LINDA PARKER

Naval chaplains in the First World War

Naval chaplains in the First World War

“The Friend and Advisor of all on Board”: The Role of the Royal Naval Chaplain in the First World War with Reference to The Revd Walter Carey of HMS Warspite,” In 1914 Montagu Hainsselin, who was an Anglican naval chaplain on HMS Ajax 1913 – 1917, wrote about his job of censoring mail . He admitted that “One does not normally suspect the sailor of being religious”, but described how the sailors letters revealed a different story :“Yet if the quiet acknowledgement of God’s power over all the world and the final triumph of righteousness ; devout prayers for the blessing and protection of those whom he holds dearest; a complete trust in the Divine wisdom to take care of him in life and death – if these things mean religion , they are in nearly every soldier’s letter.”
The Royal Navy has always had a strong tradition of providing for the religious needs of its men. Naval chaplains of some description have existed from the earliest periods of British history. A priest called Uta was commissioned in 651 by Oswy, King of Northumbria, to bring back his bride by sea, and apparently saved the day by pouring holy oil on the stormy waters. Chaplains were present on ships travelling to the crusades, and on the warships of Henry the Eighth. Chaplains also accompanied early British exploration expeditions. A.G. Kealy in his research on naval chaplains in the Stuart era claimed that “With the exception of the boatswain the chaplain is probably the oldest rank of officer in the fleet.” The numbers of chaplains serving in British ships rose throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, reaching its heyday during the Napoleonic wars . There was a requirement of 1812 that every ship in the navy form 5th rate upwards should carry a chaplain. In the late 19th century chaplains were appointed to all the new ‘iron clads’ and for the chaplains serving in the 1870s and 1890s there was plenty of active service including the naval operation against Egypt in 1882 . The Royal Navy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was very bound up with British establishment culture, including that of the Anglican church with many of its officers recruited from the prominent families of church and state families and was therefore rather exclusive. The Increasing Anglo/German naval rivalry in the first decade of the 20th Century resulted in reforms in the navy alongside increased battleship building, the most important being the ‘Dreadnought’ class , first launched in 1906. The first naval chaplain to serve on this class if warship was the Revd John Bailey. During the years before the outbreak of war in 1914 the naval chaplains were taking up in the Dreadnought class of battle ships and the ‘Invincible’ class of battle cruisers but were also engaged in developing their shore work. . The Revd Leopold Hewetson Landman , who joined the navy as a chaplain used his proficiency as an oarsmen and boxer when at Oxford to set up sporting clubs for sailors on shore, and he also taught himself to play the violin as part of his strategy to be of use and get close to the men . He also pioneered regular shore services, organised cinema showings and also set up Sunday schools for navy children. 1914 outbreak of war there were 129 Naval chaplains serving. From August 1914 chaplains joined up as “Acting Chaplains for Temporary Service “. The first chaplain fatality was Edward Gleedhall Robson serving on the Aboukir on patrol of the Dutch coast on 22nd September 1914. (see images)The Aboukir , along with her sister ships Cressy and Houge came under attack and all three ships were sunk by the submarine U9.The chaplain of the Hogue which was also sunk on that occasion, the Revd Wilfrid Ellis, wrote an account of his experiences. He was adrift in a small pinnace with the remainder of the crew :“My prayer book with hymns had remained in my pocket and we spent the hours waiting singing all manner of songs and hymns.” Roman Catholic chaplain Basil Gwydir died when the hospital ship Rohilla on 30 October 1914, as he stayed with the wounded as the ship sunk. The sinking of the cruiser Good Hope off Coronel in November 1914 saw the death of the third chaplain, Arthur Pitt. By 1918 24 chaplains had been killed , including three who died on accidental explosions on the Natal, (1914) , Bulwark ( 1914) and Vanguard (1917), The position of the Royal Naval chaplain on board had been that of a commissioned officer since 1843. However, they have reserved the right not to wear uniform as they felt this assisted their duty of being the “friend and adviser of all on board.” During the first World War Chaplains usually wore whatever civilian clerical dress was appropriate to the occasion. Traditionally, chaplains do not “take rank” for themselves but take on the rank of whatever sailor or officer they are talking to. Hainsselin explained how he could be speaking at one moment with a sailor in a cell for a misdemeanour and the next moment listening to an Admiral’s grouse : “One great advantage enjoyed by a chaplain over his brother officers is that he is the only individual in the ship to able to talk to all sorts and conditions of naval men on equal terms.” However much the chaplain is successful in being a close friend and advisor, it remains the case that he is a commissioned officer and is known to be.
