The Chaplain VCs of the Great War

The Army Chaplains Department had been in existence for some 120 years when the Great War started in the summer of 1914.

Initially comprising only Church of England men, over the years it had evolved to encompass Roman Catholic, Wesleyan, Jewish and other smaller denominations by the beginning of the 20th century.

In August of 1914 when the British Expeditionary Force sailed for France the department was still only small comprising just over 100 commissioned chaplains so there was no difficulty in providing the 65 required by the original expeditionary force. Incredibly by the war's end just over four years later close on 3500 had served in all the theatres of war ministering to the needs of the men and women serving their country overseas.

Figures vary but it is generally accepted that between 170 and 180 of these men paid the ultimate sacrifice and died or were killed in action serving God and their country whilst in the front line with the troops which is where many preferred to be.

A quote from an unknown padre sums up the attitude of many,

"If the men can't go to church then the church must go to the men"

It must be remembered that in their pockets would only be a Bible, Prayer Book and probably sweets and cigarettes "for the boys." They only had their faith to protect them, not rifle or revolver.

The "Padres" or "Sky Pilots" as they were affectionately known by the Tommies, were however respected and appreciated for the role that they played in the grim realities of life on the Western Front and in other theatres.

This quote from a soldier of the 1st Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters;

"The padres, what decent fellows they were, as we knelt in the fields or farmyards on a Sunday to listen to them speak. They were good fellows, many of them fell in France while telling Tommy a few lines from the good book. In my experience some of the best were the padres."

Indeed some were the best and many men of the Chaplains Department were decorated during the Great War with Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross awards amongst their number.

The Victoria Cross which is the highest decoration that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, "For most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy," was awarded to three men of the Army Chaplains Department during the first world war and this is my attempt to briefly tell the stories of these three exceptional people, the Chaplain VCs.

The Reverend Edward Noel Mellish VC, MC.

Picture from cigarette card courtesy of Martin Hornby

Captain Mellish was the first member of the army chaplaincy to win the VC.

Edward Noel Mellish was born on Christmas Eve 1880 at Oakleigh Park, Barnet, North London, the son of Edward and Mary Mellish.

He was educated at Saffron Walden Grammar School and on completing his studies was to become a member of the Artists Rifles which stood him in good stead for the future as in 1900 aged 20 he went to South Africa and served with Baden-Powell's police against the Boers.

One who served with him at this time described him as the bravest man he knew;

"On one occasion his unit being surrounded by Boers there seemed little hope for them. Edward Mellish was given the task of summoning help. Somehow he got through but then with his duty done he returned to his comrades to tell them help was on the way and to assist with the defence until reinforcements arrived".

After the war he returned to England for a while only to return to South Africa to take up a post in the diamond mines at Jagersfontein.

During his time there he assisted at a local church and native mission where he would read the lessons and also minister to the sick and needy. He made a great impression on the local populace, one of whom was to remark;

"It is such men as Mr Mellish who restore one's faith in mankind."

Feeling that his work in Africa was over Edward Mellish returned to England to study at Kings College London taking holy orders in 1912 to become curate at St Pauls Church in Deptford. Here he did great work with the Church Lads Brigade taking over an old public house behind the Empire Music Hall and turning it into a boys club. The youngsters insisted on naming it after their curate and it became known as the Noel Club.

When the war broke out Edward Mellish had no hesitation in offering his services to the chaplaincy and was to serve from May 1915 until February 1919.

Tragedy was to befall him however when on September 25th of 1915 his brother 2nd Lieutenant Richard Coppin Mellish was killed in action whilst serving with the 1st Middlesex Regiment at the Battle of Loos.

Early 1916 found the Reverend Mellish attached to the 4th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers who at that time were serving in the notorious Ypres Salient.

The "Action of the St Eloi Craters" went on from late March until mid April 1916 but it was to be the first three days of this action that were to bring the award of the Victoria Cross to Edward Mellish.

The object of this operation was to cut away a German salient that encroached on the British lines over a front of about six hundred yards.

Tunnelling companies had prepared six mines which were blown in the early hours of March 27th. Following this at 4-15am the 4th Royal Fusiliers with the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and some Canadian units went over the top to come up against withering rifle, machine gun and artillery fire from the Jaeger regiment manning the enemy trenches.

