How did WW1 influence perceptions of the role of military chaplains as morale boosters or force multipliers?

How did WW1 influence perceptions of the role of military chaplains as morale boosters or force multipliers? An examination of the way that the effort of the First World War British Anglican Army chaplains to find a role has influenced the way in which chaplains now regard this aspect of their work .

First World War

How did WW1 influence perceptions of the role of military chaplains as morale boosters or force multipliers? An examination of the way that the effort of the First World War British Anglican Army chaplains to find a role has influenced the way in which chaplains now regard this aspect of their work .

The First World War saw seismic changes in the British Army Chaplains Department. Before the war there were 117 Regular army chaplains. This number rose to 3,475 chaplains in 1918. The way they adapted to the changing conditions of total war, and the multifunctional roles they developed on the battle field, spiritual and practical, earned them the accolade of becoming the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department in February 1919. The chaplains had proved themselves both brave and useful in their work on the battlefield, supporting the wounded spiritually and materially and by bringing in wounded to aid posts. behind the lines thy conducted services and funerals, ministered pastorally to the troops and organised social and material comforts. Many were decorated for bravery and three earned the Victoria Cross. Anglican chaplains were awarded 37 DSOs and 205 MCs. 

Chaplains Morale Boosters or Force Multipliers
A British Chaplain Writing Home for "Tommy"

However, when the first temporary chaplains to the forces arrived on the Western Front in 1914 and into 1915, very little thought seemed to have gone in to their role. Throughout 1915 the temporary chaplains were experiencing the development of trench warfare on the Western Front and trying to establish a role for themselves. Their mobilisation had been somewhat chaotic, with no provisions in the mobilisation plan for their attachment, rations or transport. Peter Howson’s work on the organisational structure of the Chaplains’ Department in the First World War is called Muddling Through and he considers this to be “an apt title for the experience of those first chaplains deployed in France.” Roger Lloyd commented on the chaplain’s task :“He could indeed become necessary but he must create that necessity himself.” 

Chaplains Morale Boosters or Force Multipliers
Chaplain Stretcher Bearers

Were they purveyors of ‘Holy Grocery ‘expending their energies on providing material comfort and recreation for the troops? or was their main role always to care for the spiritual needs of the men and officers? Was their place behind the lines taking services at base camp and hospitals, with the field ambulance giving spiritual succour and medical assistance, or were they meant to be at the front line? At the outset, the army commanders developed a policy of not allowing chaplains at front line. When the Revd E. C. Crosse, an Anglican padre , arrived in France in September 1915 he was told in no uncertain terms that he was “absolutely forbidden” by his senior chaplain from venturing into the front line. It was thought that chaplains would be in the way and serve no useful purpose. These orders were often disregarded, especially by Roman Catholic chaplains who had the theological imperative of administering the sacraments of Holy Communion or the last rites to their soldiers. This situation changed when pressure from the chaplains and a gradual realisation by army commanders that the chaplains were good for morale gradually led to the chaplains being allowed greater freedom of movement. The forming of a role for chaplains at the front was a real learning curve. There was the acute awareness of chaplains of the conflict between spiritual and social material work and a growing realisation that to be of use, chaplains with units must be in the front line. 

Chaplains Morale Boosters or Force Multipliers
The Revd T. Bayley Hardy V.C.

Studdert Kennedy gave this advice to a fellow chaplain, Theodore Bayley Hardy, who went on to win a Victoria Across: “ Your place is at the front …. work in the front and they will listen to you when they come out to rest, but if you only preach and teach behind, you are wasting your time, the men won’t pay the slightest attention to you. The men will forgive you anything but lack of courage and devotion.”

General Douglas Haig

General Douglas Haig, appointed on 10 September 1915, considered chaplains vital for morale, not only in their role as providing material comforts and recreational pursuits, but in their preaching and direct influence on the troops: Michael Snape argued :“ He [Haig] consistently sought to ensure his chaplains made a concerted and systematic effort to bolster morale the pursuit of victory, particularly among front line units.” At a conference at Cassel in January 1916 Haig said: “We must have large minded sympathetic men as parsons who preach the great cause for which we are fighting and can imbue their hearers with enthusiasm.”

