Beyond the Church Parade: Religious beliefs in the front line during WWI

Soldier pausing from writing at a makeshift table and looking directly at the camera.

Australian WWI soldier-diarist, Henry Charles Marshall(1890-1915). Photo supplied by State Library of NSW.

Today I am presenting a paper at the Religious History Association Conference which is running as an affiliated conference to the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane. This post provides an abstract of the paper and supporting information about my paper.

To general readers of this blog I hope that this gives you a feel for the work behind an academic paper. This is the work I have been doing on and off behind the scenes for the last couple of years amidst everything else that life throws up. I hope to blog about the sessions I attended at the conference on Tuesday in the next couple of days. There have been some good discussions about how war both reinforces and challenges gender roles in society.


A review of World War I diaries reveals glimpses of the personal beliefs held by Australian soldiers serving on the frontline. Using research tools available to the twenty first century historian, such as digitised texts and programming, a collection has been made of the expressions of religious belief recorded by soldiers in their diaries while on active duty. Read with an understanding of the way audience and masculinity shaped the soldiers’ reflections, these fragments give us greater insight into the forms and extent of personal religious beliefs held by Australian soldiers.

A broad conception of religion has been used in this paper. This paper looks beyond the attendance at church parades to get some sense of the private beliefs of the soldiers. I am not interested whether the expressions of faith by the soldiers conformed to the doctrines of traditional churches or even whether they were recognisably Christian at all.  I am interested in a very broad conception of religious faith, one that recognises a greater mystical force, that explores life after death.

This paper suggests that soldiers tended to keep their religious beliefs private in the face of a culture of masculinity in the Army which discouraged deep religious expression. However, it is important not to impute belief in the face of lack of evidence. There were Australian soldiers with religious conviction who served in WWI but ultimately we will never truly know what the soldiers were thinking and feeling. We have to accept that some things are hidden from the historian’s view.

Suggested Posts to Read on this Blog

I have been writing around this topic on Stumbling Through the Past for some time. Aside from the relevant book reviews mentioned in the bibliography below, the following blog posts also relate to this paper:


In this paper I share the work I have been doing with the WWI soldiers’ diaries held by the State Library of New South Wales. I am very grateful to the State Library and their volunteers for transcribing these diaries and making them available in a digitally readable format. I am also grateful to Judy Hassall, the daughter of Archibald Barwick who has shared with me some insights into her father’s post-war thinking and life. I would also like to thank Emeritus Professor Alan Atkinson who encouraged me to do this research and Associate Professor Daniel Reynaud for generously sharing a paper of his that is pending publication and some of his notes.


As well as using the research techniques that historians tradtionally use such as reading the text of the diaries (close reading) and drawing on the work that other historians have done (secondary sources), I have also used some techniques that have emerged in the digital age. I learned to program in Python with the lessons on The Programming Historian website. This is a great resource that has been created by digital historians to share their skills with other humanists.

Using the program that is developed through the lessons on The Programming Historian I modified it to ‘read’ and index the digitised diaries. I created a list of ‘keywords’ which the program then used to search the files and return small excerpts which included the keywords. I imported the .csv file generated by the program into Excel and used the find, sort and pivot table features in Excel to sort through the results. I used the list of excerpts in the spreasheet much as you would use the index for a book. I selected excerpts in the diaries which interested me and used the spreadsheet to find the passage in the diary.

When you have a spreadsheet which enables you to count exactly how many times a particular word occurs it is tempting to report on the statistics. But if I told you that the word ‘spiritual’ occurred 26 times in the diary of any word that I chose to search that would not mean anything. This statistic does not say how significant these mentions are or what the soldiers meant by the word ‘spiritual’. There are many diaries that are still not transcribed, many that are held by other collecting institutions such as the Australian War Memorial and many still held in private homes. My research is about a small proportion of the total number of diaries written by Australian soldiers during WWI.

I am interested in understanding the soldier’s beliefs. I found that searching for the word ‘church’ was a waste of time. It is well known that the Australian soldiers acted as tourists when they were not involved in fighting. There are a large number of references to churches in the soldiers’ diaries because they visited churches like the Notre Dame in Paris and village churches behind the frontline, curious about what they looked like and how other people lived. Of course some soldiers visited churches for worship but I found that I was overwhelmed by extracts which clearly indicated that the soldiers were visiting the churches to appreciate another culture and to appreciate the beauty of them (in a secular sense).

