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To War with God: the army chaplain who lost his faith Peter Fiennes

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his is the deeply moving, thought- ful, true and often funny story of the Revd Montmorency “Monty” Guilford, who in 1916 volunteered

to serve with the British army. His terrifying experiences on the Western Front led him, not altogether surprisingly, to doubt the Anglican beliefs he’d inherited as a child from his mostly absent missionary father and zealous, well-meaning aunt. After Europe’s apocalyptic killing spree, Guilford rarely spoke about his war, but an archive of diaries, letters, postcards, artefacts, official documents and photos contained in a family trunk came into the possession of the author, Guilford’s journalist grandson, who has turned it into a powerful biography and his debut book. The fact that this is a family affair might have made it cloying, but Peter Fiennes is

OUR REVIEWERS Rick Jones writes on music for The Tablet.

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both objective and loyal. He remembers his playful, laughing, sporty grandfather only as a schoolboy might – Guilford died in 1971 when Fiennes was nine – so relies on other family members for anecdotage. Guilford is clumsy, handsome, an inept DIY enthusiast, a late riser, a sportsman, a reluctant ser- moniser. Fiennes begins by citing the half-dozen facts which were always known about the chaplain – his regiment’s name, his Military Cross, his inheriting his colonel’s horse, his vigil with a soldier who was to be shot at dawn, his loss of faith – and proceeds to explore the history behind them through the contents of the trunk in front of him. Fiennes repeats these facts quite often, as families do. They become, in a sense, fixed markers through the muddle of a history which is both chaotic and incomprehensible yet, of course, fastidiously well documented. Chief among the relics is the diary Guilford kept from his arrival in France in September 1916 until his first leave in January the fol- lowing year: the examination of this occupies two-thirds of the book. Fiennes uses repetition here too, but now as a means of exploding the cursory entries – “Breakfast 8am. See 8 Tanks. Chat about Fate. Play footer. Dinner. Bridge. Censor letters. Write. Bed” –into vivid portraits of life in the trenches, aided by plen- tiful research into regimental history and a long bibliography. The diary entries become snapshots, which the author then describes and annotates with increasing assurance as the tale unravels, sometimes with the tone of a genial explorer discussing items of interest as they emerge from a tomb before a class of archaeology students, making his subject come alive. His descriptions of the Battles of the Somme and Cambrai, in both of which Guilford took part, tending the “walking wounded”, are gripping. Religion is a constant presence, at first as the chaplain meticulously records the num- bers who turn up for Sunday services in the dingy, makeshift chapels, and the subjects of his sermons (“motives”, “joy”, “He Cometh for You”, etc.): latterly, with the cessation of the diary and the padre’s loss of faith, in more thorough discussions of the nature of God in war by the author himself. Guilford survived, having buried many hundreds, perhaps thou- sands, but no death, the author imagines, affected him more than that of his wife’s brother Jack in the doomed attempt to capture Vimy Ridge in 1917. Fiennes longs to put the unanswered questions of a century to bed. How did he die, and why is it important to know, he asks, before answering his own ques- tion: to ask how is to ask why – and asking why is the beginning of doubt.

Fiennes admits to the horror of possibly discovering that Jack died not as a hero but in a blind panic, frightened and suffocating

Monty Guilford holding his baby daughter Ruthie

from mustard gas. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he jolts us up to date as he considers that the death from an asphyx- iating, lung-filling cancer of his own mother, Guilford’s daughter, named Jacqueline after her uncle, might have been similar. He links the two, he says, “because no one’s death should be easy or casual or lacking signifi- cance”, although uncle Jack’s death among the countless others certainly seemed then, and seems to us now, pointless. What surprises most about the book is the

evidence of so much good humour in the trenches: the football matches, the satirical magazines, the nicknames, even the shopping excursions in this or that French town a walk from the front. Although Fiennes quotes from the war poets Sassoon and Owen, he also deflects us from the wisdom, which they have helped to promulgate, that the First World War was an unmitigated inferno, a relentless slaughter of unthinking soldiery by generals who hadn’t the gumption to stop it. He dis- covers warmth between humans, great bravery, compassion and self-sacrifice. Of course, Guilford questioned how the God that he’d believed in from his youth could let such evil continue and this led to the breakdown of his faith. A period of wandering followed the war, but ultimately he did not abandon the Church, nor it him, and a place was found for him in charge of the boys’ club at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields alongside the charis- matic vicar Dick Sheppard. Fiennes quotes here and there from his grandfather’s sermons but nowhere more tellingly than in conclusion. The theme is love. “The ways of saying it differ down the ages,” the chaplain muses, “but the message is always the same.”

17 September 2011 | THE TABLET | 21

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