“It makes all the difference when men have been constantly facing death and seeing their comrades fall at their side”

The experiences of an army chaplain were published in the Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine.

The Rev. W. W. Bowdon, C.F.

Cheery letters have been received from Mr. Bowdon, and the following will be of interest to many:-

No. 14 Stationary Hospital,
Wimereux,
Boulogne.

I crossed the water on Thursday, 30th September. There were a great crowd of officers and many hundreds of men crossing. It was rather weird on board with all lights out, not even the light of a cigarette allowed, and we were accompanied by destroyers. On arriving at Boulogne we were detailed off to various trains, and I soon found myself wedged in with half-a-dozen officers and piles of baggage in an unlighted 1st class carriage, bound for General Headquarters (it is not permitted to say where). I arrived in the small hours of the morning and, being too early to do anything else, turned in again and slept in a carriage on a siding, first making sure it wouldn’t be moving before I did. Then about 8 a.m. a rough toilet and le petit déjeuner at the station buffet. I then drove up to see my new chief, Bishop Gwyn, of Khartoum, Acting Chaplain-General, passing General French’s headquarters on the way.

I found myself appointed to this great hospital for infectious diseases at the base, so back I came. Wimereux is four miles from Boulogne, a pretty place, and in peace time a fashionable sea-side resort, now given over for hospital work. My hospital is situated right on the sea-shore, there is also a large compound of wooden huts near by and a canvas camp for convalescents in the fields at the back. I mess with the officers, all of whom are very nice. We have the General with us, a Colonel (our C.O.), two Majors, and the rest Captains and Lieutenants, to the number of about 25. I am put down as the Rev. Captain Bowdon, C.F., but they all call me ‘Padre,’ and we are very friendly and informal out here. Our mess rooms are delightful, in a separate house on the sea front and with charming views.

The work is, as I expected, pretty strenuous. I visit my patients for about five hours a day, take services when and where I can, run a recreation hut and canteen for the R.A.M.C. men, of whom we have some 1500 here, censor all the company’s letters, and do other odd jobs always cropping up.

One of my difficulties is that different classes of patients must not be mixed, and there are a choice variety of diseases – enteric and scarlet fever, with para-typhoid, meningitis, diphtheria, measles, mumps, whooping-cough, and some others. So at present instead of dodging the bullets I am dodging disease germs. I am wondering which are the more dangerous. I expect to be here some months and then to go ‘up the line’ (as we speak of going into the firing zone), but are always liable to be called up at a moment’s notice. One man was rushed off yesterday after being here but three days.

Of war alarms we have none. Our own air-craft are often about, but none of the enemy’s.

I find the men most responsive and so grateful for one’s ministrations that it is a pleasure to work amongst them. Nearly all my patients have been ‘up the line,’ and it makes all the difference when men have been constantly facing death and seeing their comrades fall at their side. I am inclined to think their experiences are making a very deep and permanently beneficial impression on the character of most of them.

Stratfield Mortimer parish magazine, November 1915 (D/P120/28A/14)

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Straw and gunfire: Communion in a crowded barn

The Maidenhead St Luke parish magazine is filled with references to the war, some clearly taken from elsewhere – such as the story of a martial Midlands clergyman moonlighting in a munitions factory. In September 1915 they included a moving depiction of religious worship at the Front.

A Bishop’s Loss.
Much sympathy is felt for the Bishop of Winchester and the Hon. Mrs Talbot on account of the death of their youngest son, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, who was killed in action while leading his men. A brilliant career had been predicted for the young officer, who was a man of exceptional ability and promise.

Holy Communion on the Battlefield.

A chaplain at the Front gives the following description of his work:

All the services were very inspiring. The work and experiences which the men had so bravely undergone but a day or two before impressed them with the all-availing power of the Christian religion…

My first service was a celebration of Holy Communion. And how uplifting it was! There, in a barn, with the door littered with straw which had served as a mattress for the men who had occupied it during the night, and with men’s equipment and rifles so placed as to be ready for immediate use in case of alarm – The Holy Mysteries were celebrated with the utmost reverence, though the quietness of the morning hour was broken by the thrilling sound of gunfire. It was a weird accompaniment to Christian worship. Ration boxes covered with a fair linen cloth served as the Table of the Lord.

