Given my decade-long research into Acadia University’s World War One connection, it seems obvious to highlight the role of military chaplains during the war. Unable to find easily digestible information on this topic in my usual ‘go to’ printed sources, I searched for a credible documentary online. Look no further than “World War One Military Chaplains” (copyrighted in 2016 and available on YouTube), an excellent source of information. Although this documentary comes from the British perspective, the sharing of chaplains and their services makes the content relevant to a Canadian audience. Scroll through the credits to find not only Roger Prentice named but also the Acadia University’s Archives and Special Collections!
I learned that while 95% of the British soldiers declared themselves Christian in the earliest weeks of the war, only 55 chaplains were in France with the British Expeditionary Force. Chaplaincy was voluntary. They were not soldiers and so did not carry weapons. Instead, chaplains were classified as and assigned to medical units. Their duties included stretcher bearing, helping with the wounded, leading public services, and burying the dead.
By the Somme in 1916, they were allowed in the trenches. Some chaplains went over the top to retrieve wounded in no man’s land or to comfort the dying men (enemies too). As a result, chaplains could be, and were, taken prisoner. Courage–both physical and moral, was required for this work. Chaplains held small services in the trenches as well as the larger and required church parades held behind the lines. Services often enforced the ‘just cause’ of the war and the sacrifices being made for a better world. During the second half of the war, chaplains often traveled between the front lines and the various medical sites.
Particularly interesting to me was the role of chaplains with cemeteries and the YMCA. Chaplains set up field cemeteries, registered the dead, and mapped burials to aid future work for permanent burials. Chaplains of all faiths worked closely with the YMCA, distributing pocket-sized Bibles. Working with the YMCA, chaplains organized sport and morale activities at the YMCA huts while discouraging immoral activities. The huts were used for religious services and places to connect and support soldiers. Chaplains also organized family visits to through the YMCA. Their activities permeated England, France, Egypt, and beyond.
Military chaplains and the YMCA provided vital support to soldiers. Their work deserves more research and recognition.
Three things of particular note in this documentary:
- in episode 2, Acadia’s very own Rev. J.H. MacDonald is highlighted and quoted.
- Neil Allison. The Official History of the United Board. 2014. at the Acadia Library
- Dr. Peter Howson. Padre, Prisoner, and Pen-Pusher. 2015. On Amazon
Wendy G. Robicheau, Archivist