Despite the opposition the attackers did manage to take the German first line trench but then had to consolidate, so weakened were they by the ferocity of the opposition.

Artillery duels then commenced which went on for several days. Eventually the beleaguered British units were relieved, yet local attacks went on in the area until the middle of May.

It was however the three day period of 27th - 29th March which would see the Reverend Mellish move into the annals of the Victoria Cross.

On the first day he brought in ten badly wounded men from ground that was literally swept by enemy machine gun fire.

By the second day the Royal Fusiliers had been relieved but undeterred out he went again to bring in twelve more men and on the evening of the third day he took charge of a party of volunteers who went out again to rescue any remaining wounded they could find.

The following is a quote from a letter by an officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers who had witnessed these actions.

"Nothing could be finer than the way Captain Mellish did his duty and more than his duty during the time he was near us. Immediately the troops captured the trenches and while the wounded were picking their way painfully back, the enemy's guns were turned on full blast and the intervening ground was deluged with shell and machine gun fire. Into this tempest of fire the brave Parson walked, a prayer book under his arm as though on church parade in peace time.

He reached the first of the wounded and knelt down to do what he could for them. The first few he brought in himself without any aid and it made us think a bit more of parsons to see how he walked quietly under fire assisting the slow moving wounded and thinking more of saving them from discomfort than of his own safety.

It was only during a lull in the fighting when the ambulance parties could get out that he finally took a rest.

Next day he was out again unconcerned as ever. Some of the men would not have survived the ordeal had it not been for the prompt assistance rendered to them by Mr Mellish."

Another story worth relating is that of a cockney soldier who was one of those brought in by the padre. This man was well known for his anti religious views yet when settled in a base hospital after the fighting enquired,

"What religion is 'e".? When told he replied,

"Well I'm the same as 'im now and the bloke as sez a word agen our church will 'ave 'is ****** 'ead bashed in.

His Victoria Cross was gazetted on April 20th 1916 and he returned to London for the presentation of his award by the King on June 12th 1916 at Buckingham Palace.

The Reverend Mellish continued to minister to the troops' needs until the war's end in November of 1918 and just three weeks after this he married Miss Elizabeth Wallace on December 3rd at his home church of St Pauls in Deptford.

Finally leaving the Army Chaplains Department in February of 1919 Edward Mellish with his wife took over as vicar of St Marks church in Lewisham.

The post war years saw him continue with his ministry although he did take time to attend the afternoon party given by the King for recipients of the VC held at Buckingham Palace on June 26th 1920. He was also present at the VC reunion dinner given by the Prince of Wales on November 9th 1929 at the House of Lords.

During WW2 although by now in his 60's Edward Mellish saw service again as an air raid warden.

On June 26th 1956 he was received by HM the Queen at the review of VC holders held in Hyde Park.

His final years were spent in quiet retirement in Somerset where he passed away on July 8th 1962 in the village of South Petherton at the age of 82.

His funeral service was held at Weymouth Crematorium.

The Victoria Cross of this remarkable man can be seen today at the Royal Fusiliers Museum in the Tower of London.

The Reverend William Robert Fountains Addison VC, Order of St George, Russia.

The second chaplain of the Great War to be awarded the Victoria Cross, William Addison was to enter the records of the award in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, in April of 1916.

He was born on September 16th 1883 at Cranbrook in Kent, the son of Mr W G and Mrs Alice Addison. He was educated at Salisbury Theological College and in his younger years must have had a wanderlust to his character as it was reported that he had worked in a Canadian lumber camp, an experience that stood him in good stead for his forthcoming role with the army chaplaincy in his ministry with the desert troops.

William Addison was ordained in 1913 and became curate of St Edmunds in Salisbury.

The onset of war saw his offer for service taken up by the chaplains department and through this he came to be posted to Mesopotamia with the 13th division in February of 1916. The division was sent to this area to provide reinforcements for the force at the time attempting to relieve the troops besieged and cut off at Kut-al-Amara.

To achieve this relief, strong Turkish positions along the eastern bank of the river Tigris would need to be overcome.

So it was as part of these larger operations that the 13th division found themselves facing three well equipped Turkish trench lines in the blackness of the early hours of April 9th 1916.

Suddenly the troops found themselves illuminated by the light of Turkish flares but it was too late now and the attack went ahead. Rifle and machine gun fire ploughed into the attacking waves and very few men reached the Turkish lines.

