Macnutt and the War

Frederick Brodie MacnuttFrederick Brodie Macnutt’s wartime journey started in March 1911 when he was appointed 4th Class Chaplain to the Territorial Force, ranked as Captain.  It is not surprising that when the Bishop of London called in 1915 for clergy to serve as chaplains at the front, he responded (as did his fellow clergyman brother, Arthur Charles Macnutt).  In June 1915 Frederick preached to large congregations at St Matthew’s before leaving for the front.  He spoken about his feeling that he could no longer stand in the pulpit and speak of the duty of others while he himself stayed at home.  Frederick was supported by his parishioners – £44 was raised to send with him towards expenses. He began on 1st July 1915 as a temporary lieutenant in the RAMC, attached to the 7th Ambulance Brigade, 3rd Division.  Frederick later described his arrival at the front:

At first all was chaos.  To go up into the line straight from an English parish, reasonably secure from the dangers and horrors of war-time, is to be plunged into surroundings where for a time the personal equation has a quite undue importance.  It is so near death, and it is so hard not to die, not for one’s own sake so much as for those one must leave behind.  But gradually there comes a change…There is duty, there is service, there is his job; and these are much greater things that the preservation of his life.  He becomes a soldier, and puts first things first.” This was described in The Church in the Furnace: Essays by Seventeen Temporary Church of England Chaplains on Active Service in France and Flanders, published by Frederick after two years’ service, in 1917.  Frederick’s initiation into life at the front must have been as bewildering, frightening and life changing as for the men he served.  He described the conditions under which he was writing “while the shells came desperately moaning overhead and falling upon Poperinghe, bursting with a familiar thud which may mean death or mutilation for somebody”.

Charles Edmund Doudney
The Reverend Charles Edmund Doudney

In November 1915 Frederick witnessed the death of a colleague, the vicar of St Luke’s, Bath, the Reverend Captain Charles Edmund Doudney (1871-1915) who like him was serving as a chaplain at the front, to the 18th Field Ambulance.  Charles was on his way to bury eight soldiers at Ypres when he was hit by shrapnel and his bowel perforated.  Tragically, Charles was due to return home on leave the following morning.  Charles was taken to No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station , near Poperinghe.  He was attended by the Surgeon General and an operation performed, but to no avail.  When it was apparent that Charles was dying Frederick, who was at the clearing station, ministered to him, afterwards writing “We did so hope that he would pull through, and everything that skill could do was done.  When it became apparent that he was passing, the Archdeacon, the sister and I knelt down and commended his spirit to God and gave thanks for his life and ministry, and especially for his splendid service over here.  The end came very quietly and peacefully, and as he was passing we repeated the words ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord, from henceforth, yea, saith the Spirit, they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them’…..I could hear the guns roaring in the distance.

Frederick assisted with the full funeral service and burial that took place at Lijssenthoek British Military Cemetery, near Poperinghe.  Charles left behind a wife and three young children.  Although Frederick describes burying many soldiers – “One autumn evening up at Ypres in 1915, after one of those poignant days which come to all Chaplains in the line, when I had buried four officers of the battalion I love best,” this experience was to stay with him.  Soon after, Frederick wrote a poem dedicated to Charles, titled Dead in Flanders:

We laid him where his fallen comrades lie,
Behind the far-flung trenches ceaseless roar.
Brave heart, great heart, pierced by the bolts that fly,
From the cruel forge of War.
Priest of the creed of peace, yet so strong to dare,
He came to heal and hearten men that smite,
For all things holy and for all things fair,
The hell-born creed of might.
And here, where truth at last can conquer lies,
And more than mortals dreams the spirit gives,
God bade him offer love’s last sacrifice,
Life that in dying lives.
So leave him, while the autumn shadows lower,
And darker still the war clouds hurry by,
And the warrior-saint who faced his hour,
Of travail worthily.
Count him not dead, nor quenched the fiery spark
Of the Spirit which thus with duty kept its tryst,
The swift shell strick – the pang – the mist – the dark!
And then – the Face of Christ!

