Chaplain’s Letter from the Trenches

  • 15th January 2016

100 years ago the Worcester Herald published a letter from the trenches sent by John MacRae, vicar of All Saints Worcester, describing life in France. John had recently gone out as a Chaplain and his letter provides an insight into daily life.

Chaplains served throughout the army, and many will have heard of MacRae’s fellow Worcester priest G.A Studdert Kennedy, known as Woodbine Willie, who was vicar of St Paul’s in the Blockhouse. Although Studdert Kennedy is perhaps the best known chaplain, there were plenty of others serving out there providing support to the troops.

Being a chaplain was not without risk. As reported in the Daily Diary published on our website on 5 January Rev James Stewart, who was with the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, was killed by a shell whilst leading a burial service just behind the line. A number of chaplains died during the war, and Studdert Kennedy was just one of a number who won the Military Cross for their actions and bravery.

  Rev John Macrae

Like many letters home MacRae includes details of the primitive conditions he was living in, although mixed with some stoicism as they made the best of conditions. Getting hold of food could be challenging, and although they ordered 22 geese they could only get turkeys, and when they arrived they were pretty small so someone had to go out to get an extra pig.

Weather conditions were also hard, and MacRae related the problem all soldiers suffered from, which was being wet most of the time with little opportunity to dry themselves or clothes once they got wet.

Chaplains were often the conduits for presents from home, and at Christmas MacRae received a package from Worcester containing soldiers comforts.  Ladies from All Saints like many other churches had been knitting and producing items to support and cheer up the men. In this package there were “26 pairs of socks, 8 pairs mittens and cuffs, 17 mufflers, and a body belt to their Rector”. 20,000 cigarettes also arrived, an important commodity and one which gave Woodbine Willie his nickname as chaplains often gave these out when they met men in the trenches.

As well as living among the men and helping support their emotional and spiritual needs individually on a daily basis chaplains led services, as you’d expect, although most of these were in makeshift locations. For Christmas 1915 MacRae led two services, one in an orchard for another company, and one in a barn for his own. These were opportunities for men to put aside their soldiering temporarily, and were enjoyed by many, as MacRae related by describing their hearty singing of Christmas carols. Limited transport meant he couldn’t travel to carry out as many Christmas services as he wanted, for MacRae said he would also gone and carried out another couple if he could. Chaplains also had to muck in like other soldiers, and this included helping cook food and digging drainage trenches.

MacRae was interviewed for the role in September 1915 and appointed Temporary Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class on 18 October 1915. The interview cards have been digitised by the Museum of Army Chaplaincy, and MacRae’s card can be seen online here. Included is information that he passed his medical, could ride a horse, lived at 104 Bath Road, was married with 2 children, would be free in two weeks, and had references from the Bishop and Dean of Worcester. This has been provided by the curator David Blake.

The Museum also holds the personal notebook of the Rev Harry Blackburne DSO who was the Assistant Chaplain General to the 1st Army.  He records his impressions of the Anglican chaplains who served with him in 1st Army.  The entry for Rev J E Macrae reads:

MACRAE J E – 19th Division.

A large man with a strong personality.

Rev John MacRae left the army on 23 October 1916 and returned to All Saints, Worcester. In late 1919 he chaired the first few meetings of the parish War Memorial Committee before leaving to return to his native Scotland. He was contacted a number of times by the committee to check whether he could remember some of the men put forward for inclusion for the memorial. From 1936-47 he was Dean of Brechin.

You can read more about the role of chaplains in WWI on the BBC website here.  You can also search for records of other chaplains at the Chaplains Museum site.  

Rev John MacRae is mentioned on this memorial board in All Saints for the peals marking the end of war and peace

Letter from Worcester Chaplain

Rev.J Macrae’s experiences on the Western Front [published Worcester Herald 16 Jan 1916]

     In a letter to his parishioners, apparently written on Christmas Eve, the Rev. J.E.MacRae, Rector of All Saint’s, Worcester, who is serving as an Army Chaplain in France, says,

     “This is to wish you everything good for the New Year. We had no festivity last night for we could not procure anything to be festive with, and dined on some rather ancient beef, which as the newly installed mess president, I had to contrive into a stew: boiled rice and a pound of prunes completed the modest meal. Afterwards we visited the sergeants mess – to wit twelve of them in a wash-house behind the farm: planks on boxes for a table, candles stuck in bottles et tout cela. Fortunately we had procured a turkey for them: they supplied at 9pm. We made cheerful speeches and hoped all would be ended before another twelvemonth: then to bed, expecting the guns, which had been silent most of the afternoon, to salute the New Year. They didn’t, and the night passed without a shot, so far as we could hear, for the wind was from the north.”

     In another passage, relating to the obtainment of supplies, Mr MacRae says, The 22 geese we ordered from E Force canteen could not be got: so I was promised turkeys instead. Last night S came back with turkeys, small birds only 8lbs each – no good – so we sent him to buy a pig as well for our mens Christmas dinner. Tonight we have found a large oven, and the ‘grub’ and beer will be consumed in the barns in their groups – a rough and not very ready picnic, but the best we can do.

     “I wonder if people at home can picture the condition under which we actually live here? The newspapers, one and all, have told such tales of marvellous organisation, comfort in abundance, and so forth, that the real facts of crowding in barns – lucky if straw if handy – and everything being done in field and orchard, with the roughest food that a man can eat and keep healthy, are lost sight of. The men go for a fortnight or more without taking clothes off, day or night, till somehow, when in reserve, getting in one of the wash-houses some miles distant. Can anyone at home picture what this means in winter time? When we get wet – and that’s often – nothing can be dried, and we just go on and hope for a little sunshine in the course of a week.

     “January 4th – We shifted down here yesterday again into huts and the mud. These shifts are days of strenuous toil for each and all – pack, lift, sit down, and rearrange everything – a job that cannot be completed in daylight anyhow. A scrimmage for food, tumble in as best we can, and on the morrow try to contrive means of existence for unknown days ahead of us. My job as chaplain, of course, has to go on one side for a day or two, and I help to get our men’s various necessary affairs along, that we may live. Today I cut drains all around our hut, and built a brick and mud Kitchener for rough cooking, as our stove is worn out.

     “Yesterday, by a great stroke of luck, my parcels at last arrived. W’s box is A1. A parcel of comforts too, from ladies of All Saints Parish came – quite an unexpected boon. Tell them (I will write also) that, for men just out of the trenches, socks, etc, are an absolute Godsend. Those sent will be given to Worcester men. I had also 20,000 cigarettes from L.I.S’s sister. It was a lucky day for me. We got all our belongings in dry – a blessing only those who live in the open will appreciate.

     “On Sunday I had two very interesting services. One for a company from the other battalion of our diocese, in an orchard behind a shattered church; the other in a barn for our company. Christmas hymns – as we stood round as best we could, crowded together. The French women of the farm peeped across their yard, and seemed impressed with our singing, which was certainly very effective. Had my horse been available I would have had two more services.

     “You do not seem to have had all my letters. Can the Censor have been busy. I also sent a dozen others to people in Worcester. I am quite fit and well”.

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