It should be pointed out her that this was not the case for Roman Catholic Chaplains, who were not commissioned officers and were treated rather as second class citizens. At outbreak of war there were five Roman Catholic Chaplains in Royal navy, only one actually at sea. This caused concern in Roman Catholic clerical and political circles. The Catholic Herald 26 December 1914 pointed out that at this stage in the war there were 233 Anglican to the fleet afloat and only one Roman Catholic . This reluctance of the admiralty to consider the religious needs of its Roman Catholic sailors was put down to “bigotry, ignorance or stupidity.”

What was the role the naval chaplain.? He shared, of necessity, the dangers of his comrades aboard ship and his duty is to provide help and advice in thought, comradeship and conduct in wartime conditions and to help his shipmates with the inevitable religious questioning caused by active service. Sometimes, as we shall see , his non-combatant status did not preclude acts of heroism and endurance . On board he took services, censured mail and in the case of Landeman, was in charge of the wireless codes for the ship. Landeman was required to be in charge of the secret code books and the decoding of signals. Montagu Thomas Hainsselin , who served as naval chaplain from 1913-1917,In his first book , In Northern Mists gave a touching description of an early morning communion service , which unlike the main Sunday service was not compulsory : Here captain and officers kneel down side by side with the ship’s boys; second class stokers shuffle along and make room for one another before ever they can begin to join in that fellowship wherein the sacrament lifts them all up to the same level……worshipers are of very diverse schools as regards churchmanship ; but these barriers are broken down , like many other barriers also, when men meet at a morning celebration in a ship’s cabin.
However, Richard Carr , Roman Catholic Chaplain was scathing about the Anglican chaplain’s role “The Church of England chaplains are principally valued as schoolmasters , censors of letters or for their social qualities .” This opinion has echoes of the complaints about some army chaplains and their close relationship with the officers’ mess, and therefore the tendency to socialise and eat more with officers than men. It also shows the establishment and Anglican nature of the majority of naval chaplaincy and the resentment this caused among Roman Catholic chaplains . At the battle of Jutland , fifty one chaplains were serving , on each battleship and battle cruiser and five in light cruisers , The Warspite had two Chaplains , Antony Pollen ,Roman Catholic and Walter Carey, Anglican . It is Carey who will be examined in more detail as an example of a naval chaplain’s role and career, Walter Carey , born in 1875 , went up to Hertford College Oxford to study Theology in 1894 and won his Rugby Blue four years running as well as being a prominent oarsman . After a year at theological college at Ely , he was ordained and served his first curacy at the Church of the Ascension , Clapham. While there he took part in a mission in South Africa for 5 months .When the war broke out he was working as an academic and librarian at Pusey House Oxford. He had become a popular choice for preaching engagements in London and Oxford and his name appeared frequently in the Church Times . In December 1913 an account of one of his sermons reported :” He has the missionary instinct of getting at men’s hearts and has absolutely no use for the ordinary platitudes of the pulpit.” He joined the Royal Navy in August 19 14. He seems to be a typical example of the talented, versatile, ‘muscular’ Christian that the Anglican naval officers were drawn from . In his auto biography, Carey related how he had joined the a navy at midday and was sent to his first ship by the evening. This was the HMS Mars which had be assigned to the home fleet as a guardship in the Humber, off Grimsby Carey referred to her as “the old death trap,”. On boarding the Mars Caery freely admitted to the crew that he knew nothing , and was well received , except for one ‘sea lawyer’ who said :“ Ah, it will be ok for you : you are an orficer (sic) and will be on velvet. Its us blokes who have the rough time.” This incident had a sequel, as when Carey asked the men , when he had got to know them ,why they had all , 400 men, come to his first voluntary evening service and continued to attend, they said : “The night you came aboard we thought that chap was jolly rude to you , we know it wasn’t your fault whatever the grievances were, we thought we would make it up to you by attending your services “. Caery’s comment on this was “I thought and still thought that it was a revealing touch of the simplicity and generosity of mind of the ordinary naval fighting man.”
