Why did you write about Army chaplains in World War I, and those from the Yankee Division in particular?
This is my fourth book about the 26th Division, a National Guard division, which was nicknamed the “Yankee Division.” When it was formed during the summer of 1917, its ranks were filled almost exclusively with men from New England, hence the name (my paternal grandfather was one of them). In doing research for my previous books, I kept coming across references to the names of individual chaplains and their close connection to the men they served, whether in combat, or in passing out cigarettes, or, sadly, in burial details. The references were always positive, and the letters home by the soldiers invariably told of their regimental chaplain’s bravery and compassion. Other than as a passing reference, the limitations of the previous manuscripts always prevented me from telling the whole story. However, that may well have been the best thing in the end, since these brave and humble men now get a book all to themselves.
Why is it important to tell the story of the Army chaplain in the First World War?
Chaplains have served with American armed forces from the time of the first militias in colonial days. However, up to World War I their role was only loosely defined. In fact, they were often referred to as “handy men,” responsible for recreation, or the post school, morale, or whatever the regimental commander wanted them to do. During World War I, the Army established a Chaplain School to give uniform instruction and physical training to chaplains. The first school was established at Fort Monroe, Virginia, but was soon transferred to Camp Zachary Taylor, Kentucky. Another school was established in France close to AEF Headquarters, and it was designed to polish the skills of the men already in France, or those who had completed their training in the States. Army chaplains were also given a uniform and the rank of 1st lieutenant. Some more experienced ones were promoted to captain, and one or two to major. The lessons learned during the war were instrumental in the establishment of the Army Chaplain Corps, with a full colonel in command. The Army Chaplain School is now located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Army chaplains are now a fully integrated and respected part of the military, with both men and women in its ranks, serving all major faiths.
What did you learn about the service of these men during World War I?
Many chaplains were no older than the men they served (some fresh out of divinity school), yet they almost always referred to the soldiers as "my boys." Many of the older ones were used to prepared sermons and routine parish duties, but for all chaplains, the battlefield was their parish, and sermons were often extemporaneous and preached in the open air or deep in a dark underground bunker. They went everywhere with the doughboys, and shared the same hardships and terrors, which even they often found difficult to explain to themselves, yet they were there to lend an ear, offer comfort, and when necessary to see to a decent burial. I like to think of them as men of the cloth, but salt of the earth.
Did all American chaplains serve in the U. S. Army during World War I?
The short answer is, no. There were simply not enough Army chaplains to begin with. The goal was to have one chaplain for every 1,200 men, and beginning in March 1918, the Army Chaplain School was only graduating about 150 new chaplains per month. Given the rapid build-up of men to nearly 2,000,000 in France alone, it is easy to see that there was a large shortfall. All told, about 2,500 men served as Army chaplains during World War I. The Chief Chaplain for the AEF, Bishop Charles Brent, looked to the various service organizations to fill the gap. These included the YMCA, the Knights of Columbus, and the Jewish Welfare Board. He referred to these organizations as the “saving element.” These men had the added advantage of being able to make available to the soldiers amenities like cigarettes, candy, soap, and writing materials, free or at a small cost, through the auspices of the organizations that sponsored them. Many of these volunteers were already clergymen, and by the end of the war, some, but not all, would receive commissions as 1st lieutenants. Also, since there were not enough chaplains to serve all faiths, the chaplains exhibited a remarkable degree of cooperation and ecumenical spirit. For example, if a particular unit had a Protestant chaplain, but had a large number of Catholic men in its ranks, the Protestant chaplain saw to it that a Catholic chaplain was available to hear confessions and to offer Mass on Sunday. For many, this newfound spirit of ecumenism was carried home with them and played a prominent part in their later ministries. The situation with Jewish chaplains was altogether different. Whether due to a latent institutional bias or just plain shortsightedness, there were never enough slots allocated for them, and it was mostly through the efforts of “acting rabbis” among the rank and file, that the Jewish soldiers' needs were addressed. It was only late in the war that this need gained traction. The Yankee Division itself had only one Jewish chaplain, and he arrived at division headquarters just after the Armistice.
Michael E. Shay is also the editor of A Civilian in Lawton's 1899 Philippine Campaign: The Letters of Robert D. Carter and the author of Revered Commander, Maligned General: The Life of Clarence Ransom Edwards, 1859-1931, both available from the University of Missouri Press.