A Student in Arms: Lessons from one Christian who died in the Somme

Published 18 August 2014  |  
Wikipedia

Donald Hankey was a serious-minded young man with a flair for writing who joined up at the beginning of the war and was killed on the Somme in October 1916. He contributed articles to the Spectator through the latter months of 1915 and the spring of 1916. On his death they were collected and published as "A Student in Arms", and had a remarkable success.

Hankey was a well-connected public-school type (one of his brothers was Sir Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the War Council) and the second of his family to die for his country. His book, printed on blotting-paper-thick wartime quality paper, appealed because of its combination of insight and boyishness. He was a thoughtful chap, but it was all a bit of a lark, too, and he spares his readers the gruesome details of the battlefield. He was not necessarily being disingenuous. We sometimes forget that most of the time, the men on the Western Front were not fighting, but were bored, cold, exhausted and fed up.

Hankey served in the ranks and then as a second lieutenant; he was, after all, officer class. He wrote about the men with whom he served. They were a class apart, but he had enormous sympathy for them and did his best to understand them. One of the great benefits of the war was the way it broke down class barriers; one of its great tragedies was the way it killed so many of those who might have lived to shape post-war policy and make a better world. He writes: "When war broke out the public-school man applied for his commission in the firm conviction than war was a glorified form of big-game hunting – the highest form of sport. His whole training, the traditions of his kind, had prepared him for that hour." He contrasts this attitude with that of the Cockney, comfort-loving because he has never had it, cowardly and improvident, before painting a rosy picture of the little chap's virtues: "Well, he has surprised us all ... he has given to the world the amazing picture of a soldier who is infinitely brave without vindictiveness, terrible without hate, all-enduring and yet remaining his simple, kindly, jaunty self."

One of his articles was on "The Religion of the Inarticulate". He writes of how before the war, young idealists like him went and lived alongside the working (or non-working) classes, running clubs and generally doing good. "The venture was not a complete success," he says drily; they were not interested at all in religion or ethics. But enlistment in the army alongside them would be different; they would meet in complete equality. However: "We were disappointed to find that being cold and rather hungry did not conduce to sound philosophizing. It was merely uncomfortable. Cleaning greasy cooking-pots, scrubbing floors and drilling produced no thrills. They simply bored us... Praying was almost an impossibility. It is extraordinarily hard to pray in a crowd, especially when you are tired out at night, and have to be up and dressed in the morning before you are properly awake."

However, he comes to realise that – to use more modern language – his understanding of religion and spiritual values was class-based. The men alongside whom he served did not have the luxury of quiet, solitude, comfort or leisure – all the middle-class privileges he took for granted. Nevertheless, they were intensely moral, without being religious. He writes of an open-air service in Flanders at which the chaplain "had made desperate attempts to frighten us", with the result that they had all resented him: "Above all, we were not going to turn religious because we were afraid." He concludes: "This is surely nothing short of tragedy. Here were men who believed absolutely in the Christian virtues of unselfishness, generosity, charity, and humility, without ever connecting them in their minds with Christ; and at the same time what they did associate with Christianity was just on a par with the formalism and smug self-righteousness which Christ spent his whole life in trying to destroy."

His prescription is that the chaplain ought to "make them see that his creeds and prayers and worship are the symbols of all that they admire most, and most want to be".

In some ways this sort of language makes uncomfortable reading today. In spite of all Hankey's good intentions, he is truly patronising; he is writing for readers like himself, for whom the lower classes are an alien race, and it shows.

(PA)

Nevertheless, he touched a nerve. He made a genuine attempt to bridge the gulf between the classes and to dream of a better England (we would say Britain). And it is questionable whether the Church has really done much better than it did in his day to learn to speak in the language of the "unchurched", as we now call them, rather than expecting them to learn ours.

"A Student in Arms" was reviewed in The Baptist Times in January 1917 by Mrs Charles Brown, who noted that most people would already have read the book since it had already run through seven editions from April to December 1916. She writes glowingly of it, and not just for its own sake; she says: "For me the book has a special and pathetic interest, for Lieutenant Donald Hankey was killed in the Somme fighting, just four days after my own dear son fell, and probably attacking the same trench."

My own copy, picked up for tenpence years ago, is that December 1916 edition; I cannot help wondering whether its thick pages soaked up tears as well.

Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and freelance writer.

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