Early in July 1916 Frederick returned on leave to Surbiton where he preached to large crowds.  He told about how he had been presented by the men, NCOs and officers of the 1st Honourable Artillery Company a gold watch inscribed “In memory of many kindnesses in Flanders and in France.”  He described to the congregations how he had celebrated holy communion in “many strange places” including hotel dining rooms, hospital bedrooms, a fish curing factory, operating tents, fields barns, railways carriages, a chateau drawing room, dancing hall, disused glass factory , cinema theatre and orchard gardens.  Frederick was welcomed back to the church with a musical party.  He said that he had never spoken in 20 years to people who were so susceptible to spiritual impressions as those men in the horrors of war. He believed that 99 out of 100 of the men in France and Flanders were perfectly conscious that there was wrong  there; they charged it to the lack of Christianity, to the fact that the message of Jesus Christ had been waived aside by Europe in a growing manner during the past 50 years.  He returned to the front.

As well as serving the spiritual needs of British soldiers, Frederick also served Germans.  In 1917 he wrote about two services he held for German prisoners.  “There is a little book of prayers and hymns in German compiled by one of our padres who knows the language. I got hold of a supply of these….There was the large body of men in field grey, all lined up.  Attendance was quite voluntary but most of the prisoners available were there.  I can’t speak German so had an interpreter…who read the prayers, which I had chosen, and gave out the hymn. It was very well sung and the tune was the beautiful chorale, which we use in church when we sing the great passion hymn “O Scared Head Once Wounded.”  Then came the address. I had to give it sentence by sentence while the interpreter translated it, which he did extremely well as I could follow more or less, recognising every now and then a word which I knew was the right one for something I said.  They listened reverently and intently and I could watch the effect that was being produced. Those addresses are the hardest effort I have ever had to make in speaking at a religious service.”

In August 1917 rumours were circulating that some harm had befallen Frederick, so much so that he felt obliged to ask for help to disprove them.  The Gloucestershire Echo printed a little notice on 1st September:  Canon F B Macnutt, Chaplain to the Forces in France, denies rumours that he is either missing, wounded, or a prisoner of war.  

Between 1915 and 1918 Frederick served the forces as Brigade Chaplain to the 7th Brigade, Chaplain at General HQ, National Missioner to the British Expeditionary Force, Senior Chaplain of the St Omer command and as Chaplain Staff-Major on General Plumer’s staff throughout the battle of Passchendale.  On 4th January 1918 Frederick relinquished his commission and returned to civilian life.

In September 1918 Frederick addressed the congregation for the first time as their vicar.  During October he settled in at the vicarage, despite difficulties engaging painters and decorators, carpet layers etc, due to many of them being dead or still on active service – those who were still at home were suffering and sometimes dying of Spanish Flu.  Frederick wrote that his experience of studying military maps was helping him find his way around Leicester.  It was not long before Frederick was telling the congregation about his experiences at the front and warning of the necessity for change. Within a short time the war was over and Frederick was presiding at the services for peace held on 17th November.  He said “There are some things we will never forget to our lives’ end. But shall we remember the great visions of higher and better things, spiritual things, which have shone through the clouds of war? Ah! We must not, unless our dead are to have died in vain.” He urged people to vote wisely in the general election and to support with their votes “those whom we believe are really pledged to apply to the peace-conditions the lessons of the war.”

Soon the men began returning from the front, and even sooner than that Frederick was working to establish a committee to erect a war memorial at St Martin’s. The resulting East window, reredos and high altar were magnificent.  But as early as 1917, when Frederick published The Church in the Furnace: Essays by Seventeen Temporary Church of England Chaplains on Active Service in France and Flanders, written in the intervals between battles, he knew that “There are those….who have feared much for their country, and have trembled at the possibilities of disaster through the victory of the Central Powers.  They may too have felt a mild apprehension for their religion…..But the fire has not touched their churchmanship.  They hope that the coming of peace will mean more or less a return to pre-war conditions in the Church, with a few superficial changes to popularise worship for the men who come back.”  Frederick knew that the old order was ending in almost every sense.  Those churchmen who had actually spent time at the front could never again be content with returning to the old ways. He decried the contrast between the high-sounding phrases of militant hymns, ecclesiastical discussions and the flabby irresolution of plans and actions for the Kingdom of God, when compared with the un-selfconscious heroism of the ordinary fighting man, who talked “little about their ideals and so gloriously fulfill them.” He spent the rest of his career at St Martin’s and elsewhere, working with tremendous energy to engage and inspire people through exceptional care and attention to liturgical detail and beauty.