The British army has long carried the tradition of having some form of religious presence accompanying them, but it wasn’t until 1796 the Army Chaplains Department was formed under the first Chaplain General, the Reverend John Gamble, but to be fair, there were very few applicants for the job.
With the outbreak of the Crimea War, some 22,000 British troops were deployed along with a single Chaplain – Reverend Henry Press Wright. However, following reports in The Times by the famous war correspondent William Russell, money was secured and that number rose to 60, of who 12 were killed in the conflict.
In 1832 the Chaplaincy opened up to Roman Catholic clergy and in 1858 Presbyterians, 1881 the Wesleyans and 1893 the Jews.
In 1879, The Reverend James William Adams became the first army clergyman to win the Victoria Cross whilst serving with the 9th Lancers at Killa Kazi, during The Second Afghan War.
Then along came The Great War…….
So – who were these men? Non-combatants to be sure, thus unarmed, but still wearing a military uniform, and still facing the same dangers as the ordinary soldier, who at least carried a weapon with which to defend himself.
Reverend Philip Thomas Byard Clayton was born in Queensland, Australia, of British parentage, who returned to England when he was 2 years old. He studies theology at Exeter College, Oxford where he gained a ‘first’ and became a curate at St Mary’s, Portsea in 1910.
He was determined to serve his country following the outbreak of the war and travelled to France in 1915 as an army chaplain.
He was approached by the 6th Army senior chaplain, Neville Talbot about setting up a badly needed rest house for serving soldiers. That place still remains today at at number 43 Gasthuisstraat (at that time the street was called by its French name - Rue de l'Hôpital), Poperinghe, Belgium which opened its doors to servicemen on the 11th December 1915 and so the famous Talbot House came into existence. It was a large house owned by a wealthy brewer, who, when shells fell in the garden and damaged to rear of the building, left, renting the house to the British army.
Talbot House (abbreviated to TocH – TOC being the then signalers code for the letter ‘T’ and the ‘H’ just remained ‘H’) became a haven for the men of whatever rank – a sign hung over the door which read – ‘All rank abandon – all ye who enter here.’
During The Great War numerous bravery decorations were awarded the members of the Chaplains Department and several of them received the highest award possible – The Victoria Cross.
One such recipient was The Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, DSO, MC, (1863 – 1918) – one of the most decorated non-combatants of the war. At the outbreak of hostilities he was already 51 years of age and a priest in the Lake District, but he still tried to enlist but was refused. He made several further attempts and eventually he became a member of the Chaplains Department. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross – He went out numerous times into no mans land to recover the wounded. He died of wounds he received in 1918.
Another Chaplain who exemplifies the bravery and compassion of this section of the army is Edward Noel Mellish VC, MC., (1880 – 1962) who enlisted in the army in May 1915, shortly after his brother had been killed in action at the Battle of Loos. He entered the Chaplains Department. He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1916. His citation in the London gazette reads –
‘On three consecutive days, the 27 to 29 March 1916, during the heavy fighting at St. Eloi, Belgium, he went to-and fro continuously between the original trenches and the captured enemy trenches, attending to and rescuing wounded men. The first day, from an area swept by machine-gun fire, he rescued 10 severely wounded men. Although his battalion was relieved on the second day, he returned and rescued 12 more of the wounded. Taking charge of a group of volunteers, on the third day, he again returned to the trenches in order to rescue the remaining wounded. This excellent work was done voluntarily and was far outside the sphere of his normal dut
He died peacefully at the age of 81 on the 8th July 1962 in Somerset.
The other Victoria Cross recipient of the Chaplains Department during the Great War was William Robert Fontaine Addison VC. (1883 – 1962
Addison enlisted in the army and joined the Chaplains Department, finding himself in Mesopotamia with the 13th (Western) Division, a New Army formation which included the 6th (Service) Battalions of the East Lancashire, South Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments, brigaded as part of the 38th (Lancashire) Infantry Brigade. He was with them when they landed at Basra, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) in March 1916.
He was involved in the disastrous attempt to relieve the besieged city of Kut and it was during this time, the 9th April 1916 that he was awarded his medal. His citation in the London Gazette reads –
‘He carried a wounded man to the cover of a trench, and assisted several others to the same cover, after binding up their wounds under heavy rifle and machine gun fire.
In addition to these unaided efforts, by his splendid example and utter disregard of personal danger, he encouraged the stretcher-bearers to go forward under heavy fire and collect the wounded.’
He died peacefully in January 1962, aged 78, in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.
Over 170 men of the Chaplains Dept fell during the Great War.