Film and Book Reviews

Inspiring stories of chaplains in war and peace

BOOKSAnyone interested in Australian military history, and in the interplay between faith and theology, and the army, in both times of peace and war, will find this book invaluable, writes Bradly Billings.

September 18 2015The Australian Army Chaplain’s Department (which attained the prefix “Royal” in 1948) is one of the oldest departments in the Australian armed forces, being established in 1913, not long after the army itself and just before the commencement of the First World War (in 1914). Military chaplaincy in Australia extends even further back in time, all the way back to the arrival of the Revd Richard Johnson with the First Fleet in 1788. Despite this long history, a comprehensive history of army chaplaincy in Australia, reaching back into the colonial period, and extending from the First World War (1914-1918) through to the various conflicts of the 20th century and early 21st century, has awaited publication of this volume.

Michael Gladwin is lecturer in both history and theology at Charles Sturt University, and combines those two areas of study masterfully in telling the myriad of stories of individual chaplains and their efforts to minister to the men and women of the Australian army over the course of the past century and more, in a compelling and highly readable way, whilst retaining, at the same time, an impressive depth of scholarship.

Captains of the Soul arises out of the author’s careful study of both the “official” sources, to which he has gained unprecedented access, and also the extensive use of personal and biographical materials, which serve to bring the chaplains, and those to whom they ministered, to life in a vivid and engaging way. Throughout the book the ongoing tension between the army chaplain’s status as both a moral and spiritual leader, and a military officer (army chaplains have been historically commissioned with the rank of Captain), is explored, often in the rarified conditions of the battlefield, wherein chaplains frequently encountered and responded to life and death matters, combining, and carefully managing, their role as comrade and officer, chaplain and companion.

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From the battlefields of the South African welt during the Boer War, to the trenches of the Western Front; from the fall of Singapore, to the jungles of Vietnam, and the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, Captains of the Soul tells the story (really, many stories) of the efforts of Australia’s army chaplains to present the Christian message in a meaningful way, in the context of the army and the often tightly knit community it engenders. As the story unfolds, it is clear that Anglican army chaplains have played a large and important, but by no means dominant, role, in what has been, from the beginning, an ecumenical and increasingly inter-faith endeavour.

Anyone interested in Australian military history, and in the interplay between faith and theology, and the army, in both times of peace and war, will find this book invaluable.

Importantly, Captains of the Soul is much more than an historical or theological study, although both are interwoven into the narrative, and much more than a sterile regimental type history. The many stories told, from that of Anglican chaplain Kenneth Henderson in the trenches of the Western Front, to Presbyterian chaplain and POW Hugh Cunningham in Changi, to those of all denominations serving in the Ghan Chapel at Tarin Kot in Afghanistan, are wonderfully engaging narratives in their own right, telling stories of faith, of pastoral engagement and empathy, and of mission and evangelism, often under difficult, if not extreme, circumstances.

As someone brought up in army environments, on barracks, and as the son of a career soldier, I experienced first-hand over many years during my childhood and early adolescence, the faithful ministry of a variety of army chaplains of all denominations, as did my father and his colleagues, in both peacetime, and in theatres of war (Vietnam). The respectful comradery shared between the soldiers in his or her care, and the padre, is a constant theme in Captains of the Soul that continues to be at the heart of military chaplaincy today.

Captains of the Soul: A History of Australian Army Chaplains, by Michael Gladwin (Big Sky Publishing, 2013 $34.99).

Archdeacon Bradly Billings is Director of the Department of Theological Education in the Diocese of Melbourne.