In an article the Church Times in 1914 while on the HMS Mars he described his role of the ship and his part in it: I can tell you my life on board very easily. We guard and wait. If any enemy tried to in-vade old England it would be over our drowned or otherwise dead bodies. That’s our position. We are not good at speed, but we are protective, and that’s our job. Our chief virtue is patience. Cooped up on board for month after month, with a very occasional stretch on shore, is difficult not to be dead-weary and com-plaining. I think we manage pretty well. I do my best about religion. I have a daily Mass in my cabin. … It makes a little bright spot of prayer for the ship. I have a free and easy service every Sunday.” Mars was transferred to the Dover Patrol December 9 1914 and after having served a probationary period on her, Caery was transferred to the Warspite . He claimed that the ship taught him a lesson almost immediately, that of the necessity of discipline and self discipline . An old sailor explained to that “a slack ship is an unhappy ship”. Looking back he explained “I see a sort of vision, a wonderful commander , a cheerful and disciplined set of officers and a disciplined and happy crew.” One of Carey first actions was to ask that the Sunday morning service be made voluntary, but Captain Phillpotts, after considering this idea , rejected it . His reasoning was explained to Carey : 600 men come every Sunday to church, 200 like coming 200 dislike it, but there are two hundred in the middle . They are not strong enough to come in face of the jeers of the other 200 who object, bur if they’ve got to come and if you give them a short service with well-known hymns and a good talk , they better for it. Carey however still objected to the amount of ‘spit and polish ‘required of the men before church service on board. A similar but more critical view of the position of religious life on board was aired by in a report by Roman Catholic Chaplain Richard Carr who obviously despaired of the institutional nature of services . “On every big ship there is a C of E chaplain. Prayers area said In public at divisions each morning and there are regular Sunday services. This sounds alright but these religious services are a matter of formality and regarded as such by the crew. On Sunday the almighty takes second place to ship and captain. Captain’s inspection occupies all minds.” Carey writing in 1951 about the abolition of the compulsory Sunday service commented : The remedy was not to abolish church but to abolish the ‘spit and polish’. If it had been handled with more care and circumspection there might have been away of abolishing the petty preliminaries without sacrificing what to me and to the majority of sailors is a very priceless possession, the old tradition of the Royal Navy as not only a fearless, but God fearing Service.
In an article written on board the Warspite in 1915 Carey showed that he was far from the obedient churchman and chaplain in terms of his opinions on religion and its organisation and liturgy on shore and at sea. He seemed fully aware of the exclusive nature of some of the Anglican clergy : “They are hypnotised by the little bodies of educated and rather ecclesiastical laity; they simply do not know the masses and their utter complete disassociation from , and ignorance of, vital religion.” He despaired of some of the prayers in Anglican liturgy and longed to say “Have mercy on my poor boys , they can’t follow all this. Shorten it and male it real.” He pledged himself to be part of “The standard of revolt” and described reforms that were needed in church after the war, including cooperation between church parties high and low, evangelical and sacramental . The Warspite was under the command of admiral Beatty at the battle of Jutland and sailed with 5th battle squadron, which came under heavy fire at approx. 16.56 when exposed suddenly to fire from the leading battle ships of the German fleet after turning North during the battle in order to support the Grand fleet “run to the north” action . “Commander Welwyn recollected “Very soon after the turn I suddenly saw on the starboard quarter the whole of the High seas fleet …we were getting well straffed at this time “ by 17.13 both sides were engage in “hammer blows “ Warspite was hit continually, but protected by her 13inches of amour plating. As the Fifth battle squadron were catching up with the Grand fleet and drawing the German high seas fleet toward Jellicoe, A failure of Warspite ‘s steering gear saw her only able to sail to port , and the large circles she made brought her into close proximity with the German fleet , and under heavy fire. Carey’s action station was between guns behind the 6 inch guns : “My job was to loaf around looking brave” for the captain had told him that the crews were young and it would steady them if the chaplain wandered around looking