Comment Opinion & Features

D-Day’s forgotten chaplains

A padre blesses soldiers during a D-Day re-enactment in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer (Getty)

In this week remembering the D-Day Normandy landings, I would like to have heard more about the role played by the Christian chaplains who accompanied the troops. Their stories have often been neglected – although Field Marshal Montgomery thought the presence of a padre was as important as the availability of artillery in any conflict.

One person who has done research on the chaplains’ role is Sarah Meyrick, who delved into the history of the army chaplains for her novel The Restless Wave, which features a serving padre.

Some 3,500 Allied chaplains served in the Second World War – all voluntarily. Between June and September of 1944, 21 British padres died in the conflict. They were unarmed – except for a Bible and a Communion set – so were unable to defend themselves under fire. Some held D-Day services crossing the Channel to France.

Sarah, who is a lay canon at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, did some of her research at the Museum of Army Chaplaincy in Hampshire, drawing on diaries and letters of army padres. (The Museum has memorabilia of Christian chaplains from all denominations, including Catholic.)

It seems to me that the chaplains’ work in supporting the troops, spiritually and sometimes physically, was more emphatically highlighted during the First World War, as illustrated by the famous picture of Fr Francis Gleeson of the Royal Munster Fusiliers blessing the troops before going into battle. However, a chaplain does feature in the famous D-Day movie The Longest Day, as my elder son reminds me. John Gregson plays Father Sam, who loses his Communion kit in the invasion melée – but to his great relief, later finds it.

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President Donald Trump has been married three times, and his reported language towards ladies seldom portrays him as a model of Christian chivalry and lofty personal morals.

And yet he could be called a “family man” in that he is evidently fondly attached to his children, all of whom also seem to be loyally attached to him. He has brought his four adult children, and their spouses, to Britain and they seem to form a united group. (His youngest son Barron, by his third marriage to Melania, is a shy teenager who is probably glad to be left behind at school.)

Cynics may say that Mr Trump’s dynastic impulse is related to power and influence – and to aspirations that his eldest daughter, Ivanka, could one day also be US president. He likes to think that his brood is the “royal family of America” – and him a Republican!

Still, his pride in his family probably means more to ordinary American voters than any number of Congressional hearings. The constitutional writer Walter Bagehot said that the advantage of a monarchy was that everyone understands what a king or queen is. Similarly, perhaps, everyone can understand what a family group is, and may be pleased to see a family which seems to coexist well together, however unconventionally begotten.

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The Vatican recently hosted a conference on atheism today, and researchers from the University of Kent provided some of the data. Kent’s Understanding Unbelief programme interviewed thousands of self-declared atheists and agnostics in six countries – Britain, the US, Brazil, China, Denmark and Japan – and found that the majority of declared unbelievers still believed in some aspect of the supernatural, such as the afterlife, reincarnation or astrology.

The Kent programme also found that some respondents adhered to a pre-ordained fatalism – that “some things are meant to be”, as well as in unknowable forces of good and evil. One of the researchers concluded that “atheism” is a more nuanced category than sometimes suggested.

There’s a brilliant short book by John Gray called Seven Types of Atheism, which explores different forms of atheism and agnosticism. Gray, though not a believer himself, demonstrates knowledgeably how most atheism is parasitic on faith.

The majority of values proclaimed by modern humanistic atheists are derived from religion: a procession of “God surrogates” merely fill the spot left vacant by faith. Gray concludes that religion will not “wither away” as some predict.

His book challenged me, but also made me re-evaluate faith as a rich and rewarding part of our earthly existence.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4