A Forgotten World War One Anniversary: Capturing of Clergy after the Battle of Mons by Peter Howson


PadreAmong the things that took place a century ago was the return of a group of British prisoners from Germany. That event seems to have passed unmarked…

In the summer of 1915 a group of mostly wounded men – captured in the withdrawal of the British army after the Battle of Mons – were exchanged for a similar number of Germans. Amongst them were also two padres who had stayed with groups of wounded and found themselves taken prisoner rather than immediately returned to their own side.

One of the padres was the Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke. A regular army chaplain with service dating back to the Boer War, he and his family were living in Bordon where Ben was the Garrison Chaplain. Mobilised with 4 Field Ambulance based at nearby Aldershot he went with them to France. When he came back to England he wrote an account of his experiences. In the Hands of the Enemy is one of the first books to describe the experiences of those who became prisoners of war.

I was aware of that book when a manuscript diary kept by Ben O’Rorke came up for sale nearly 10 years ago. He wrote it between January and June 1918 whilst serving as a Staff Chaplain in the office of the Deputy Chaplain General in France. The text of the diary forms the heart of Padre, Prisoner and Pen-pusher: The World War One Experiences of the Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke. It would be good to have reported that the story had a happy ending but Ben O’Rorke died on Christmas Day 1918 whilst serving in Falmouth. His grave, currently neglected, is in the local cemetery.

The diary is that of someone ‘behind the lines.’ It thus gives a different perspective on the war to those kept by chaplains and others serving in the trenches. Whilst writing the diary O’Rorke was working for Bishop Llewellyn Gwynne (the Anglican bishop of Khartoum who had been in London in August 1914) and organised himself into a commission as a chaplain. He went to France in August 1914 and remained there until February 1919. My next book will be the publication of his daily diaries for the whole of that period. They charted his service as a chaplain and his sudden promotion in July 1915 to head all Church of England chaplains serving with the British Expeditionary Force.

The complex arrangements that governed chaplaincy in the army were the subject of my Muddling Throughfirst book published by Helion – Muddling Through: The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One. For anyone who wants to understand why the Church of Scotland fell out with the Church of England, and how a Wesleyan chaplain recruited Catholic priests in Italy with the blessing of the Pope, the answers are in that book. There’s also a great deal more information that helps to understand the ways that the chaplaincy responded to the huge and developing demands of the First World War.

To return to Gwynne, he and O’Rorke had their own personal back story. When Ben O’Rorke was growing up in Nottingham his vicar had been Llewellyn Gwynne. They had kept in contact and Gwynne turned to O’Rorke for advice in 1914 when he was considering volunteering as a chaplain. By the time O’Rorke returned to the front in late 1915 Gwynne was the Deputy Chaplain General. He posted O’Rorke to his units (with which he served at the front) and then eventually brought him into the office so that he could help with the deployment of all Church of England chaplains.

Whilst researching for Padre, Prisoner and Pen-pusher I was delighted to come across plans of a number of the towns behind the lines. These showed such detail as the location of the chaplains’ offices. The book illustrates one of three sheets of Le Havre that show the impact of the British forces on that port by the summer of 1918. These have added considerably to our knowledge of the mapping of the war. Hopefully, a town plan of St Omer will one day be found so that we can see where Ben O’Rorke and Bishop Gwynne worked.

Attitudes to the work of chaplains during the 1914 to 1918 period have changed since the crude comments of Robert Graves in his book Goodbye to All That. Helion are to be thanked for the willingness to publish a number of books which have explored the ways chaplains and the churches faced the conflict. There is still a great deal of material yet to be made available and I hope to look at more of it in the future. I will hopefully have more time as this autumn, after 40 years’ ministry which included 25 as a chaplain in the army, I am retiring and moving to Wiltshire.

Padre, Prisoner and Pen-pusher: The World War One Experiences of the Reverend Benjamin O’Rorke and Muddling Through: The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One are both available to purchase from Helion.co.uk 

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