The barn was crowded to overflowing, and some, unfortunately, could not gain admission. Commanding officers, with majors and adjutants, knelt side by side with the last joined soldiers. Here, indeed, was that religious atmosphere which arises from sincere devotion in prayer and praise. This was specially to be noticed when we came to the beautiful words in the prayer for the Church Militant – ‘And we also bless Thy Holy Name for all Thy Servants departed this life in Thy faith and fear…’ And then they whispered ‘Amen.’ You know of whom we are thinking, the brave ones known to us so well, who were unflinching to the end at the call of duty. Words fail – indeed, they are unnecessary – but you will understand.

The Bishop of Oxford and the War.

Dealing with the subject of the Church and the War, Dr. Gore says:

We believe that we are fighting for liberty and justice and fidelity to obligations and the rights of smaller nations, and that Germany is using its matchless intellect and power of organization to trample on these sacred things. None the less, in expressing this our confident conviction we must be careful not to use language which sounds self-righteous. There is a history behind us, and our own history is very far from being immaculate. If we wish to say that we are fighting against Antichrist, we must always show that we recognize how very much that is antichristian there is in us – in our politics, in our industrial, social and religious life. Self-righteousness becomes us very ill. Something more like national penitence is what we want, and we are not, I fear, showing anything like national penitence on a wide scale.

Clergymen as War Workers.

Writing in his Parish Magazine, the Rector of Quinton explains that his assistant-curate and himself are each devoting three days and three nights every week to making shells. Their action has the warm approval of the Bishop of Birmingham, and any money they earn after the cost of overalls, etc., has been deducted, will be devoted to the Assistant-Clergy fund.

The Bishop of Khartoum for the Front.

The War Office has issued an announcement that in view of the large number of Church of England chaplains now serving with the troops under Sir John French’s command, and of the increases which are in course of being made to the British Forces in France, the Bishop of Khartoum has been appointed to represent the Chaplain-General at the Front, and to be his deputy there for all purposes connected with the Church of England chaplains and Church of England troops.

The Rt. Rev. Llewellyn Henry Gwynne, who has been chosen for this responsible post, was at Khartoum in 1901 and acted as chaplain to the troops when the British forces recovered the Soudan [sic], and was subsequently appointed Archdeacon and then Bishop in that region with the formal title “Suffragan-Bishop in Khartoum.” He has visited the Front in France and Flanders during the present war and has therefore some experience of the conditions in which his future work, for a very restricted period let us hope, will lie.

Maidenhead St Luke parish magazine, September 1915 (D/P181/28A/24)

We are nothing better than worms – but mustn’t grumble!

Sunday 4 April 1915 was Easter Day. The parishioners of Reading St John (now the Polish Catholic Church) had sent Easter greetings to their young men at the Front. It resulted in a number of letters from the recipients describing their experiences.

Letters from the Front: replies to our Easter letters and cards.

Cards similar to those recently seen on the Church notice boards were sent with covering letters for Easter to some fifty men at the front at the request of their relatives. The following are extracts from some of the replies received by the Vicar:-

A Terrible War.
Here is a much-needed reminder of the seriousness of our task:
‘Two of my men I laid to rest yesterday, just put their heads too far over the parapet; of course killed instantly. It is a terrible business and we are nothing better than worms, dug in and stop there, but hope that happier times are in store and very soon. We all hope and pray for it every day. I don’t think the people at home quite realise what a gigantic task we have; but we mustn’t grumble, but do it.’- GILES AYRES.

Valued Cards.
‘I wish to thank you very much for the good thoughts and wishes of yourself and everyone who remembered us on Easter Day. Thank you very much for the card. I am sending it home to-day so that I shall not lose it.’- A. L. BLAKE.

‘The card you sent me I have hung on to the wall and it shall go where I go. I shall always remember Good Friday, the day I received it.’- D. CAMPBELL.

Neuve Chapelle.
Speaking of the welcome letter just received, the writer adds: ‘Just lately we have been engaged in a big battle at Neuve Chapelle, and it was something awful and also a terrible loss on the German side.’- L.H. CROOK. (more…)