Australians on the Western Front: Accounts reveal the spirit of the battlefield

HIGHER POWER: 20th Battalion chaplain Captain Robert Crawford, from Toowong, Queensland, conducting a burial service near Péronne on August 31, 1918. Picture: AWM E03092
HIGHER POWER: 20th Battalion chaplain Captain Robert Crawford, from Toowong, Queensland, conducting a burial service near Péronne on August 31, 1918. Picture: AWM E03092

A new study of letters and diaries of 1000 First World War soldiers has challenged long-held wisdom about the secular nature of the Australian Imperial Force.

Author Daniel Reynaud says the writings of more than a third of the soldiers studied show evidence of spirituality.

He says: “I chose a definition of spirituality as anything to do with matters of the human spirit seeking higher purpose – removing it from the narrow confines of religion with all its controversies and doctrinal implications.”

In Anzac Spirituality, Reynaud writes that despite the Anzac legend acquiring “a powerful national spiritual significance”, the spirituality of the actual soldiers has been “glossed over.”

“A significant miniority … took their faith seriously; contrary to popular opinion, Australians were not reticent in expressing opinions on spiritual matters.”

Reynaud’s sample size was similar to the seminal 1974 study by historian Bill Gammage, who concluded in The Broken Years that the average Australian soldier was not religious.  

Dr Gammage said the average soldier avoided church parades and distrusted chaplains – though there were exceptional chaplains. “Most Australians found little in war to prompt consideration of a higher divinity.”

Reynaud, an Associate Professor at Avondale College of Higher Education in NSW, offers soldiers’ quotes about compulsory church parades, personal spirituality, religion and war, sectarianism, beliefs, ethics and the effectiveness of chaplains.

He says: “You find everything. You find people whose faith was affirmed. People who say war is evil but it is necessary to fight a bigger evil. People whose faith was negatively impacted.”

Letters from 34th Battalion Sergeant John Baillie to his Maitland girlfriend Nell tracked his increasing disillusionment with religion. “I don’t want you to think I am a thorough heathen for I am not … but ‘religion as she is seen’ has a lot to answer for.”

Reynaud says he found dual international rugby champion and stretcher bearer Tom Richards ‘endlessly fascinating.’  “He exhibits a spiritual wrestling that makes him intriguing. He is not a bad match for a lot of Anzacs because I think a lot weren’t contemptuous of religion but they weren’t entirely comfortable in it.”

Some believed God was on their side. Lieutenant Eric Chinner, a Baptist from Peterborough, SA, wrote: “Were it not for the fact that I know He is on the side of the Allies I would not be able to fight.”

Perth’s Father John Fahey, wrote that the impression that Australians were not religious was based on “superficial acquaintance with the Australian character.”