Chaplains at War: The Role of Clergymen during World War II
Alan Robinson's book is one of a growing number of recent studies (of which there remains nevertheless a dearth) on both sides of the Atlantic that focus upon a hitherto neglected aspect of World War II historiography—namely, religion. These works include Arlie J. Hoover's God, Britain, and Hitler in World War II (Westport, CT, 1999); Stephen E. Parker's Faith on the Home Front:Aspects of Church Life and Popular Religion in Birmingham, 1939–1945 (Bern, 2005); and M. F. Snape's God and the British Soldier: Religion and the British Army in the First and Second World Wars (London, 2005) and The Royal Army Chaplains' Department 1796–1953: Clergy Under Fire (Woodbridge, UK, 2008). Whereas it might ordinarily be assumed that religion and warfare do not mix, and that Christianity,with its founder's epigrammatic instruction to "love your enemies" and its measured just-war theory, always maintains a deeply pacifistic outlook in the face of armed conflict, what these studies demonstrate is a more nuanced picture of British Christianity's part in bolstering the war effort, both on the home front and on the front line. In reality,British Christian leaders supported the war as one that actively opposed evil, recognizing the spiritual opportunities presented by the experience (Parker, Faith, pp. 161–74). At a time when Christian motif and language was still widely understood, this was deployed not only by politicians and religious leaders but also circulated in the various media of popular culture to underline the moral purposes of the conflict (Parker, Faith, pp. 105–19).
Robinson's account adds to the evidence of Christianity's involvement in the war by presenting a sympathetic rendering of the oral history of clergy who served as chaplains to the forces during the war. By a careful collation of these recollected accounts and a sensitive weaving of these in with available documentary evidence, Robinson draws out themes of the chaplains' raison d'être, creating a posthumous celebration of the important part played by such men in bolstering the serving soldiers' morale. Despite the oft-felt role conflict of chaplain—that of one who maintains the Christian ideal of love and brotherhood in the face of violence and hatred—theirs was an often effective and humane ministry amongst the men. Chaplains were relied upon by force commanders—Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery himself opined,"I would as soon think of going into battle without my artillery as without my Chaplains" (p. 64)—and by the men for both religious ministration and as organizers of social intercourse and entertainment. Against the background of the chaplains' activities during World War I and the development of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department across the interwar and wartime period, Robinson tells a very practical human story of brother serving brother in time of great stress and need, drawing out some of the denominational differences of priority. [End Page 162]
Clearly, this well-told and clearly written work augments well the historiography of religion during World War II. It is a volume, however, that benefits being read alongside Snape's more revisionist and expansive Royal Army Chaplains' Department, which is less deferential of Alan Wilkinson's earlier work on the subject, Dissent or Conform? (London, 1986), or of some of the celebrated Christian "heroes," such as the Peace Pledge Union's Dick Sheppard.