Friday 17 June 2022

British Army Chaplains in the First World War and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The British Army Chaplains' Department (AChD) was formed by Royal Warrant of 23rd September 1796; until then chaplains had been part of individual regiments, but not on the central establishment. Only Anglican chaplains were recruited until 1827, when Presbyterians were recognised, but not commissioned until 1858. Roman Catholic chaplains were recruited from 1836, Methodist chaplains from 1881, and Jewish chaplains from 1892. During the First World War some 4,400 Army Chaplains were recruited and 179 lost their lives on active service.

In recognition of their dedicated service, in 1914 King George V conferred upon the Army Chaplains’ Department the prefix “Royal”.

According to my on-going research, quite a few Army Chaplains were awarded the Military Cross (MC) during WW1. Here is the list of those I have found so far:

Rev. W.R.F. Addison VC - Army Chaplain and poet; also awarded the Order of St George-Russia.

Rev. Theodore Bayley Hardy, VC, DSO, MC (20 October 1863 – 18 October 1918) 

Rev. Captain Herbert B. Cowl, MC

Rev. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy MC (1883 –1929) – known as “Woodbine Willy”; Army Chaplain and poet 

Rev. Noel Mellish VC, MC

Rev. Basil Pemberton Plumptre, MC (1883 - 1917) – British Army Chaplain

Rev. David Railton MC (1884 – 1955) - British Army Chaplain who had the  idea for creating a British Unknown Warrior memorial  

Rev. Edward John Thompson, MC, MiD - Poet and Army Chaplain (1886 – 1946)  – 7th Division, Mesopotamia

Rev. Morgan Watcyn-Williams, MC

The Military Cross

The British Military Cross. The Military Cross award was created on 28th December 1914 for commissioned officers of the substantive rank of Captain or below and for Warrant Officers. Awards were announced in “The London Gazette”.  From August 1916, recipients of the Cross were entitled to use the post-nominal letters MC, and bars could be awarded for further acts of gallantry meriting the award. 

 The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior 


The idea for a British Unknown Warrior memorial came to one of the chaplains who served on the Western Front during the First World War – the Reverend David Railton MC (1884 – 1955).  Ordained in Liverpool in 1908, he then became Curate of Edge Hill in Liverpool.   Serving alongside soldiers in the front line during WW1, burying many, he was awarded a Military Cross (MC) for attending wounded men under heavy enemy fire.

In 1916 the Rev. Railton noticed, in the garden of a ruined house, a single grave, marked by a rough wooden cross, with the words “An Unknown British Soldier” written on it in pencil.   Deeply moved by this and conscious that each man lost left behind someone who loved him, he wondered how he could “ease the pain of father, mother, brother sister, sweetheart, and friend.

The Unknown Warrior came home through the port of Dover on 10th November 1920,  and was buried the following day, among the monarchs in Westminster Abbey. The coffin was covered with a Union Flag flag, which the Reverend Railton had used as an altar cloth during services he held on the Western Front.  That flag now hangs in Westminster Abbey, near the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.