The Diocese of Sydney and the Great War

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The conflict often described as The Great War or The War to End All Wars had a profound impact on Australian society and culture. Over 60 000 service personnel had died by the declared end of the conflict. As well, a further 160 000 suffered some sort of physical wound, not to mention those who bore ongoing emotional and psychological scars because of their war service. In a small nation, with a population of just under five million in 1914, a primary experience of the war for Australian families and communities was that of loss and grief. The historian Jay Winter writes, …it is not an exaggeration to suggest that every family was in mourning: most for a relative – a father, a son, a brother, a husband – others for a friend, a colleague, a lover, a companion.[1] Ken Inglis, an Australian historian, estimates at least one in two families were directly affected, many others indirectly.[2] Given the scale and impact of the conflict how did the Anglican Diocese of Sydney respond to the conflict and what was the nature of its ministry during the war years?

In Sydney, Archbishop Wright was a very strong supporter of the war effort and urged clergy to be active in encouraging men to enlist: “We teach the solemn call of duty as the Voice of God.”[3] Sydney Anglican clergy were no different to most other Protestant ministers in promoting the call of national duty for eligible young men. However, Professor Robert Linder believes that the mainline Protestant churches erred in promoting the war effort so vigorously because, when disillusionment with the hope of the conflict being a war to end all wars began to grow in the 1920s and 1930s, this impacted negatively on the churches.[4]

Many Anglican laymen joined the Australian Imperial Force or Australian Navy as is evidenced by the large number of names on Roll of Honour boards in parish churches around the Diocese.[5] Numbers of clergy volunteered to work as military chaplains but with the number of applicants being far greater than the positions available many clergy were unable to serve in this way. For some of them their keen desire to serve for the sake of the cause meant that they relinquished clerical positions and enlisted as servicemen.

During the war the ministry of the Diocese was focused on both the home front and military operations overseas. As well as providing physical comforts such as coffee canteens and entertainment venues to troops stationed in the growing military camps, the Anglican Diocese of Sydney worked hard to get Bibles, Testaments and Prayer Books into the hands of all soldiers, believing that this would aid their spiritual wellbeing. During the war Archbishop Wright sought to ensure that all soldiers leaving Australia from Sydney received a New Testament and/or a Prayer Book. By doing this the Archbishop claimed the Church is showing to the men that their Church does care for them, and is prepared to do all in her power for their spiritual and social welfare.[6] The diocesan magazine discloses the effort that went into this venture. The March 1916 edition of the Sydney Diocesan Magazine related how 5 000 Testaments have been given the men (at Liverpool Camp in Sydney) and a large number of Prayer Books.[7] The October issue of the magazine reproduced a letter from Reverend A. Stoddart who said on board ship to Egypt he gave out 500 Testaments containing a promise in duplicate to play the part of a Christian, the duplicates being forwarded to Sydney to be forwarded to the various addresses given.[8] The January 1917 issue informed readers that the Home Mission Society has just cabled an order to England for four thousand Prayer Books for the soldiers.[9]

Robert Linder believes the emphasis secular historians have placed upon the larrikin attitude of Australian troops has overlooked another dimension – a spiritual hunger among troops.[10] In 1916, the Anglican Home Mission Society in Sydney had sent Rev. A. Stoddard to England to work with the wounded in the hospitals. In a 1917 report to the diocesan magazine a correspondent wrote that,

One practical thing he (Stoddard) does is he gets soldiers to fill out a card with name, address, state of health, and the person in Australia for who the card is intended…thousands of these cards forwarded to Australia where they are sent on to the various addresses. Many are the letters …received from mothers, wives and friends expressing heartfelt thanks for the cards. In some instances they were the only news relatives had received from some of their boys.[11]

The October 1917 issue of the Diocesan Magazine printed excerpts from the letters of two chaplains at the front:

All the church parades are voluntary, and the men attend in very large numbers. My trouble is; that I have not nearly enough service books for them all…the fact that the men have often been out half the night, and you will see that it requires no small effort to make a Church Parade a success…We had a grand Communion service on Easter Sunday. It was held in an old tumbledown place, ankle deep in mud; that did duty as a sergeants mess. It was just simply packed with men, many could not get in.[12]

Chaplain Richmond wrote, Somehow here where men are living on the brink of eternity, men are ready to turn to higher things …beginning to prepare another body of men for confirmation. They are coming forward very readily.[13]

