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Home arrow Religion arrow Religion in the Ranks: Belief and Religious Experience in the Canadian Forces
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-1945: Forming a Chaplain Branch

The eventual formation of an embedded military chaplaincy is in large part due to the impact that voluntary clergy during the First and Second World Wars had while serving the troops in Europe. Their efforts to comfort and encourage the men became as significant to those in the trenches, as well as their loved ones at home, as their ability to provide religious sacraments and bury the dead with appropriate sanctity and respect. Public and official appreciation for religious personnel who served alongside Canadian soldiers during both wars ultimately ensured a permanent place for chaplains in the Canadian military.

Religious Support for the First World War

During the First World War, hundreds of clerics with no military training enlisted to serve the spiritual needs of soldiers marching to war (Clarke 1996, 335; Reynolds 2003, 11-12). According to first- and second-hand accounts, chaplains on the front lines won the trust and admiration of soldiers by providing comfort and consolation to men in the trenches (Crerar 1995, 85). The churches during this era of Canadian history were deeply involved in social welfare projects and had a strong sense of Christian duty that carried over into support of the war (Grant 1988, 113).

Along with the typical ministrations required of religious personnel, such as providing religious services, administering religious rites, and burying the dead, these chaplains participated in many of the field duties. Al Fowler describes the early CF chaplain as a jack-of-all-trades who might play the role of medic, counsellor, negotiator, spiritual guide, cook, or commander depending on the circumstances (2006, 33-58). Duff Crerar provides many anecdotes of chaplains 'on the ground' giving out coffee, providing first aid, helping men read and write letters home, and boosting morale through shared stories and song. He argues that their determination to be present and involved wherever the men were, no matter how lowly the role, established their ministry as one in which their comforting presence was the most important resource for encouraging the soldiers (1995).

In total, 447 chaplains served overseas troops during the First World War under the auspices of the British Army Chaplains Department (36-45). The majority of these were Protestants and it quickly became evident that there were insufficient numbers of Roman Catholic priests to meet the unique spiritual needs of Catholic soldiers overseas (23).

The religious bigotry of men in power, like Canada's minister of militia, Sam Hughes, amplified existing tensions between Francophones and Anglophones as well as Catholics and Protestants (29-34, 48). Hughes, who despised Catholics above all, ensured that the majority of military chaplains were non-Roman Catholics (Crerar 2006b, 10-11).

Eventually, the majority of chaplains serving in the fields and trenches were English-speaking Protestants affiliated with the Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches, although small numbers of minority groups were also present among the troops, including an African-Canadian battalion, Aboriginal3 recruits, and small numbers of Jews (Crerar 1995, 13). However, the prevalent attitudes towards non-whites ensured that the African Baptist minister retained for 'the specially recruited black construction battalion' served only that regiment, despite needs for a chaplain among the white troops (68, 301). The Anglican Metis chaplain 'who had come... with his native recruits from the west' was eventually sent back to Canada and discharged from the service after his men were dispersed among other units (68). At home in Montreal, Rabbi H. Abrahamowitz argued successfully for the appointment of a rabbi by pointing out that 'the Military Service Act [conscription] would bring in larger numbers of Jewish troops.'

Despite the imbalances and injustices of Hughes's system, soldiers, home churches, and military officers recognized the important contributions of clergymen to those in the trenches during the first months of the Great War. For the first time, Ottawa allowed civilian chaplains serving among the troops to be recognized as 'camp chaplains' with permission to conduct services, move freely among all enlisted personnel, wear the military uniform, and hold honorary commissions (Crerar 1995, 40).4 When the British, who saw little value in the chaplains, limited the number of clergy going to the battlefields with Canadian personnel to a ratio of 1 to 20,000 men, Canadian policy-makers were sufficiently angered that, on 19 August 1915, they organized all Canadian chaplains serving Canadian troops in Europe into the Canadian Chaplain Service under a director of chaplain services (Crerar 1995, 45; 2006b, 26).

 
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