The Belligerent Bishop

06 Apr

As it is Holy Week, it seems appropriate to remember the wartime story of a clergyman. We have already seen the bravery of one of their number – EN Mellish – who was rewarded with the Victoria Cross. Arthur Winnington-Ingram’s war was quite different, as Bishop of London his was a very vocal supporter of the war effort and has remained controversial for his role.

Arthur Winnington-Ingram was born in Worcestershire in 1858, but had strong ties to London through his work at the Oxford House Settlement in Bethnal Green before he became Bishop of London in 1901. He was a moralist and high church in his approach, but spoke out against social injustice and supported efforts to help the poor and unemployed. It is his war work that is most controversial, though. As his Dictionary of National Biography entry records:

By far the most controversial aspect of Winnington-Ingram’s episcopate was his tireless (and never modified) public advocacy of Britain’s cause during the First World War. He saw the war as a ‘great crusade to defend the weak against the strong’, and accepted uncritically stories of atrocities perpetrated by German troops. In 1915 he toured the western front, in 1916 the Grand Fleet at Rosyth and Scapa Flow, and in 1918 Salonica. His skill at public speaking made him a successful recruiter of volunteers early in the war, and he took great delight in his position as chaplain to the London rifle brigade; later in the war he encouraged his own younger clergy to enlist as combatants. He had an unquestioning trust in the civilizing mission of the British empire, and freely used language about the German people which verged on xenophobia. H. H. Asquith considered that he had preached ‘jingoism of the shallowest kind’ throughout the war.

Winnington-Ingram and Admiral Jellicoe in 1916 (Illustrated War News)

His most infamous speech (today, at least) was one in 1915 in which he recalled German atrocities – both real and wartime myths – with a violent call to arms:

Everyone that loves freedom and honour … are banded in a great crusade – we cannot deny it – to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant, who superintended the Armenian massacres, who sank the Lusitania, and who turned the machine-guns on the civilians of Aerschott and Louvain – and to kill them lest the civilisation of the world itself be killed.

This sermon has been repeated in numerous books (notably by Annette Becker) and on many websites, to show just how violently xenophobic the clergy – and the population at large – were in 1915. In some ways, it does encapsulate the violent anger, fear and hatred of the age – as shown in the Lusitania Riots of May 1915.

At the same time, it is worth considering a few things:

  1. The sermon was not widely reported at the time, nor was it commented upon by people who were following the war and events at home closely in diaries and letters – so its value as a call to arms can easily be overstated (that is not to say that other sermons by Winnington-Ingram and others were not also violently phrased). It was rediscovered in the 1970s and has been used over and over as short-hand for aggressive clerical language in wartime.
  2. That all but one of the atrocities listed in the speech did actually happen – the Germans did a great job at rallying world opinion against themselves with their actions against civilians.
  3. That Winnington-Ingram was prominent in the campaign against the bombing of German cities by aeroplanes in 1917-18. The press were largely in favour of killing civilians in this way, but the bishop was firmly opposed – along with many other clergy and politicians.
  4. That indiscriminate killing of Germans was (to risk putting it rather simplistically) the method employed by the British to try to win the Second World War, using Bomber Command as the method of delivery. Bombs dropped from Lancasters, Halifaxes and the like were not able to distinguish between those who showed kindness and those who persecuted. It is easy to think of the Great War as driven by xenophobia and World War Two as Britain’s ‘good war’, but it is not that simple.

Arthur Winnington-Ingram was perhaps overzealous in his uncritical support of the British war effort. To the eyes of those used to prominent clergy of the Rowan Williams type, he certainly looks that way today. On balance he was probably over the top, his attitude being more aggressive than much of the population, but since his aim was to mobilise them for action, this is not too surprising (if they felt as strongly they would already have been enlisting, fighting, giving money or whatever else he was urging). This is not to excuse the extreme language of his speeches, but simply to put him into context and to put his most famous speech in context in terms of his own actions later and the conduct of the two World Wars.


Posted by on 6 April 2012 in Famous People


5 responses to “The Belligerent Bishop

  1. Stuart Bell

    4 June 2012 at 3:30 pm

    At last a rational analysis of Winnington-Ingram! He really has been ill-treated by historians, and misquotations of his Advent Sermon!