The Diocese was also active at home to succour the soldiers and their families. Here again, the Sydney Diocesan Magazine provides insights into the activity of the Church of England, which was mirrored by the other denominations. At the Army camps in Sydney the Home Mission Society established Soldiers Clubs, which were halls used for services, entertainment, and as meeting places for the troops where they could write letters and socialize.[14] Entertainment was also organized for soldiers wives and children. The January 1917 edition described how toys were distributed to four thousand children, of whom about one thousand were children of our soldiers, who with their mothers were regaled at special gatherings arranged for them.[15] In the report of another event in the same month attention was drawn in the article to one young, unnamed woman with a babe in arms, and by her side a little girl of five, and a little chap of three , when she attended the function. Readers were reminded of the tragic circumstances of some attendees when they were informed that the young woman’s husband had been killed in action just a month before.[16] The report concluded that the Mission Zone workers were privileged to do some little thing for the wives and children of our heroes.[17]

In dealing with those bereaved because of the war, Sydney Anglican clergy had an important, but often difficult, part to play. Early in the war denominational leaders had agreed to have clergy deliver telegrams informing next-of-kin of the death of a soldier. This was a well-intentioned policy designed to enable clergy to comfort relatives when the sad news arrived. Archbishop Wright explained that while it was a “heavy duty” for clergy, “they know they can help to soften the blow by the administration of God’s word.”[18] However, it often had the result of turning clergy into virtual social pariahs, as the Archbishop acknowledged: “the pity is that anxious friends are dreading the sight of a clergyman at their door lest he be the messenger of bad tidings.”[19] Given the level of casualties that the Australians suffered in the war, clergy found that this duty occurred all too frequently, and made any ministry of consolation very difficult. Nevertheless, in spite of this obvious problem regarding the delivery of telegrams, it meant clergy were not only aware of grieving families but were given the opportunity to minister to next-of-kin as they received the tragic news.

In the absence of bodies for funerals, churches often conducted memorial services that allowed a family to share its loss with community and friends in a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for the deceased soldier. For example, a memorial service for Corporal Holles Dawes of the 45th Battalion was held at Dapto in August 1917.[20] Such a large number of people attended the memorial service that the venue was changed to the larger Agricultural Hall.[21] Dawes had been killed at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917. After the war his parents chose a hopeful epitaph for his headstone: TILL WE MEET AGAIN. It looks forward to a heavenly reunion of the family with their soldier, an indication that their Christian belief about eternal life consoled them in their grief.

Churches also organized other kinds of memorial services. The anniversary of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli witnessed commemorative services in numbers of churches. The Sydney Diocesan Magazine reported that two services were held on 25 April 1917: “the fallen were commemorated at Holy Communion celebrated at 10.00 a.m.”, followed by the official service held at noon with a “vast congregation, packed tight into every square foot of available space, overflowing outside every door…displayed its realization of the protecting hand of almighty God, the transitoriness of human existence, and the unchanging eternity of God’s existence.”[22] The service was unmistakably Christian and was attended by government and community leaders. The issues of the diocesan magazine during the war list a number of memorial services held on the anniversaries of key battles. One such service was held on 6 August 1916 when the anniversary of Lone Pine and Suvla Bay operations were commemorated by special services at the cathedral, with members of the newly formed Returned Servicemen’s Association parading. The magazine reported, “…many hundreds were unable to gain admission to the cathedral.”[23]

Thus the involvement of the Diocese of Sydney at the community and family/individual level during the First World War was significant. Numerous accounts in the Sydney Diocesan Magazine readily demonstrated both the desire to share the great news of the gospel with soldiers at home and abroad, and to care for the spiritual, emotional and physical needs not only of those on active service but of their loved ones waiting back in Australia.

Colin Bale

Colin Bale is Moore’s Vice Principal-elect & Academic Dean, he lectures in Church History and Ministry.


[1] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 2.

[2] Ken Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Carlton South: Melbourne University Press, 1998), p. 97.

[3] Australian Church Record, 2 July 1915, p. 2.

[4] Robert Linder, The Long Tragedy: Australian Evangelical Christians and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Adelaide: Open Book, 2000), p. 160.

[5] Over 2 000 women served with the Australian Army Nursing Service and many more with other nursing organisations or as volunteers with the Red Cross.

[6] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1 February 1917, p. 17.

[7] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1 March 1916, p. 10.

[8] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 10, 1 October 1916, p. 7.

[9] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1 January 1917, p. 10.

[10] Linder, The Long Tragedy, p. 46.

[11] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1 January 1917, p. 10.

[12] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 10, 1 October 1917, p. 6.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1 February 1917, p. 16.

[15] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1 February 1917, p. 8.

[16] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1 January 1917, p. 11.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 9, 1 September 1915, p. 4.

[19] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 9, 1 September 1915, p. 4.

[20] Linder, The Long Tragedy, p. 101.

[21] South Coast Times, 10 August 1917, p. 4.

[22] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 5, 1 May 1917, pp. 5-6.

[23] Sydney Diocesan Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 9, 1 September 1916, p. 9.

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