Royal Chaplains in WWI

This sermon was delivered to the University of Durham on 9th October 2014

“It is not only great events, noble deeds and rhetoric which make a hero. There are some whose chief quality is their own nature.” These are words written by the Reverend Joseph Wellington Hunkin. He was a Royal Chaplain to King George Vth from 1928 to 1935, a member of the Sovereign’s Household in England and was later consecrated Bishop of Truro. He was also an army chaplain in World War One, a man of considerable distinction and was awarded the Military Cross during his time of service.

Earlier this year I completed a research project entitle Scarlet in Khaki – The Royal College of Chaplains in World War One. It was a fascinating endeavour and I believe the stories contained within it have an abiding significance for us all and especially, might I suggest, for those of you who belong to this College and whose motto, Non Nobis Solem, “Not for ourselves alone,” is embellished on every article that bears your coat of arms. For these men, an intoxicating mixture of ordinary country parsons , inner city slum priests, Anglican monks and high flying intellectuals and academics, did indeed take to heart their high Christian calling to place the welfare and interests of others above their own.

The Office of Chaplain to the Sovereign can be traced back to the Saxon Kings but in the last 100 years only 322 have been appointed. Of those 322 46 served as army chaplains in the First World War and in theatres including Flanders Mesopotamia and East Africa. In so doing they collectively achieved numerous military distinctions for bravery in the field and was acknowledged in the Army Chaplains Department being granted its Royal prefix in February 1919. As a body of priests within a single College their deeds, words and example present people like me with a real challenge. And that challenge is how far do I go and how willing am I to live not for myself alone?

One of the chaplains I came across was an undergraduate of this University and a member of this College. Frank Hay Gillingham would have sat in this very chapel to say his prayers begowned like all of you who inherit the great traditions of this University. Gillingham was an outstanding sportsman of his day, played professional cricket for Essex between 1903 and 1928 and in later life was to become the first ball by ball commentator for the BBC. But he was also an Anglican priest and an army chaplain.

He left his parish in the east end of London and served as chaplain to the Bermondsey Boys – a Pals Battalion who were well known for hard fighting both amongst themselves and with the enemy. Frank Barry, who served with the 5th Dorsetshires , noted how his time in the trenches had roughed up his smooth ecclesiastical edges.

In his memoir he writes, “At first we worried about superficial things like their bawdy language and womanising….but we learnt in battle how noble these apparently irreligious people were.” Bertram Cunningham who set up the Chaplains school at St Omer, was to discover that “There were few chaplains with armies in the field who were not called time and time again to kneel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane with tears and strong crying.”

These men were morally brave and many times went forward with their soldiers under intense fire. A citation recording the bravery of Reginald French reads “At all times he showed disregard for his own safety and comfort”. Another for Evelyn Hubbard records that “He went out (into no man’s land) regardless of danger to bring men in”.

The seriously diminutive Joseph Hunkin was described by one of his contemporaries as “the bravest man any of us had ever met in our lives.” But the psychological, spiritual and emotional cost to these men in puting others before themselves was enormous. Guy Rogers who had been a Vicar in Reading commented that whilst waiting on pre embarkation he “felt a revulsion of spirit and sense of fear” that he had never known before. For some the burden was too great to bear and Richard Sheppard, later Dean of Canterbury, had his health shattered within three months of arriving in France. It was said of him that “He identified with every dying man and (thereby) almost killed himself – in later life and when he was well he never spoke about his experiences but when he was ill his mind always returned to Mons.”

Frederick McNutt encountered enormous turmoil of faith and spoke about “Veils dropping as he was personally and theologically challenged by the sacrificial life of the irreligious Tommy.”

As I think about these people and their individual stories (and there is more to tell) I feel positively feeble in comparison which indeed I am. But at the same time I am inspired and lifted up by them – these wonderful sacrificial priests.

For their voice and their noble deeds continue to remind us all of the Christian path that we tread and the Man whom we try follow. They continue to pose questions about purpose, meaning, service, duty and sacrifice – Non Nobis Solem how not live for ourselves alone. And that is not just here in this University – it is when you become merchant bankers, researchers, lecturers, barristers, solicitors, Captains of industry – what you do with the wealth you create is not for yourselves alone.

It is for the service of mankind in philanthropy and good works that make a difference to people’s lives. Lives that are hallmarked by spontaneous acts of generosity, by kindliness and compassion; by aspiring to a pattern of life that is prepared to bear another’s burden even at the expense of our own well being. It is about assuming within ourselves that nature to which Hunkin referred that truly is heroic.