  2. Peter Bell

    26 September 2012 at 5:31 pm

    Havent you really missed the point about the Bishops infamous sermon? Surely the point is that most Churches and clergy, in wartime, use or abuse their position to provide moral authority to the State. This was as true in Germany as it was in Britain. For a young man in 1915, surrounded by pressures at home, at work, and in the community, all telling him to go and fight, we must add the voice of the Church. He was told it was right that he should go and fight. The question we should be asking is why?
    Clearly here was a man with neither the intellect, imagination or courage to challenge the prevailing breeze of popular opinion and his postion at that terrible time demanded so much more.
    To briefly answer your apologies above;
    1) How widely the sermon was heard at the time, again is not the point. The fact is that it was said and that is bad enough.I expect many of his own clergy repreated his ideas from their own pulpits.
    2) There was a history of attrocities in the Great War by all sides. War dehumanises and defiles combatants. Read “The Pity of War” by Naill Ferguson for an in depth discussion as to why these things happened and to the motives involved. I am not sure how immersion into a total war is a valid response to any German artrocities, factual or not, since the process of war itself consists of more and more of the same.
    3) and 4) It is some relief after all that to hear that this Bishop opposed the aerial bombing of civillians. I wonder why you bother to point out the obvious fact that most of those on the ground are innocent. Why do you not apply this logic equally to conscripts in the trenches? The Second World War and all its horrors to follow were directly the result a generation later of the hatred between men spread in the name of God, by this Bishop and many others.

    • Stuart

      27 September 2012 at 7:34 pm

      Hi Peter. Thanks for the comments – you raise some important points. I have a feeling we’re not going to agree completely on this, but I’ll try to answer your points and questions.

      You are right that the church takes on a role as the moral authority of the state. The message of the state and the church was, though, that men should join to defend their nation, family and home (and liberate ‘gallant little Belgium’), not that they should exterminate every single German. Winnington-Ingram’s sermon was inflammatory but is used by historians to suggest that this extermination was at the core of WW1 ideology, which is a position I dispute. I think it was an outlier among the discourse of the war, even among the things that W-I said and he was pretty hard line by the sounds of it. It was not the church line and it was not the government’s policy.

      On the numbered points:
      1 – How widespread this sermon was heard is not vastly important, this is true. Also, there were other priests who preached similar vitriol. But there were many (indeed, I think, many more) who did not. The repetition of this sermon by historians places it on an undeserved pedestal, in my opinion. It does not reflect church opinion, government opinion or public opinion (the bombing debate was the closest public debate got to the 1915 W-I line)

      2- Yes there were atrocities by each side. I would suggest that the Germans and Turks committed the worst of the powers fighting in Europe, but that is open to opinion. I think what I was getting at was that the Germans made themselves look ‘frightful’ (to use the Great War term) in the eyes of the world, and this was particularly coming to light in the period of the sermon. I think the sermon was a knee-jerk (over)reaction to what looked like an exterminatory policy of the German regime – by air, sea and land. The point is there was a context for the speech, it wasn’t in response to being at war but rather to the ‘frightful’ acts of the enemy. W-I used inflammatory language that was not representative of public opinion (otherwise the anti-German riots would surely have been aimed more at people rather than property, I would have thought).

      3&4 – Whether conscripts are culpable is an interesting subject that gets you into concepts of consent for total war. (Most British soldiers on the battlefields were not conscripts, but then the pressure on them to enlist means they might as well have been). I stuck with the standard line that generally civilians are not seen as legitimate targets for violence in war. The British did not attack them as a matter of policy in WW1, the Germans did. The WW2 point was me – I think – pointing out that the policy in Britain’s ‘good war’ was pretty horrendous. Not a novel point, but worth bearing in mind in reference to the Great War. I don’t think the hatred in WW2 was spread merely by men of God (I don’t know whether this was an intentional inference on your part) but it certainly built on the experiences of WW1 and the inter-war Civil Wars. Alan Kramer’s ‘Dynamic of Destruction’ is good on the topic of the ramping-up of tension and hate in the early 20th century.

      Apologies if I have misunderstood any of your points or garbled this response this evening. The topic is really interesting. If you haven’t already done so I would recommend reading Becker & Audoin-Rouzeau’s ’14-18′ where they talk about ‘war culture’ and violence (it is a little overly polemic on the subject, but interesting) and particularly Heather Jones’s ‘Violence against prisoners of war in the First World War’ (in which she refers to a culture of ‘fear-cum-hatred’, an analysis which I is well balanced).

  3. Stuart Bell

    13 August 2015 at 9:59 pm

    For those with access through an academic institution, this article may be of interest: It’s “Malign or Maligned? – Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London, in the First World War”.
    Stuart Bell


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