Remembering Methodism's "Great War" Dead
Some 6,146,574 Britons served with the armed forces during the Great War, of whom 722,785 were killed, 1,676,037 were wounded, and 163,242 taken prisoner. Additionally, 1,570 civilians were killed and 4,041 injured through aerial or sea bombardment.
Unfortunately, there is no religious breakdown of these numbers, partly because no official record was kept of the denominational allegiance of the serving men, even though that had been Government practice in respect of the Army on the eve of the Great War. We are therefore dependent upon the information which some of the Churches chose to collect and publish.
The Wesleyan Methodist Church is one of the religious bodies for which some data exist. It had a total membership roll of 481,139 in Great Britain in 1914, making it the second largest Free Church after the Congregationalists (who had 489,407 members). If allowance is made for non-member adherents, a dwindling but still significant category in the Free Churches at that time, there may perhaps have been 900,000 adult Wesleyan regular worshippers in 1914, of whom perhaps 360,000 were men (females predominating, especially in the membership). All these figures exclude the Primitive and United Methodists, who constituted separate Churches until 1932.
The Wesleyan Connexional War Memorial, located in Wesley’s Chapel in London, is inscribed: ‘In loving memory of the 26,581 Wesleyans who gave their lives in the Great War, and in gratitude to the 285,000 who also served’. That would give a total of 311,581 who served, not far short of our estimate of Wesleyan male chapelgoers. Wesleyan deaths represented 3.7% of all British war service deaths.
Although, by the end of the conflict, conscription (first introduced in January 1916) had been extended to cover all males aged 18-50 (with the potential for further extension to include men up to the age of 56), it seems clear that the Wesleyan authorities (presumably advised by Wesleyan chaplains at the front and/or responding to pressure from the pews) were adopting a fairly wide definition of Wesleyan. In particular, it is likely that they were including fighting men who had been through Wesleyan Sunday schools but were no longer in vital contact with the Church. There had been 939,619 Wesleyan Sunday scholars in 1914.
The Connexional War Memorial would suggest that 8.5% of Wesleyans who served with the colours had been killed in action or had subsequently died of their wounds or war-induced illnesses. This is a lower fatality rate than experienced by soldiers, sailors and airmen as a whole, which was 11.8%. Nationally, three-quarters of deaths would have been of men aged 20-34, implying that Wesleyanism (and other Churches) would have suffered not simply numerically, but through the loss of potential future leaders.
The figure of 26,581 deaths recorded on the Connexional War Memorial is 6.9% higher than the total which is arrived at by summing the statistics collated by the Wesleyan Conference, the Church’s governing body, which met in July each year. Compiled from the Conference Agendas (i.e. papers) and four Rolls of Honour published in connection with the Conferences of 1915, 1916 and 1917, and in 1920, the chronological breakdown of Wesleyan war deaths is as follows:
From the start of the war to the Conference of 1915
From the Conference of 1915 to the Conference of 1916
From the Conference of 1916 to the Conference of 1917
From the Conference of 1917 to the end of the war
The discrepancy in the totals is possibly explained by late notifications of deaths and of the eventual reclassification of men originally posted as missing in action as presumed dead.
From the table it can be calculated that 5.8% of Wesleyan war deaths were of officers, which was slightly more than the 5.3% of all deaths in the Army (the Army, of course, accounting for the vast bulk of serving men). This above-average fatality rate for Wesleyan officers doubtless compounded the future leadership challenge for the Wesleyan Church, noted above. Likewise, at Westminster College, the Wesleyan teacher training institution, 8% of the student intake between 1898 and 1916 died on active service during the Great War.
The meaning and implications of these crude data naturally need unpacking in greater detail than can be attempted here. Regrettably, there is as yet no systematic historical account of Wesleyan or other Methodist experiences of the Great War (albeit there are studies of Methodist attitudes to the conflict). Two qualitative Wesleyan sources can be recommended, however. One is Why am I in Paradise? (1994), by Brooks Goodridge, describing his ministry in the Dove Valley and Ely Fenland between 1914 and 1918. The other is Reflections on the Battlefield (2001), by Robert Rider, an infantryman and subsequently a chaplain on the Western Front.
For the sake of completeness, we should note that the Primitive Methodist Church (which had 204,033 members in 1914) claimed that 150,000 of its menfolk served in the forces during the Great War, of whom 15,000 were killed. In 1918 it was reported that 80,000 United Methodists were under the colours; the United Methodist Church had 143,096 members in 1914.
Dr Clive D. Field OBE is Honorary Research Fellow in the Institute for Social Change, University of Manchester and Co-Director of the British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) website, which is based there.
The foregoing is a slightly edited version of a post on the BRIN website on 11 November 2012. It is reproduced here by permission of the author and the University. The original post can be viewed at:
© The University of Manchester 2012