Problems with morale

However simple this association of chaplains with good morale may have been to the generals, it was a difficult and ambiguous matter for the chaplain. Many were aware of the conflict between their position of men of God and their many faceted role as chaplains. The Revd E. C. Crosse wrote much in his diary about morale. He realised that chaplains were considered important for “improving general morale” by their pastoral and material care and sometimes their sermons and talks, and considered that religion was important encouraging “inner discipline “, but did not equate this to instilling bellicosity or glorifying war under a religious banner. He considered that there were two very different types of morale, the “fighting spirit” needed for battles and the “spirit of endurance” needed to survive life in the trenches. He stressed that their religious and pastoral duties were uppermost in the minds of the chaplains.

The early twentieth century historiography of chaplain literature, particularly that of Anglican chaplains, has been one of criticism, by such well-known contemporary observers as Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, but also from historians such as Stephen Louden and Albert Marrin who have disparaged the “Holy Grocery” and morale boosting aspects of military chaplains. However, although the First World War is a century away, it is possible to argue that it still has influence on the work of chaplains in the 21st Century. The war was the first in which chaplains took part in what was then modern technological warfare waged by massed armies and resulting in heavy casualties. The chaplains had to forge a role which was spiritual, pastoral and social, as well as defending their utility and necessity to army commanders. The presence of chaplains on the front line, offering spiritual, material and sacramental support has been described by Michael Peterson as “a model of pastoral care for chaplain that still stands today…Today we refer to this model of care as the ‘ministry of presence; and is taught at the very start of chaplain training.” A former chaplain to a bomb disposal unit in the British army commented on the “ strong pioneering element to Army Chaplaincy for we are often confronted with new and challenging situations”, and the fact that the pioneering work of padres in the in the First World War helped in 21st century situations “It was always an encouragement to consider other padres who had tackled their tasks with innovation and adaptability.” 

Woodbine Willie

Chaplains Morale Boosters or Force Multipliers
Woodbine Willie

However, the First World War chaplains have been criticised in terms of their role as morale boosters and force multipliers. Perhaps because he was one of the most well-known and well-loved pares of the great war, the Revd G. A. Studdert Kennedy has come in for much criticism in this area. Stephen Louden in his book on army chaplaincy Chaplains in Conflict was vociferous in his condemnation of Studdert Kennedy : “Studdert Kennedy resolved the conflict between the system of values proclaimed by Christianity and those engendered by the current view of patriotism almost invariably in favour of the latter.” and one of his biographers, William Purcell commented that “He seems at times to have allowed himself gladly to be used as a morale booster to an extent which would certainly have been regarded as improper in a chaplain of the Second War.” 

Debate about morale

Much of the criticism of Studdert Kennedy seems centred on his written work at the beginning of the war, e.g. Rough Talks of a padre and later his role in the infantry schools that he was attached to at various periods throughput the war. His written work has been criticised for displaying a jingoistic and patriotic attitude. He had though, read widely on both ancient and modern history, and his ideas were founded on a knowledge of German history and the deductions he made from that knowledge. He was in no doubt that war would be a disaster for Britain, but felt, in common with the majority of people in Britain, including many clergies of all denominations, felt at that time, that it was a war that had to be fought. Louden described the talks given by Studdert Kennedy at the 4th infantry school at Flixecourt as “larded … with a fire eating bombast, which best calculated to boost the morale of the fighting men to spur them to the supreme sacrifice.” The talks given by Studdert Kennedy at the end of a show which became known as the ‘travelling circus’ were remembered by the C.O, Colonel R. B. Campbell. He described how the talks never failed to get a wonderful response from his audience. Leaving them with their ‘tails up ‘and ready for battle.” This has been seized upon as evidence of his overt boosting of military morale, but war correspondent Phillip Gibbs who heard him at Flixecourt described his speeches as talking of “God, war and the meaning of courage”, which gives a wider and more nuanced appreciation of the way in which Studdert Kennedy raised morale on these occasions. During the Second World War chaplains accompanied their men in all aspects of conflict, to the extent parachuting into theatres of war and behind enemy lines. The debate about the role of chaplains in contributing to morale was fuelled by instances such as the development of a high profile for army chaplaincy in the 8th army, evidenced by General Montgomery’s famous words: “I would soon think of going into action without my artillery as without my chaplains.” In the second half of the 20th century Alan Wilkinson and Gordon Zahn explored role conflict and chaplains, the latter remarking that “by his very presence the pastor in uniform represents a symbol of legitimacy … if it were not permissible for believers to take part in the war, would the priest be there?” At variance with this perspective are the works of Michael Snape, Edward Madigan and Linda Parker who have defended chaplains in studies which examine ministerial roles and effectiveness.