unconcerned. During the battle a shell landed on the port side of the between decks position and a sheet of fire spread down the port side . This set on fire a casemate with 11 men inside . With a midshipman, Carey managed to help put out the fire with a hose, and was then asked by the midshipman to investigate how many men were alive. He found 5 alive, and reported “it was gruesome, because when I lifted them out, their flesh came away in my hands “. He administered morphia and found later that three of the men he rescued survived. The Roman Catholic Chaplain, Father Pollen was burned badly in this incident . Ship’s surgeon Gordon Ellis reported “Father Pollen sustained his burns through helping to rescue the men of the guns crew who on fire form the cordite. He is 56 years old but took the shock well.” Taylor ,in his book Sea Chaplains described Pollen’s action as “one of the finest deeds of the day” . His commanding officer, Captain Phillpotts, recommended him for Distinguished Service Order , but Admiral Jellicoe downgraded it to a Distinguished Service Cross, on the grounds that Fr Pollen was not a commissioned Officer
The damaged Warspite was ordered back to Rosyth .On the way, Carey helped collect the dead, mend holes in the side and nursing the wounded . At Rosyth, an engine room artificer Thomas Collins was standing near to Carey as the wounded were carried off. “a stretcher was being carried past with a body completely swathed in bandages with on holes for a mouth , nose and eyes. As the stretcher passed we heard a voice saying ‘God bless Warspite’ and recognised it as that of Father Poland(sic) who was badly burned trying to save men from the 6inch battery deck when the cordite ammunition went off. Carey broke down and wept like a child.”
At Rosyth Carey took stock, and learned that there had been 5,000 men lost in the battle. He set about his pastoral task of visiting the widows and also visited other ships. In an address read out in St Martin in the Fields , Trafalgar Square in October 1916 , as Carey himself was detained at his ship, Carey described the death of Revd Dixon Wright, one of the 8 chaplains to die at Jutland : “Wounded to death by a shell, he begged those around him not to bother about him , but to attend to the other wounded . then he died with a prayer that God would give us success in action.” When the Warspite was being repaired Carey was sent to Chatham for a while to give support to the volatile situation there due to the overcrowded conditions of ratings. In the address read out at St Martin in the Fields ,he was optimistic about the role place of religion in the Royal Navy : “Chaplains in the Royal Navy had a fair field for their work. If they were keen… their work would be furthered as far as possible by the authorities. He looked forward to the day when every sizeable ship would have some quiet place dedicated solely to religious purposes.” Gordon Taylor, in his book Sea Chaplains said of Carey’s time on the Warspite : “An extremely popular chaplain on a very happy ship.”
In 1914 there had been 129 chaplains serving and 150 Church of England chaplains joined from August 1914 until 1918 . In that time 34 Roman Catholics joined, 12 free church ministers 2 church of Scotland Chaplains . Therefore almost 200 new chaplains joined for the hostilities. That served on shore stations, with the Royal Naval ships all over the world and with the Royal Naval Division at Gallipoli and Flanders. Naval Chaplains did not come in for the same degree of criticism as army chaplains in the post war years. This criticism which has now been widely rebutted by modern scholarship, hinged often on the presence or not of their proximity to and usefulness in the front line. As Naval chaplains necessarily shared the dangers of the officers and men, this was irrelevant. Evidence from the chaplains, as we have seemed shows that their ministry did not go unappreciated and that in times of naval action their presence was a reassurance as well as of practical use in helping with the injured. Walter Carey returned to Academic life in Oxford for a while but jumped at the offer of being Bishop of Bloemfontein to grapple with the problems of the post war South African situation, what he described as a ‘maelstrom’. In the neighbouring diocese of Pretoria , Neville Talbot former Senior Chaplain of the 5 TH Army became bishop and they were not the only military and naval Chaplains to take up prominent potions in the British Church at home and abroad, using the insights gained in their wartime careers. Carey kept up an interest in British Politics , writing to The Times in 1921 and 1923 supporting striking workers. British and colonial Army chaplains have been widely researched and written about in the last 10 years. It is to be hoped that similar attention will be paid to the naval chaplains who did their best to be “the friend and adviser of all on board.”