hard to revive the spirits of the men and to help their morale. This work came in the form of organising recreation activities and sporting events, but most significantly in tending to wounded soldiers and men under extreme duress. Anglican chaplains quickly learned that they needed to expose themselves to enemy fire and minister in the front lines to be of use to the troops. Many chaplains distinguished themselves by their bravery and willingness to risk their lives to help the soldiers in the trenches. In this capacity, many chaplains were officially decorated for bravery, and even more importantly, earned the respect and admiration of the troops. Madigan concludes by noting that the perception of authors such as Graves does not seem to correspond to the available evidence about Anglican chaplains in World War One. Although they faced certain obstacles, over time many chaplains proved themselves brave, committed, and dedicated. As Madigan notes, “despite the difficulties inherent in their ministry…many Anglican chaplains succeeded in becoming effective, respected and well-liked”.


Madigan’s book provides a valuable contribution to military history and to the history of the First World War. It is well researched and uses a diverse array of primary sources (ranging from official records to letters and memoirs) to build its argument. The book is especially valuable as a contribution to the understanding of life in the trenches and to the social history of warfare. It also provides insight into the nature of religious life in British society, and shows how religious practice helped reinforce class barriers within England. The book is also well written and well organised, and would certainly be of value to anyone interested in the British experience in the First World War.





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