Why did chaplains end up on the front line in WW1?

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1. Onward, Christian soldiers

My grandfather Tom Pym was a chaplain in World War One. He was one of over 5,000 men of God who left their pulpits to serve alongside the soldiers.

Tom and his fellow chaplains were totally unprepared for what they were about to experience. It transformed how they saw their role during war. They went from holding services far from the battlefield, to risking their lives on or near the front line - 168 chaplains lost their lives during the course of the war.

Their actions not only changed the way that Army commanders and ordinary soldiers thought about them, it also defined a new role for chaplains in the British Army.

2. A very different kind of war

Some chaplains were sent straight from their parishes to join the soldiers. Others, like Tom, received a few months training. But most were unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead.

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When they arrived in France, many chaplains were unsure of their role. Their only orders were to continue the centuries-old tradition of conducting services and performing burials. They were instructed to stay well back from the front line.

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Chaplains from all of the allied armies were sent to war. The British chaplains were met by a disorganised Army department and some found themselves without rations or accommodation. Without any direction from above, they defined their own roles.

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Some chaplains threw themselves into organising sports, entertainment and music for the soldiers, hoping to boost the troops’ morale. Social clubs were set up for the soldiers who were taking a break from the trenches.

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Postcard depicting ‘Talbot House’, the most famous of the soldiers’ social clubs. It was set up by Rev. Philip “Tubby” Clayton at Poperinge, Belgium in 1915.

Mary Evans

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A chaplain helping an elderly woman down the street in France. Some soldiers resented the chaplains for having a relatively undemanding and safe role far from the front line.

Mary Evans

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Yet even behind the lines, chaplains were confronted by the horrors of war. Tom Pym wrote, “every minute… the ‘Boom Boom’ of these wicked wasteful guns in one’s ears seems to be smacking right up against everything that is worth living for."

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In the face of so much bloodshed many chaplains felt they needed to do more to help the soldiers. They began to find opportunities to go forward towards the front line to try to support the men.

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3. Serving on the front line

As time passed, chaplains like my grandfather felt compelled to go to the battlefield, where they faced the brutal reality of war. Meanwhile the British Army's Commander-in-Chief, General Haig, was devising a front line role for the chaplains.

4. A test of faith

The horrors of the Western Front were hard to stomach for many chaplains. Tom faced his greatest test when he had to stay up all night, ministering to a young man sentenced to be shot at dawn for desertion.

5. Saving men's souls

As fighting intensified on the Western Front, soldiers struggled with the scale of death on the battlefields.

Chaplains played a crucial role in organising the burial of the dead. It was a difficult task. Sometimes it took weeks to reach the corpses of the fallen men.

However, it was very important to the morale of the surviving soldiers that their comrades received a decent funeral.

Every second spent on the battlefield was dangerous, so the chaplains conducted the shortest of services, such as this simple prayer, recited quickly by The Rev. Ernest Crosse:

“Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours”.

The Unknown Warrior

After the war, one chaplain helped the whole nation to grieve.

Reverend David Railton had the idea for the grave of the Unknown Warrior, the tomb in Westminster Abbey that contains the remains of an unidentified soldier. It was a place that grieving families, especially those whose loved ones' bodies had never been found, could try to find some solace.

6. Chaplains today

Modern Army chaplains operate close to the battlefield, like their WW1 counterparts. But how has their role changed in the last 100 years?

Military training

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Military training

Unlike WW1 chaplains, a modern Army chaplain receives basic military training, such as fieldcraft and First Aid, and has to be physically fit.

World-faith chaplains

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World-faith chaplains

Today's Army has only Christian and Jewish chaplains as officers - just as in WW1. But there are now Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu and Muslim civilian chaplains.

Justifying war

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Justifying war

Unlike in WW1, modern chaplains are not asked to justify the conflicts that the Army is fighting. Instead they have to support and encourage the soldiers.