By Helen Cleary
Last updated 2011-03-10
Reverend Canon Cyril Lomax, 8th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry
Cyril Lomax graduated in History from Oxford and was ordained in 1895. He was appointed assistant priest of the Parish of Washington, Diocese of Durham, then two years later he became a rector. His involvement with the army began in 1900 as chaplain to the 4th Volunteer Battalion Durham Light Infantry (which was renamed the 8th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry in 1908) and his association with the 8th lasted nearly 25 years.
He did not enter the war immediately even though the 151st Infantry Brigade, to which the Battalion belonged, crossed to France on the 15th April 1915; no doubt he had a commitment to his parish and had to remain in Blighty. But in July 1916 he did cross to France and wrote about his experiences on the Western Front in vividly illustrated letters, some of which are now displayed in the Imperial War Museum, London. The Battalion also published one of his sketches in the Battalion history which describes how he liked to draw in his free time, when he was not offering spiritual guidance or general support to the men.
Lomax's letters are addressed to Doris Steinberg who may have collected them, but they were found in a second-hand bookshop and sadly do not come in a complete form - only those pages including images have survived. These nonetheless offer lively descriptions of trench conditions and life as a chaplain in World War One. In particular Lomax points out to his reader how important the giving and sending of letters was - an opinion with which most soldiers would have heartily agreed - '...thanks ever so much for your delightfully long letter. As a rule, I am a brute about letter writing, but not out here, things are so different. One is so utterly glad to receive a letter... You can have no idea how one looks for the post, and how disappointed one feels if there is nothing for one: I can quite understand the "lonely soldier" idea at which I once used to laugh.'
Like others, he described the psychological effect on some soldiers of the chaos of trench combat and the small variety of comforts that were available to the men:
There is an incessant thudding of guns in the distance to concentrate one's mind on the beastly shells. It becomes an obsession with some poor fellows who have been wounded or been through some hideous time in the trenches or the attack. The only antidote is preoccupation of some other kind, something to take the mind off the war. Well, what have we? Reading? A few papers now and again! A game of bridge sitting on the sides of ramshackle temporary beds, or on a soapbox! All the side shows of civilization are afar off, and we live a most primitive life...
And yet he was able to find small pleasures in the devastation around him - also typical of many men who coped with the trenches: 'The other day the doctor and I went out to gather blackberries to make what our miner cook calls a pudden.'
With an artist's eye he described the colour and shape of war in an almost impressionistic style:
Great gouts of flame, black smoke, stones and baulks of timber had been flying thirty feet in the air at least... When it was all over, out from what had been the thickest of it, waddled a tank, painted green and yellow, as [if] it might be rubbing its eyes and saying "Dear me, I believe somebody woke me! I think I must find a quieter spot."
And his sympathies were roused by the impossible mud:
Everybody too hates mud, but we bathe in it, wade in it, sleep in it and clods of it adorn the most secret recesses of one's clothes, books and papers. To see the poor brutes of horses straining through axle deep mud with the food for the hungry guns goes to my heart even more than seeing the unfortunate men coming out of the front line. The poor beasts have such a pathetic droop, look so patient, and miserable, and respond so bravely to some tremendous effort to suck a limber out of mud...
As a chaplain Lomax must have considered the uselessness and horror of war with more philosophy than most, although it was not uncommon for many soldiers, from privates to higher-ranking officers, to refer to God's purpose and seek an explanation for destruction on such a scale. Lomax was frank in his letters and did not shy away from detailed description of the hellish scenes although he did censor his own drawings:
If I wanted to make you creep I might have put a realistic foreground of dead Bosch and our own, fallen in every sort of attitude: some half buried by shell, others in the open. But the reality is too ghastly. There is none of the dignity of death - the flies and rats see to that. The impression left upon one is one of waste. Indeed the whole Country would admirably do as a picture of the material conditions of Hell. All that is pleasant and comely and decent and comfortable has been rent and torn away: all that is sordid, and ghastly and terrible remains. Of course not for one moment am I speaking of the quiet heroism of our average unassuming chaps who stick it all so stolidly, I am speaking of the physical conditions of life.
If he ever doubted God's purpose he certainly never rejected Christianity and remained faithful to the 8th Battalion as their chaplain after the war and was well-respected by all ranks.
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