May 2016 marks the centenary of Archbishop Randall Davidson’s tour of the Western Front, a journey he described as “unique in my own experience as a man, and I think unique historically in the experience of an Archbishop”. To commemorate Davidson’s visit, Lambeth Palace Library will posting and tweeting extracts from his diary (Davidson 583) and summaries of Davidson’s activities, one hundred years to the day, via its Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Davidson spent 9 days at the Front, from 16 to 24 May, at the invitation of Deputy Chaplain-General Llewellyn Gwynne, and with the “warm concurrence” of Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. The visit had two principal objectives:
- A fact-finding mission, giving Davidson the opportunity to meet with meet the commanders of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), and to survey almost the entirety of the British-held section of the Western Front, from the military base at Étaples on the French coast, to the Somme (where preparations were continuing for the eponymous battle that was to commence on 1 July).
- A morale-boosting tour, to cheer and encourage the chaplains and to allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to meet and talk with ordinary soldiers.
Davidson was profoundly moved by his experiences, and just four days after his return to Lambeth he began dictating to his secretary, Mary Mills, what was to become known as his ‘war diary’, which he supplemented with postcards and maps from the visit.
Though he was kept from the front lines he was never far from danger. On 17 May he visited the shattered town of Ypres, still being regularly shelled by the Germans, donning a steel helmet and carrying a gas mask “ready for use at a moment’s notice”. Davidson was given ample opportunities to observe the ongoing fighting, witnessing a tremendous artillery barrage preceding a successful attack by the Germans on the Vimy Ridge sector. He was:
Constantly impressed when looking across the Front at fighting times by the absence of physical men – guns are firing, shells exploding, and aeroplanes are overhead, and you know that within the few miles which you are looking at there are thousands and thousands of men, but they are all in trenches, and the country sometimes looks as though it were uninhabited. I had not been prepared for this.”
He was also fascinated by the huge logistical operation that kept the British army supplied, noting the huge array of lorries loaded with ammunition, food and other essentials, and was most “amused to find that one of the biggest and most formidable looking of these ranges of cars, turned out on closer inspection to be not great heavy lorries after all, but London omnibuses painted slate colour and looking most imposing and as unlike buses as possible”.
The Archbishop held conferences for the chaplains, one each for the four armies that made up the B.E.F., at which as many of the Church of England chaplains as possible had been gathered, as well chaplains from the Church of Scotland and the English Free Churches. Davidson made it a priority to speak with as many of them as possible, and at the conference at Talbot House in Poperinghe, he recorded that he was “very much struck with the quiet simplicity, and even the unconscious dignity of the chaplains, some of whom I had known quite well; and all of them seemed to me to have ‘grown’ in the best sense”. Davidson also spoke to the troops whenever he could, usually in the hospitals but also those resting from duty on the front line. After meeting a group of soldiers at St. Omer, he wrote of them:
“There was an obvious seriousness which betokened what they had gone through, near Ypres, and might yet have to go through, and it was in a sort of awestruck way that some of them spoke about the fearful fighting in the trenches. No one, they said, could wish to go back to it, though they were quite ready to go when they were wanted, not light-heartedly, but determinedly.”
Davidson’s visit was relatively low-key in comparison to previous episcopal visits to the Front by Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, and Henry Wakefield, Bishop of Birmingham. Those visits had been characterised by preaching marathons and subsequent published accounts that infuriated military commanders. The more circumspect nature of Davidson’s visit was welcomed by Sir Douglas Haig, who, on their meeting at General Headquarters on 20 May, stated: “Visits like yours for quiet consultation with us and for giving stimulus to officers and chaplains, and speaking to the gatherings of men which you come across naturally, are of very real good”.
A scholarly edition of Davidson’s war diary, edited by Michael Snape, appears in From the Reformation to the Permissive Society: A Miscellany in Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of Lambeth Palace Library, (Church of England Record Society Volume 18, 2010) and is available for consultation in the Lambeth Palace Library reading room (Classmark: H5051.C4 [R]), or for purchase through Boydell & Brewer.