168 chaplains died during World War One. As the only British Army officers who don’t carry standard officer ranks, these courageous priests defined a new role for chaplains in the British Army.
Advised to continue their traditional role of hosting services and performing burials, chaplains were not permitted to carry weaponry and were instructed to stay away from the battlefield. With no instructions or directive authority, they were left to define their own roles in the Army.
The tradition of a Sunday Service helped to provide soldiers not only with a source of faith, but a piece of normality as they recited familiar hymns and prayers. For some chaplains, this was not enough, and they would organize entertainment to boost the troop’s morale, hosting entertainment and sport events for the soldiers.
Though they were kept from the front line, the chaplains weren’t free from the horrors of war. They heard the deafening sounds of bombs and gun shots, they witnessed the tearing up of landscapes, and they attempted to provide last moments of comfort to the men whose bodies’ were broken.
But the terror of battle itself wasn’t all that the chaplains had to face. They were the ones who delivered the news to the men of the death of their fellow soldiers, they would minister those awaiting death following a court martial sentencing, and they would even identify the scattered remains of troops they were used to seeing on a daily basis, and attempt to create a marked grave, sometimes whilst under gunfire as battle continued.
Identification was hard, with flimsy fibreboard identity discs, fragmented bodies and an ever changing landscape. But providing a proper burial was essential to maintaining the morale of surviving soldiers. They wanted to see their friends and comrades receive a proper burial, to say goodbye for the last time and to maintain their memory. It also removed the bodies from sight as war waged on.
Even after World War One had come to an end, the role of the chaplain continued. They would have to return home and explain to mourning mothers the fate of their children. They would host services to a room of people who couldn’t imagine the horrors seen on the front line, who were grieving over bodies that never returned.
It was this that inspired Reverend David Railton to design the grave of the Unknown Warrior, interring the remains of an unidentified soldier into a grand tomb in Westminster Abbey, London. This provided a place for those who would never be able to visit the grave of their undiscovered loved ones to grieve.
Want to learn more about the role of the chaplain in the British Army? We recommend the Bickersteth Diaries 1914-18. Edited from more than three thousand pages of diaries and letters, and compiled by a mother of six with four boys in active service during WW1.
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