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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The times they are a changing…

Walking back from the SANDF Doc Centre in its last years in Visagie Street, Pretoria (it’s now in Irene – at the end of the road joining onto Pierre van Ryneveld at Nellmapius Drive) to Pretoria General Station on my first day back in Pretoria after a year, I couldn’t help ponder over all the warnings I’d been receiving about walking in Pretoria Central.

When I was a student in Pretoria (early 1990s), we used to walk the streets until quite late without a problem. Now, as on my previous trip, I was being warned against it. As usual this got me thinking – everyone who was warning me, except for the very last person, was white. I therefore tested out my views of walking the streets with a few people of colour and was told to ‘continue walking as though you own the place’.

The next day I set out as usual but on this occasion paid close attention to the car drivers travelling along the roads I walked – I was by now quite used to being the only white person on the pavements, but hadn’t really thought about the drivers. The blunt thought struck me: where have all the white folk gone? It was almost the complete reverse of my student days.

Pretoria used to heave with whites, now they are almost non-existent. My thoughts immediately equated this with the days gone by and the Bantustans – what do we call the still predominantly white enclaves behind huge walls, fences, prected by alarms and security guards?

Thankfully pure white enclaves are rare, Oranje being the most (in)famous. The traditionally white areas are becoming more diverse and although many white South Africans still tend to avoid the CBDs (Central Business Districts) for reasons of ‘safety’, they have far more character and warmth than the clinical streets of my youth.

Later in the week (2015), I accompanied my mother to the Whitney Houston show at the then Civic Theatre (now Mandela Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex) where I’d last been a year before with my sister for Elvis (they both do first aid duty for the theatre). Again, the contrast between these two visits was remarkable, so refreshing – the Civic has clearly got its line-up right, presenting a programme which appeals to all the different cultural groups. How wonderful it was to see a previously ‘whites only’ theatre packed with ‘mocha skin’ [as per the star of the show] enthusiasts of all ages. And to top it off, it was a South African, Belinda Davids performing the tribute to Whitney (and much better in my humble opinion).

The perception of South Africa as being dangerous persists – I’ve written about this before and it’s interesting typing up this blog piece I wrote a few years back but didn’t get to post then as to how my views haven’t changed. I feel safer now than I did in the 80s and early 90s in Johannesburg and as with all cities, one has to remain vigilent.

The other complaint I often hear is that the country has deteriorated, it is no longer what it used to be. Well, no, it isn’t and neither should it be the same country. Wasn’t that the point of overthrowing apartheid? Has the country deteriorated? In some cases, yes (and we won’t go into the corruption of politicians and others here) and there is still a lot of work to do politically and economically. But in other ways, the country hasn’t deteriorated. It is on the cultural and social fronts that the country has undergone its most radical transformation and in humble opinion – for the best.

I typed this as the ANC leadership has changed and we wait to see what transpires – the implications are huge but I hope and pray that the social and cultural progress which has been made to date influences and impacts positively on the economic and political. And I can’t but help remember the words Winnie Mandela uttered back in the early 1990s – the new South Africa will ‘accommodate everybody’ (1:18:00).

PS: In 2017 I drove into Pretoria to visit the National Archives – too far too walk from the station – but I arrived from Johannesburg rather than Boksburg and duly got myself lost! Many of the street names have changed. Whilst at the National Archive the young reading room assistant tried to explain to a white woman how to get to the courts where she would likely find the info she was needing. To the relief of both, and my amusement, he, a Tswana (we’d had a very enlightening conversation about Swahili earlier), gave up on the new street names and reverted to the old. It was just too confusing. Perhaps the next generation not knowing of the old names will find it easier.