The amen snorter could be spotted easily in France and Flanders during the First World War. British officers were allowed a narrow leeway when it came to idiosyncrasies of style in their uniform but only a chaplain could get away with a dog collar. Most infantry battalions had one God botherer attached to them, at least for a spell. By the time of the Armistice in November 1918, about 3,500 vicars had done their bit for the cure of souls on the Western Front.
In polite conversation they were universally referred to as padres, even though most of them were Protestants and the word, meaning father, derives from the Roman Catholic Church. Behind their backs they were devil dodgers, pulpit thumpers, sky pilots, Holy Joes or bible bashers. The average infantryman had little time for organised religion but the Army forced it on him. An abbreviation for each Christian denomination was stamped on every soldier’s cold meat ticket, his identity disc, to indicate the rites to be observed in the event of his death. ‘C of E’ meant Church of England; ‘RC’ denoted a Roman Catholic; ‘NC’ stood for the Non Conformists, the Methodists, Baptists, etc.
Any conscript or volunteer who didn’t express a preference on enlistment – “I’ll follow the band” – became C of E by default because as far as the Army was concerned, in the matter of religious faith, everybody had to be something. Attendance at church parade each Sunday was compulsory. Knee drill it was called, from all the praying required. It gave the sergeants an extra opportunity to display one of their favourite regimental witticisms. “Take your hat off in the House of the Lord …,” they would whisper in seeming reverence, before spitting out with concentrated venom, “you heathen bastard!”
Tommy never called anything by its proper name if trench lingo provided a slang alternative. A church was therefore a candle shop or joss house, joss meaning luck or superstition, derived from the Asiatic’s pronunciation of the Portuguese, deos, god. A church key was a bottle opener, providing access to the exaltation of the spirit. A Holy Boy in the British Army was not a Christian soldier but a member of the Norfolk Regiment, some of whom, while campaigning with Wellington during the Peninsular War, 1807 – 1814, were alleged to have sold their bibles to buy liquor. Woe betide any padre who took himself too seriously. Pi jaw, uplifting words and patriotic exhortations, were frowned on at the Front. Religious tracts given out by padres were derided as bumf, bum fodder, for wiping purposes.
The best-liked padres concentrated on being helpful. They lent money to the hard up, wrote letters for the illiterate and distributed parcels from their parishioners to men who might otherwise receive none. Most popular of all was the padre who could organise a gaff, an impromptu concert behind the lines, especially if he could enliven the proceedings by shuffling the dominoes, playing the piano. The pattern of this type was Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, who became known as ‘Woodbine Willie’, from his habit of pressing Woodbine cigarettes on the wounded. Studdert-Kennedy’s poems extolling the Christ-like forbearance of the fighting man earned him a wide readership in Blighty, but it was his determination to go where the fighting was, with plenty of buckshee fags about his person, that won him the Military Cross.
When it came to stopping one, men wanted it nice and clean in a mentionable part of the anatomy, not the orchestra (orchestra stalls – balls, Cockney rhyming slang). If he copped a Blighty one Tommy was happy, it would get him sent home. If he came a gutser or went napoo he didn’t care if the padre was there or not to plant him in the stiffs’ paddock. In the trench war, the fatalism of the gambler prevailed. If a packet had your name on it you were done for, God or no God. Comrades would forgive the occasional bout of funk (war was a terrifying business) but otherwise Tommy had to face up to the bowling, however hot, until he got his final issue from Quartermaster Death.
(For more trench lingo on the Western Front see Chris Moore’s dictionary, Roger, Sausage and Whippet, published by Headline, 2012)