More correctly known as military chaplains, the men who served as such were better known as padres. Padres gave spiritual guidance to men who sought it. They did not carry weaponry even at the front. Most padres were Anglican but those regiments with predominantly Roman Catholic soldiers in them (such as Irish regiments) had Catholic padres too. Though padres had a spiritual capacity, they also carried out other tasks. Men who had difficulty in writing home or reading letters would call on a padre to carry out these tasks. They also had the role of telling men at the front that God was on their side as theirs was the righteous cause. German padres also served the same function and German army belts frequently had ‘Gott mit uns’ (God with us) on their buckles. Padres read the burial service at burials and frequently put themselves in great danger by administering the last rites to men wounded in No-Man’s-Land. They would be found in field hospitals comforting men injured in battle. Other than services on a Sunday, padres would also do the same before a battle. Some padres became very popular with their men. ‘Woodbine Willy’ was a padre who gave out free cigarettes after a service, while the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton started a social club at Poperinge that became known as ‘Toc H’, though it was more formally Talbot House. Here rank counted for nothing as officers and soldiers were treated as equal. Men could read in peace or generally just socialise – just a few miles from the battles that surrounded Ypres. Toc H’ had few rules – but you had to leave your military cap at the library if you borrowed a book to read in the house as no one was allowed to leave minus this part of the uniform – which guaranteed the return of a book.
It was a padre, David Railton, who came up with the idea for a tomb for an unknown soldier as he, along with many others, was well aware of the many thousands of men who had been killed on the Western Front but who had no known grave. The burying of an unknown soldier at Westminster Abbey – carried out with huge solemnity after the war – was, Railton believed, a gesture for all those men.
Padres also had to maintain the morale of those at the front. In the conditions found at the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele etc this must have been a difficult task. Conditions in the trenches must have pushed to the limit those who were religious. A few spurned the advice/role of the padres. One of these was the war poet Siegfried Sassoon who was hostile to the part played by the Church in its efforts to boost patriotism by using God and right as a lever to get men to join up.