Archbishop Davidson and the First World War – Outbreak of War

Archbishop Randall Davidson was 66 when war broke out in 1914. He had been Archbishop of Canterbury since 1903 and had already had a lucrative career at the centre of England’s ecclesiastical life, including acting as the trusted confidant of Queen Victoria during his time as resident chaplain to both Archbishop Tait and Archbishop Benson.

Portrait of Archbishop Davidson by John Singer Sargent, 1910
Portrait of Archbishop Davidson by John Singer Sargent, 1910

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Davidson looked to uphold the role of the Church of England within national life and provide support and guidance in moral, social and political matters. Along with much of the population Davidson had believed that war might be avoided and even spoke of the possibility of Britain avoiding the conflict in a sermon he gave at Westminster Abbey on August 2nd 1914. Davidson had good theological contacts in Germany and had previously expressed the belief that war between the two countries was unthinkable.

Davidson’s lack of foresight regarding the conflict did not prevent him, once war had broken out, from taking the lead on appropriate wartime issues, as and when requested by the government. He believed that the Church of England should act to unite and support the nation throughout the wartime period, and at all costs prevent the deterioration of moral standards. The Archbishop, along with other leaders of the national church, benefited from having the ear of prominent members of government and parliament. This enabled him to have a degree of influence, as well as a voice in various conversations and decisions regarding the conflict.

Although Davidson did protest against aspects of the British government’s methods of warfare (as shown throughout his papers for this period held at the Library), he did not look to publically condemn the wartime government and instead focused his attention on applying pressure behind the scenes. He railed against the government’s policy of reprisal, (especially the use of poison gas), advocated the control of alcohol consumption and temperance during the war period and concerned himself with the moral welfare of the men at the front (including criticising in the House of Lords the War Office’s toleration of brothels close to army camps).

There were many aspects of the war that the Archbishop concerned himself with and in the opening months of war the Archbishop was often seen as the natural point of contact for ordinary citizens seeking advice. Members of the Archbishop’s diocese, in particular, sought reassurance and guidance once war had been declared and they repeatedly contacted him for information on anti- invasion preparations in Kent. Whilst often in the dark himself on these matters, Archbishop Davidson was in the rarefied position of having excellent contacts within government, enabling him to acquire and circulate information, including the latest emergency guidance.

Davidson 376 f.89, Anti- invasion guidelines
Davidson 376 f.89, Anti- invasion guidelines

The Archbishop’s priorities could not fail to be affected by the outbreak of war. The war became the over-riding concern for the Church during this period, presenting it with new predicaments and featuring heavily as a priority in the agenda and minutes of Bishops’ meetings (for more about this see the Library’s previous blog post on ‘The First World War and the Bishops’ ) In particular Davidson was keen to ensure the preservation of moral standards during this difficult time and this led him to question the amount of money being given in separation allowances to soldiers’ wives and partners. He controversially succeeded in preventing unmarried partners receiving the same amount as of right. In 1918 Davidson debated with the War Office and in the House of Lords over the toleration of brothels close to army camps. He also condemned the use of poison gas and the bombing of Freiburg in April 1917 in retaliation for the sinking of two hospital ships. In 1916, at the age of 68, he visited the Western Front and this was followed by a second visit in 1918.

Future blog posts in this series will look more closely at the Archbishop’s wartime role and areas of his involvement. For more information about First World War sources see the Library’s research guide . The Library also has a First World War timeline looking at Archbishop Davidson’s involvement with the war.

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