The 13th division lost nearly five hundred men killed and close on one thousand wounded in this action.

It was all over very quickly and as the troops had advanced to their fate the Reverend Addison had been following up encouraging and assisting the medical teams and stretcher bearers. A digest of his Victoria Cross citation reads,

"On April 9th 1916 at Sanna-i-Yat Mesopotamia, the Reverend William Addison carried a wounded man to the cover of a trench and helped several others to the same cover after binding up their wounds under heavy rifle and machine gun fire.

In addition to these unaided efforts his splendid example and utter disregard of personal danger encouraged the stretcher bearers to go forward under heavy fire and collect the wounded."

His Victoria Cross was gazetted on September 26th 1916 and yet it was almost a year later before the presentation by the King took place at Buckingham Palace on August 3rd 1917. William Addison would later also be awarded the Order of St George-Russia.

He married Miss Marjorie Wallis of Caterham at Christ Church Brighton and after the war decided to remain with the Army Chaplains Department rather than resume parochial duties.

He attended the garden party given by the King for VC winners on June 26th 1920 and on November 11th of that year was privileged to be part of the VC Guard of Honour for the internment of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey. He was also present at the VC reunion dinner held in the House of Lords in November of 1929.

Continuing with his role with the army chaplains he rose through the ranks to become senior chaplain to the forces in the late 1930s and between 1939 and 1942 he was Deputy Assistant Chaplain through the early second war years.

In 1956 William Addison was present with Edward Mellish as the Queen held her review of VC holders in Hyde Park.

His final years were spent on the south coast where he died on January 7th 1962 at St Leonards on Sea aged 79.

William Robert Fountains Addison is buried in Brookwood Cemetery at Woking in Surrey.

The National Army Museum in Chelsea, hold the Victoria Cross for this very brave "reverend gentleman".

The Reverend Theodore Bayley Hardy VC, DSO, MC.
[Image] The final Chaplain VC is perhaps the most well known of this illustrious trio being generally recognised as the most decorated non combatant of the Great War. There is some debate in certain quarters regarding this "title" due to conflicting views as to what constitutes a non combatant. Theodore Hardy is recognised by the Army Chaplains Department however to hold this honour.

He was born on October 20th 1863 at Southernhay, Exeter, the son of George and Sarah Richardson Hardy and was educated at the City of London School and then London University. It was during his time at university that on September 13th 1888 he married Miss Florence Elizabeth Hastings, the daughter of a prominent civil engineer, the wedding taking place in her home city of Belfast.

One year later Theodore Hardy was awarded his Bachelor of Arts by London University.

Mr and Mrs Hardy would go on to have two children, a son and a daughter.

William Hastings Hardy would follow his father into Great War service with the RAMC, whilst his sister Mary Elizabeth served with the Red Cross in France.

Always a religious man, Theodore Hardy took the ultimate step for his faith in 1898 when he was ordained a deacon in the diocese of Southwell.

He served as a master at Nottingham High School and also held the curacy at St Helens Church, Burton Joyce with Bulcoate and at St Augustines in New Basford.

He was then appointed head of Bentham Grammar School, a post which he held until 1913. Not being in the best of health, when a position became available he moved to the parish of Hutton Roof in Cumbria where it was hoped the Lakeland air would be beneficial to him.

Theodore Hardy was ministering at Hutton Roof when the war began and despite his health was determined to serve at the front. Initially being refused as it was felt that there were plenty of younger clergymen available he even took a first aid course with a view to volunteering as a stretcher bearer so determined was he to serve.

He persevered with his badgering of the authorities and eventually he got his wish and was posted to serve as chaplain at the Etaples base in mid 1916.

Etaples was a huge training camp and hospital centre but as far as the Reverend Hardy was concerned it had one big drawback, it was on the French channel coast near to Le Touquet and far from the trench lines where he longed to be.

Another few months of pestering the authorities finally brought him success when in December of 1916 he was posted to the 8th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment who were in the Vieille Chapelle area at the time.

The year of 1917 dawned and quite a year it would turn out to be for the Reverend Hardy. He had soon endeared himself to the men with his insistence on being with them in the front line whenever possible. On the darkest of nights the familiar voice would be heard "Don't worry boys, it's only me" as he moved around offering advice, support and as with most of the chaplains cigarettes and sweets to see them through the long stressful hours.

