Throughout the war, the St Martin’s parish magazine continued to be published each month. It contained a letter from the vicar (Francis Nugee until 1918, Frederick Macnutt from 1918), parish news and events and updates on various fundraising efforts. These have proved an invaluable resource in understanding how St Martin’s responded to the crisis of war. Not a single reference was made to a serving member of the armed forces or medical services, apart from a short series of letters written from the front contributed by the vicar’s son, and a brief message from the vicar written when two of his sons were wounded, one seriously. Not a single death of any person killed in action was recorded. However, sympathies were frequently expressed for the widows and long obituaries published of old men who died peacefully in their beds. In 1917 alone eleven men from the St Martin’s community were killed, but no sympathies were publicly expressed. There were obituaries for former churchwardens and choir members but no mention of the young men who died before their time. In October 1915 the verger’s change of address was reported – but not the death of his 18 year old son three months earlier. This seems strangely callous to modern readers.
Nugee was strongly of the opinion that he alone understood the seriousness of the war and he used the parish magazine to expand on this subject in most issues. In 1915 he wrote “We English in Leicester do not seem able to take [the loss of life] seriously…it will be entirely owing to the good providence of God if any of these young lives come out unscathed from the terrible ordeal which undoubtedly lies before them, as soon as more troops can move in the spring.” However, Nugee did not have much respect for the young people of the day, describing them as wayward and lacking in fixed principle. He felt that the people of Leicester – including his own parishioners – were frivolous. The idea of any fun taking place during the war, or any unnecessary expenditure which could have been spent on the war effort, was unthinkable. Even wearing jewellery was inappropriate. Nugee reluctantly allowed a handful of parish social events to take place during the war but with very passive aggressive bad grace and only on the understanding that there was to be no jolly atmosphere.
During 1914 and early in 1915 Nugee’s tone was distinctly jingoistic, with a world view that could only emanate from a Victorian. Nugee was an unquestioning member of the establishment. War against the Germans was justified and right. It was Christian. There was a moral purpose behind it all, which God would make clear. He made a number of – to modern ears – repulsive statements urging people to go on making weapons and equipment on Good Friday:
“The great causes and virtues which have uplifted and freed millions of human beings of every race, wherever on this globe the Union Jack has waved, and make them thank God for British rule and British Empire. Are we going to allow this beneficent power to pass into other hands, which have already given deadly proof of the uses to which they will most certainly put it? No…let war work go on on Good Friday and those who have to do it must take with them the thought of our Lord, and be sure that…they share in His Cross and merit His Blessing.”
“England is fighting for its existence – would that all the callous and indifferent ones could be so shaken up that this truth could be forced into their inmost souls – and the urgent and necessary work of providing for the needs of the army and navy must go on without cessation. Our Lord Himself, true patriot that He was, would be the first to say so, even on the day of His death.”
Nugee’s response to the war changed somewhat in September 1915, when he visited his eldest son Francis at No. 3 General Hospital at Le Tréport, near Dieppe. Two of his three sons were wounded at this time: Andrew was burnt with a flame thrower and Francis suffered shrapnel wounds. Nugee wrote to his parishioners with typical stiff upper lip that Francis was “perfectly happy and well on the way to recovery.” Andrew was very seriously wounded and blinded in both eyes.
After 1915 Nugee seemed to lose some of his former enthusiasm for the war. However he still firmly believed that it was each man’s duty to enlist. “We simply do not deserve to win unless all able bodied men and women are willing and anxious to do their parts.” Of those who were conscripted rather than volunteered he said “They held back until compelled to go. I daresay they knew in their own minds that they were weaklings.”
He was critical of the response of the Church, questioning whether lack of attendance at ordinary services as opposed to military services, memorials to the fallen and street processions was the fault of the people, the Church or both. He was harsh and had no obvious compassion for anyone, even towards those who had lost loved ones and struggled with difficult questions of faith and God in wartime: “The Christianity of many is being put to test by the war, and to some it has been brought home by bitter sorrow that they have no firm hold on the ‘Sure Foundation.’ A son is struck down, or a husband, or father, or brother, and at once they realise that their religion has nothing solid about it…their faith, such as it was, fails them, and they turn to blame God because He is not the God of their own imagination.” It is difficult to imagine anyone turning to their vicar for comfort when he could write, in December 1917, that “Many will have passed through the grave and gate of death, but if their relations mourn for them in the right spirit, Christmas Day is a help and not an additional discouragement.” None of his own sons died in the fighting.
Nugee led St Martin’s in its fundraising efforts, but spent much of his time attending other committees, which was a cause of frustration. He stopped general parish visiting but continued to visit the sick. The war generated extra administration such as insurance against zeppelin raids. The church received a smaller income during the war, which angered Nugee as he saw that Leicester was booming. He became more and more frustrated as the war progressed, and it appears from his writings that he became increasingly tired, worn out and disconnected from the community of St Martin’s and people in general. In August 1916 he was advised by his doctor to take a holiday in Bournemouth. On his return he saw no hypocrisy in berating those people he saw there who were, like himself, enjoying Bournemouth, even those who may have been on leave from active service or essential war work: “There appear to be too many young men of military age about….there are others who have no such claim to well merited rest, and who are still managing to live the old selfish life in the midst of their country’s need.”
It was Nugee’s declining health that ultimately led him to resign his position as vicar of St Martin’s and accept instead the living of Shangton, a quiet rural parish where he lived out his days from August 1918. The congregation saw him off with a presentation of gifts and many speeches. Ultimately Nugee was a man of his time. His views on the war were similar to many clergy and members of the establishment and his lack of demonstrated compassion towards people who he viewed as weak or lacking in morality, faith and courage was symptomatic of his entire world view.