I persisted with searching for the word ‘God’ despite having to sift through the results to remove profanities or expressions devoid of belief, such as “Oh God….” I have been very strict with what I regard as an expression of belief because it is easy to overstate it. I will only accept “God bless…”  or “thank God” or other such phrases if the passage in which the word occurs clearly indicates an active interest or belief.

The ‘index’ that I have created is the start of the work. This research requires a lot of close reading of the diaries and biographical material from other sources. The fact that I use a program to do this enables me to search for the needle in the haystack but there are many needles in many haystacks. There is a lot of work to be done once the digital searching of the diaries has been completed.

New Developments on the State Library Website

Later this year you will be able to do a keyword search of the diaries using a search facility provided on the State Library of New South Wales website. “The tool is currently in development and will be released to the public following further development and testing” advised Golda Mitchell of the State Library of NSW today.

I will write more about new developments concerning the WWI diaries at the State Library of NSW on the weekend. Keep an eye out for the post!

Bibliography – Primary Sources Available Online

Bibliography – Secondary Sources

Books or articles which may interest the general reader are marked with an asterisk. If I have reviewed a book I have hyperlinked the title.

Bale, Colin R, ‘In God We Trust: The Impact of the Great War on Religious Belief in Australia’, in Peter G Bolt and Mark D Thompson, eds., Donalid Robinson – selected works: Appreciation (Camperdown, NSW: Australian Church Record, 2008)

*Beaumont, Joan, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2013)

Bongiorno, Frank, ‘In This World and the Next: Political Modernity and Unorthodox Religion in Australia, 1880-1930, Australian Cultural History, Issue 25 (2006), pp. 179-207

*Butler, Janet, Kitty’s War: The remarkable wartime experiences of Kit McNaughton, (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2013)

*Carey, Hilary M, Believing in Australia: A cultural history of religions, (St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1996)

Clark, Chris, ‘Wiltshire, Aubrey Roy Liddon (1891–1969)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 9 July 2014

Crotty, Martin, Making the Australian Male: Middle Class Masculinity 1870-1920, (Carlton South, Vic: Melbourne University Press, 2001)

*Gammage, Bill, The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1974)

*Gladwin, Michael, Captains of the Soul: A history of Australian Army chaplains, (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2013)

*Jalland, Pat, Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History 1840-1918, (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Le Couteur, Howard, ‘Where are all the Men? – An Attempt by the Anglican Church in Australia to Counter Secularisation at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century’, unpublished paper presented at the Australian Historical Association Conference, 2012

Linder, Robert D, The Long Tragedy: Australian Evangelical Christians and the Great War, 1914-1918, (Adelaide: Openbook Publishers, 2000)

*McKernan, Michael, Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918, (Sydney and Canberra: Catholic Theological Faculty and Australian War Memorial, 1980)

Michael McKernan, ‘Churches at War: then and Now’, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, 33, 2012, pp 63-71

O’Brien, Anne, ‘”A Church Full of Men’: Masculinism and the Church in Australian History’, Australian Historical Studies, 25(100), April 1993, pp. 437-457

Reynaud, Daniel, ‘Revisiting the secular Anzac: The Anzacs and religion’, pending publication, 2014

Schweitzer, Richard, The Cross and the Trenches: Religious Faith and Doubt among British and American Great War Soldiers, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003)

Thomson, Alistair, ‘Anzac Stories: Using Personal Testimony in War History’, War & Society, 25(2), October 2006, pp. 1-21

5 thoughts on “Beyond the Church Parade: Religious beliefs in the front line during WWI

  1. Hope that your paper went well and that it sparked lots of discussion.There are so many things that are possible now with digitization and data analysis tools that would not have been possible previously.


    • Thank you Janine. My paper went well this morning I think. I ended up having lunch with someone who gave me some ideas on how to pursue this.

      I hope your thesis writing is going well.


  2. Thanks for sharing this background about your OzHA2014 paper, Yvonne. A fascinating topic, and great to see digital humanities methods alongside traditional history ones. You’re so right about Australian soldiers as tourists, too – some of my favourite passages in diaries and letters are the ones about travel, not least because they have a lot in common with my own first experiences of the UK and Europe! As always, I’ll look forward to your tweeted and blogged observations about the conference.


    • Thank you Ashleigh. It has been good to hear people’s response to it at the conference and in other conversations. Sharing it is helping me to get further ideas about how to pursue this further. Yes, the soldier-tourist entries are interesting. I wonder if this factor resulted in the soldiers from outside Europe being more observant and reflective than the Europeans who were having a war in their backyard?


  3. Pingback: Conference Report: Religious History Association Biennial Conference/Australian Historical Association Annual Conference 2014 > The Religious Studies Project

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