Relics of war

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The Great War presented clergymen with the ultimate test of faith; reconciling the benevolence of God with the greatest conflict in modern history. Killing on a grand scale would seem at odds with Christian fellowship and moral rightness. Most AIF chaplains believed the war to be just, the Will of God, King, and Country, part of God’s redemptive plan. Christians put an emphasis on the love and mercy of God, so the idea of God as warrior can seem difficult to reconcile.

The experience of army chaplains is well recorded – selfless service in very difficult conditions; coping with death, wounds, grief, and sorrow on an unprecedented scale. Churchmen provided spiritual consolation to the men as well as assisting with the wounded, boosting morale, providing entertainment, burying the dead, and writing to families.

In the same way as the men who served in the trenches, chaplains could not have returned to parish life unchanged. Dead sons, fathers, uncles, and brothers were not repatriated to Australia for burial and so churches became the important place to commemorate the conflict and honour the lost. Even in our increasingly-secular nation, Anzac Day ceremonies have an undeniably religious element, uniting people of different denominations for one day of remembrance.

As a Master of War Studies candidate of UNSW ADFA, I am writing my thesis on war relics in Australian churches. There exist already excellent works on memorial windows and honour boards in churches; I am focusing on artefacts or relics directly connected with the Australian experience of war that churches hold.

My interest began in Canberra – at the Warrior Chapel within St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Forrest. Rev Dr John Walker served as an AIF chaplain in World War One. Five of his children also served, and three sons were killed. Walker conceived the idea of embodying within the church a fitting tribute to the memory of parishioners who had given their lives in the Great War. Two communion chalices are used alternately in chapel services held on Anzac Day and Armistice Day – a silver chalice used on the Western Front by Chaplain Captain Percival Hope, and a small brass chalice used by Chaplain Rowan MacNeil while a prisoner at Changi.

I have asked just over 2000 Australian churches if they hold war relics within their buildings. The vast majority, of course, do not. But 2.75% do hold extraordinary and sometimes surprising relics. Grave markers, crosses, flags flown in battle, portable altars, communion linens from Nui Dat, Lae, and Palestine fit comfortably within the church fabric.

I have identified many churches where highly polished artillery shell vases are used for floral displays. Were they simply tokens of remembrance brought home as souvenirs? What memory did chaplains seek to evoke?

Millions and millions of artillery shells were fired in the First World War. Artillery was the biggest killer and provided the greatest source of war wounded. A very beautiful baptismal ewer at Grafton was crafted from a First World War artillery shell. Was this simply practicality or symbolic of new life at baptism received from something designed to kill?

All bar one of the 55 churches identified contain First and Second World War relics. Yet the tradition continues. At the Kapooka Soldier’s Chapel in Wagga, where raw army recruits are trained, a wooden crucifix contains metal from an armoured vehicle in which an Australian soldier in Afghanistan was travelling when he was killed.

It is easier, perhaps, to understand how some chaplains and soldiers brought souvenirs home from ruined churches; shards of broken church windows were gathered in ruined French and Belgian towns by an Anglican chaplain in the First World War and brought home to his parish. He had them made into windows that still bring the light into St John’s Reid. Candlesticks, chalices, patens, statues were all gathered from the rubble of destroyed churches on the Western Front and reinstalled in Australian churches in city and country.

Several churches have a ‘Blitz’ piece of St Paul’s Cathedral and All Hallows in London, Coventry Cathedral, and other English churches, sent out as tokens of gratitude to far-flung churches of empire who had contributed financially to their rebuilding after the Second World War.

I am not trying to simply document these relics but to understand why they were brought back, how they evoke memory and the stories behind each relic. I will also attempt to understand the religious nature of our commemoration, and the interconnection between war and Christianity. The relics may present an important perspective on the Judeo-Christian [sic] God as a warrior. One relic defies time; olive cuttings taken by a Light Horse chaplain at Gethsemane still flourish in the grounds of Our Lady Help of Christians, Ardlethan.

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Emily Gibbs works art the Australian War Memorial and is conducting research into war relics and religious faith. She can be contacted by email.

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