Faith and service: is there a connection?

The general perception of WW1 military Generals is that they saw their men as cannon fodder. I’m not sure that’s true.

  • A veteran my age who survived a recent war in Afghanistan said, ‘the Army trains its soldiers not to become dead’. A dead soldier is a lost asset which has been hugely invested in. The same was generally true in WW1. One of the things Lord Kitchener was berrated for was not getting men and munitions to the front fast enough. He insisted on the New Armies receiving at least 6 months’ training before being sent to the Western Front and that weapons be made to a high standard as he had lost too many men due to defective weapons in his early Sudan campaigns.
  • A senior military official commented that as he had got older and higher up the ranks so he had become a pacifist. Again this resonated. I’d been reading Kitchener’s farewell speech in India where he commented that a General’s role was to prepare for war and ensure his country was prepared, but to do all he could to stop war from breaking out.
  • Reading John Lee’s chapter in Facing Armageddon (edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddell), I was surprised to read of Hamilton’s objections to the Treaty of Versailles and that he referred to the Treaty of Vereeniging being ‘a generous, soldierly peace’ made by Kitchener himself. Kitchener did not believe in the complete destruction of an enemy. Comments he made before his death in 1916 suggested that he was all in favour of Germany retaining colonies at the end of the war in order to maintain the balance of power.
  • Louis Botha was prepared to forego the annexation of South West Africa in favour of the mandate system in order to bring the war to an end.

I can’t say whether the two non-WW1 soldiers referred to above are men of faith or not, because I didn’t ask them. However, I’d be surprised if not, as there is a strong religious focus in remembrance services across the Commonwealth, chaplains quietly get on with their task across the faith groups and I get the impression that the majority of military people I have contact with are people of faith. Reading about some of the Generals who served in World War 1, I was struck by the role of faith in their lives.

Kitchener is a good place to start. He wasn’t brought up strongly religious by all accounts but whilst at Staff College, he joined the English Church Union and enrolled in the Army Guild of the Holy Standard. His first official military posting was with the Palestine Exploration Fund where he mapped Palestine identifying over 400 new places and creating the basis of the maps of the area we still use today. Many of the places he came across are mentioned in the Bible and Torah and gave him a sense of connection with the past and by all accounts had a profound effect on him. At this time he also became fluent in Arabic and was able to pass quite convincingly as an Arab even whilst imprisoned. This suggests that he knew more than the language and got to know and understand the religious culture too. By the time he became Agent General in Egypt in 1911, he had a clear understanding of Turkish Law as he worked to improve the rights of the Egyptian peasants. His religion seems to have become all inclusive but it was not something he spoke about. This was evident in his becoming a Free Mason and an active one at that. Numerous Lodges in Africa and India bear his name. Kitchener was completely against the war being fought in East Africa as he knew it would be a long, drawn-out affair for no particular gain but was over-ridden by the politicians back in London.

The next General is Douglas Haig who was part of Alan Clark’s Donkey brigade. There are reasons for Generals having their bases behind the lines – security being one. Haig’s religious background was Church of Scotland. During and after the war he was very involved in the Church of Scotland, St Columba’s Pont Street in London where he served as an Elder. The church also had a close affinity with the British Legion due to Haig’s involvement in both. He had a personal chaplain whilst on the Front and would regularly take communion and attend Sunday Services. Haig’s connection with Africa goes back to the Anglo-Boer War where he made his name leading one of the forces and during World War 1 he sent Smuts a telegram of congratulations after the Central Railway line and the coastal towns had been taken over from the Germans. The two men were to see each other when Smuts moved to London in 1917 and consulted him over the 3rd battle of Passchendale.

Related to St Columba’s is the fact that it offered it’s crypt as a place for rifle training during the Great War. Although this might seem strange, it’s not that odd when one considers that the Church of Scotland did not dissociate itself from politics, and that the Pont Street church was a home away from home for Scots living in London. The lunches and soup kitchens provided by the church are well-known in Scottish circles. It also helps to know that the rifles used for training purposes did not fire real ammunition which is what I’d struggled with for years when I first discovered this little-known crypt-fact.

This brings us to Jan Smuts, the South African who served in East Africa and who later sat on the British War Cabinet and wrote the Charter for the League of Nations amogst other things. He was brought up Dutch Reformed and was technically meant to go into the Ministry when his brother died at a young-ish age. He did not seem to be a strong adherent to the Dutch Reformed Church. During the Boer War he was known to ride with a copy of the Old Testament in his saddle – in the original Greek and Hebrew. During WW1, whilst in England, he would often be found in the company of Quakers, of whom the Gilletts became long and lasting friends and he supported them in their conscientious objector campaign.

And more recently, the other South African who shares a place on Parliament Square with Smuts, is Nelson Mandela who was only born during the Great War years. He was brought up in a strong Methodist faith and attended the Lovedale University run by Methodist Missionaries. His faith remained quietly strong throughout his years in prison. But what is often overlooked is that he was one of the young lions who was instrumental in the formation of the ANC armed wing Umkonto Isiswe and the decision to launch attacks against Government buildings in the struggle against Apartheid.

Other religions feature too: Wavell of Wavell’s Arabs was known to have undertaken the Pilgrimage to Mecca. And my references have let me down – there was a commander of one of the Indian units in Nyasaland or Northern Rhodesia who also had made the hajj or pilgrimage. (I’ll add his name when I find it). And strong Christians such as Kitchener and General Gordon (of Khartoum fame) were involved in ensuring Muslims under their supervision were allowed access to their places of worship – Gordon being noted for building a mosque in the Sudan.

This leaves some questions:

  • what role does faith play in a soldiers’ life?
  • how does a fighting man reconcile the peaceful instruction of the major faiths with their occupation? (note, this question is different to how religion has been used to further cultural values, economic benefits etc)
  • how many officers of the Sikhs, Hindu and other Muslim forces shared the same faith as their men? and do we know who they are? The significance of this question being that during World War 1, officers in the British imperial forces were white which then implied Christian.
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One thought on “Faith and service: is there a connection?

  1. Dear Anne Samson, I’m responding as a historian only of my father, Sam Sutcliffe, who fought in the front lines at Gallipoli, the Somme and Arras (Spring Offensive) as a Signaller and/or infantryman. He felt very much a unit of cannon fodder, at the time and ever after as he often wrote in his Memoir, Nobody Of Any Importance. He blamed his remote commanders, Hamilton, Haig and the rest. He seemed to have no concern about whether they cared or were men of faith (Sam was a CoE Christian himself). His concern was was their strategies and tactics which he saw lead to slaughter all around him. My belief after years of studying around my father’s account is that what the commanders felt or believed was of no consequence to anyone except their immediate colleagues, friends and family. What they (and similar commanders in all other Armies involved) ordered the mass of men under them to do mattered hugely in terms of deaths, wounds and mental/emotional damage on a scale unprecedented and not yet emulated. I think it does amount to: to execute their plans and strategies they made men into cannon fodder. Regards, Phil Sutcliffe

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