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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.