There seems in modern ideas and studies of chaplaincy to be change of emphasis in the role of chaplains as force multipliers which considers a wider definition of ‘morale’ More recent studies have considered question of morale, Andrew Totten going so far to suggest that “If the cause or simply the conduct of the fighting soldier were justified, why would the maintenance of his morale not be a proper object for concern?” He also defines the difference between morale– the psychosocial state – and the moral – ethical state. Soldiers require an easing of conscience and moral sensibility. Maintenance of good morals was, as much as promotion of moral and ethical values, a vital part of a chaplain’s portfolio: “The challenge ethically is to generate morale that is grounded on civilised behaviour.”

Modern chaplaincy

Chaplains Morale Boosters or Force Multipliers
Padre Andrew Earl with his Sheppard’s crook

Andrew Todd considered that the war in Afghanistan raised the public profile of chaplaincy work and brought up what he considered to be the “less comfortable” aspect of chaplains’ work, that through their moral and pastoral presence they become force multipliers. He related the evidence of Stephen Sharkey, a chaplain in Afghanistan who made the decision to go to a FOB where a soldier had just died to help his comrades and friends in their grief. While he as conducting a service there, the base came under fire, and Sharkey made the decision to continue with the service. He observed that the low morale of the unit improved and that were more operationally effective after this incident. Even though his decision had been instinctive and not planned, he had acted as a force multiplier. This account of an episode in the Afghan war illustrates both necessity of chaplains to act with courage and set a moral example and also how the actions of the chaplains sometimes mean that the consequences of the actions become force multipliers. This example is however typical of many of the actions of First World War chaplains, such as Studdert Kennedy, Theodore Bailey Hardy and Maurice Peel who are the best known representatives of the chaplains who acted with courage under fire.


So, we can see the similarities between World War One and present day chaplaincy in ministry of presence and moral leadership. World War One focused more overtly on righteousness of cause, than now in the 21st century, but their history has given soldiers and commanders to some extent a moral compass with a large section of their training. .Contemporary chaplains have the old dilemma of whether or not they are, or should be morale boosters, but at its roots their ministry is based on their spiritual and pastoral role. John Durant described his ministry as army chaplain as “God’s Agenda – being present with soldiers giving support and encouragement as well as receiving from them and serving the wholeness of each person’s wellbeing based on the chaplain’s real and living faith in Christ Jesus”, or to put it in the words of G.A Studdert Kennedy, who was emblematic of the dilemmas faced by First World War chaplains, “Pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.” 


Peter Howson, Muddling Through , The Organisation of British Army Chaplains In World War One (Sollihull: Helion , 2013), 58
Roger Lloyd, The Church of England 1900-1965 (London :SCM Press, 1966), 215. IWM 8/20/1, The Papers of the Revd E.C. Crosse.
A letter from Studdert Kennedy to Mary Hardy quoted in D. Raw, It’s Only Me – A life of the Revd Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, DSO,MC. 1863-1918. (Gateback: Frank Peters Publishing , 1998), 21.

M.F. Snape, God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (Oxford: Routledge, 2005) , 96.
E mail conversation with Major (padre) Mike Peterson , Course Resource and Development Officer CAF Chaplain School and Centre. (all views his own ).
Conversation with The Revd John Durant , RAChD chaplain 2000-2013
William Purcell, Woodbine Willie, An Anglican Incident (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962), 105
G. A. Studdert Kennedy, Rough Talks of a padre (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918.
Gordon Zahn Chaplains in the R. A. F.: Study in Role Tension, (Manchester University Press, 1969), 112. 
Andrew Totten, “Moral Soldiering and Soldiers Morale” in Military chaplaincy in Contention in Andrew Todd(ed.) Military Chaplaincy in Contention, Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology) (London: Routledge, 2013), 31.