The centenary anniversaries of the First World War, which concluded last year, tended to focus on the loss and sacrifice occasioned by the conflict. That was understandable and extremely worthwhile. We as a nation rightfully should remember those who served, and particularly those who died, to bring about peace and to preserve democratic freedoms. However, it is also important to remember that in the midst of the horror of war, there were Christian people, both lay and clergy, who were seeking to witness to the God who is both creator and reconciler. These people recognised the need to share the gospel of life with those who faced imminent death. So, this Remembrance Day, I thought it would be good to recall the efforts made by the Diocese of Sydney, as well as other denominations, to have effective gospel ministry among Australian troops in the Great War, whether they were training at home or in a conflict zone beyond Australia.
Before troops headed overseas, there were opportunities to minister to them. The major denominations sought to provide physical comforts such as coffee/tea canteens and entertainment venues to the men in their training camps. More importantly, they worked hard to get Bibles, Testaments and religious books and tracts into the hands of all soldiers, while they were still in Australia, believing that this would aid their spiritual wellbeing. It was overt, ‘hands-on’ ministry. There are anecdotal accounts of Archbishop Wright making pre-dawn walks to Woolloomooloo to farewell each troop ship heading overseas. He did this to show his pastoral concern for these departing men and remind them of his ongoing prayers for them. He sought to ensure that all soldiers leaving Australia received a New Testament and/or a Prayer Book. By doing this, Archbishop Wright claimed the “Church is showing to the men that their Church does care for them, and is prepared to do all in her power for their spiritual and social welfare.” The Sydney diocesan magazine discloses the effort that went into this venture. The March 1916 edition of the Sydney Diocesan Magazine related how “5 000 Testaments have been given the men (at Liverpool Camp in Sydney) and a large number of Prayer Books.”
The most obvious form of ministry was that given by the chaplains attached to the units of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). A significant number of Sydney clergy volunteered for this pastoral ministry. The Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral, A. E. Talbot, was appointed Anglican Colonel-Chaplain in 1914 to the 1st Brigade of the AIF. This was the Australian contingent that was involved in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. On the voyage from Australian to Egypt early in 1915, Dean Talbot recounted his ministry aboard in a letter home to the Sydney Diocesan Magazine: “At 8.45 (every day) the bugle sounds for parade, which is opened by short prayers.” During the later morning he visited the ship’s hospital to minister to the sick. In the afternoon there was “opportunity to get personal talks with the men”. In the evenings if a concert was not staged, then there was “an Evangelistic service on deck”. On Sundays he presided at two services of Holy Communion (6.00 a.m. and 7.30 a.m.) to which there was, in his words, “a very fair turn-up of both officers and men”. Later in the morning on Sundays a church parade was held for all personnel on deck.
Initially, at Gallipoli, Dean Talbot was a spectator on board ship of the landing and subsequent fighting. He commented on the ferocity of the fighting, noting the number of wounded who were being repatriated from Anzac Cove to the ships so they could be transported to hospitals elsewhere. He saw the importance of ministering to reinforcements prior to going ashore: “before they landed, I twice celebrated the Holy Communion with an attendance of 220…a deeper meaning then ever seems to invest the Divine words”.
By mid-May he was ashore and able to conduct Anglican chaplaincy among the troops, especially of the 3rd Battalion, to which he was attached. His correspondence reveals both the joy and distress of pastoral ministry in such a dangerous place. He particularly recalled one young Presbyterian officer who “came to me and asked if he might communicate at our morning Celebration. I said, most certainly, I would welcome him! He came and I noticed how devout and rejoiced he was”. Sadly, a few days later, the Dean saw the man again “as he lay on his blood-stained stretcher ‘Oh! Padre, they have hit me badly.’ Within a week I had committed his mortal remains to the deep.”
He also wrote of other men that had been baptised or had taken instruction in the Christian faith. Other chaplains also commented on the deep spiritual hunger they saw among the troops. Two chaplains at Gallipoli, ‘Fighting’ McKenzie and William Dexter, reported that men were eager to have New Testaments: when McKenzie distributed 1 300 Testaments in a two day period, “the men rushed these…like ‘Wolves”. Dexter observed “it is no uncommon thing to see a man in the trenches with his New Testament out reading it.” Likewise, Charles Bean, the official Australian war correspondent at Gallipoli, recounts in his diary of coming across a number of officers reading and discussing the Bible.
Denominational differences between Protestant chaplains tended to be unimportant at Gallipoli and there are numerous instances of them working collaboratively. Chaplain Ernest Merrington, a Presbyterian from Queensland, kept a diary and this recounts such instances. For example, he wrote of a combined service on 6 June 1915 where “a goodly number of Australians and New Zealanders attended”. Merrington preached on the text of Galatians 5:1 – Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. He said the point of his sermon was a simple and practical plea to those gathered for faith in the Lord, who was “right and truth”. He believed that those who attended the service were spiritually refreshed by it.
On 27 June Merrington wrote again about another combined service at Gallipoli even as the Turks shelled the Australian positions: “At night we had a very fine united service, the Anglican Chaplain (Talbot) having agreed to join forces with us. About 300 men squatted in the gully, lifting the glorious hymns above the grim orchestration of the battle”. Merrington, along with other chaplains, believed the constant presence of death stimulated a living interest in religion for at least some of the troops. He said that when men saw their comrades killed, they wished to learn more about the mystery of life, and to appreciate Christ as not only a comfort and support, but the author of life.
What was evident about Gallipoli was also the case in other theatres of war where Australians fought. In 1916, the Anglican Home Mission Society in Sydney sent Rev. A. Stoddard to England to work with the wounded in the hospitals. In a 1917 report to the diocesan magazine a correspondent wrote that,
One practical thing he (Stoddard) does is he gets soldiers to fill out a card with name, address, state of health, and the person in Australia for who the card is intended…thousands of these cards forwarded to Australia where they are sent on to the various addresses. Many are the letters …received from mothers, wives and friends expressing heartfelt thanks for the cards. In some instances they were the only news relatives had received from some of their boys.
The October 1917 issue of the Diocesan Magazine printed excerpts from the letters of two chaplains at the front:
All the church parades are voluntary, and the men attend in very large numbers. My trouble is; that I have not nearly service books for them all…the fact that the men have often been out half the night, and you will see that it requires no small effort to make a Church Parade a success…We had a grand Communion service on Easter Sunday. It was held in an old tumbledown place, ankle deep in mud; that did duty as a sergeants’ mess. It was just simply packed with men, many could not get in.
Chaplain Richmond wrote, “Somehow here where men are living on the brink of eternity, men are ready to turn to higher things …beginning to prepare another body of men for confirmation. They are coming forward very readily”.
It is important to be reminded that in dark times, such as the awfulness of the trenches of the First World War, the light of the gospel is never extinguished. God in his kindness ensures that gospel witness is available through the faithful ministry of believers such as the chaplains and others detailed above. This 101st Remembrance Day we recall with thankfulness the ministries that occurred over a century ago that spoke about life in Christ to those who faced imminent death. We recognise the critical importance of similar ministry today in the Australian Defence Force.
(Colin Bale has written the chapter on Dean Talbot in Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City: Ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Ed Loane (Ed), published recently to mark the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone for the cathedral)