The summer of 1917 saw the launch of the 3rd Ypres campaign or the Battle of Passchendaele as it is now normally known and the Reverend Hardy with the 8th Lincolns were to see action throughout this offensive.

In September of 1917 he was awarded his first decoration, the Distinguished Service Order for his actions in the field, the citation reading,

"For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. He went out into the open to help bring in wounded. On discovering a man buried in mud whom it was impossible to extricate he remained under fire ministering to his spiritual and bodily comforts until the man died".

Just over a month later in October he was decorated again, this time with the Military Cross,

"For repeatedly going out under heavy fire to help the stretcher bearers during an attack."

As was said earlier 1917 was quite a year for the Reverend Hardy yet greater valiant acts were to follow.

The spring of 1918 found the Lincolns on the old Somme battlefield and in the month of April they were deployed near Bucquoy to the east of Gommecourt.

For three very brave and selfless actions carried out on the 5th, 25th and 27th of April the Reverend Hardy would be awarded the highest honour, the Victoria Cross.

On the first occasion he followed a patrol out who were to attack an enemy post in a ruined village. He came across an officer of the patrol who was badly wounded and despite tremendous enemy fire he stayed with the man until he managed to get assistance and bring him in.

His second experience came after one of the battalions posts had been shelled, burying the occupants. The Reverend Hardy again under shell fire set about digging the men out of the rubble, managing to save one, the other was sadly dead before he could be rescued.

His final valiant deed of this incredible month came after the battalion had launched an attack on a wood, which at first was successful but they were eventually pushed back. The Padre was last man out of the wood and on reaching an advanced post got the sergeant to go back with him to bring in a wounded man. This they managed to do despite the fact that the man was too weak to stand and they were under enemy fire for the whole time.

Three tremendous deeds of gallantry yet when he heard of his VC nomination his reaction was typical of the man, "I really must protest".

His Victoria Cross was gazetted on July 18th 1918 and the medal was presented to him, by the King, at Frohen-le-Grand on August 9th of that year.

So impressed with Mr Hardy was the King that on September 17th he was appointed Chaplain to His Majesty. The King hoped that he would be able to prise the Reverend Hardy away from the dangers of the frontline but even at over fifty years of age he refused all offers to leave "the boys".

Late 1918 finally found the Germans being pushed back and by early October the 8th Lincolns were approaching the river Selle. They managed to establish a crossing and in the darkness of October 10th the familiar voice of the chaplain could be heard moving through the ranks.

Suddenly a burst of machine gun fire shattered the night air and the cry went up for stretcher bearers. The chaplain was hit but at first it was considered not too serious and he was taken to hospital in Rouen. Sadly his condition worsened and the gallant padre passed away on October 18th at the age of fifty five.

Theodore Bayley Hardy was laid to rest in St Sever cemetery in Rouen. A short memorial service was conducted by the Reverend Hales, the corps chaplain and the service was well attended by officers and men of all units who the Reverend Hardy had come into contact with.

An extract from a letter written to the family from Colonel Hitch of the 8th Lincolns contains the following lines.

"What his loss meant to us is more than I can express, but his name will always be recalled with reverence and to those of us who knew him intimately. A great blank has appeared in our daily lives, though thank God we shall meet him again under happier surroundings".

Mr Hardy's daughter Mary Elizabeth also received a telegram from the King,

"The King is deeply grieved to hear of the death from wounds of your dear father whose bravery and self sacrifice had won for him the love and respect of all who served with him. His Majesty heartily sympathises with you and yours in your sorrow."

Apart from his grave at St Sever, memorials to Theodore Bayley Hardy can be seen at Carlisle Cathedral and in his old church at Hutton Roof in Cumbria.

His Victoria Cross can be seen in the Royal Army Chaplains Department museum in Surrey.

So these have been the stories of the Reverends Hardy, Mellish and Addison, all men of God and all more concerned with the care and well being of others than with their own needs. An outstanding example to us all I am sure you will agree.

Valiant selfless men were "The Chaplain VC's."

The author wishes to thank:

Royal Army Chaplains Dept Museum.
Amport House
Near Andover

Bob Coulson died at home in November, 2008.  I am very grateful to Bob's wife for her permission to keep his three articles on my site - Tom Morgan

Copyright © Bob Coulson, August 2003

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