Arthur George Gray (1882-1963)

WW1 Chaplain

Born in Gibraltar in May 1882, George was the son of Samuel Gray, a soldier in the Royal Engineers, He spent his early life in Jamaica where his father was stationed, When Samuel Gray was discharged he found employment at the Woolwich Arsenal. It was in Woolwich that George began to attend the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Robert Street. Here he had a conversion experience, which led him to become a Primitive Methodist minister, entering Hartley College, Manchester, in 1906.

Pressure to enlist

When war broke out Gray was in South Wales, and although ministers were not expected to enlist, he felt pressure to volunteer. ‘The course of the War in 1915 affected me considerably, especially when with other ministers I received a personal communication from the Government asking me to consider my duty and responsibility to the country because of the need for men of my age. A dozen of the young men at Argoed had decided to join up together and after much tribulation I decided to go with them. I was reluctantly given permission by the PrimitiveMethodistChurch …It was terrible leaving [Hilda, his wife] as she was having our first baby in the following February, but I could do no other without being ashamed’.

Primitive Methodists under recorded

George Gray joined the Royal Flying Corps as a motorcyclist, and found, in common with others, that Primitive Methodists were often wrongly recorded. ‘I refused to sign the form or take the oath at first because I had not been asked to state my religion, “That’s all right” said the recruiting officer, “we’ve put down C of E”  “But I’m not C of E”, I replied “and must ask for it to be changed to Primitive Methodist”.

During his training, he again found that Primitive Methodists were not regarded as a mainstream denomination. ‘While at the Curragh I paraded on Sundays for Church when we were separated by the Regimental Sergeant Major into various groups… The routine was always the same – “Fall in here all Church of England”. Then, “Fall in here all Roman Catholics”, then Presbyterians, then Wesleyans, and last of all, “Fall in here all Congregationalists, Baptists, United and Primitive Methodists, Mohammedans, Heathens and Atheists”.

Becomes a Chaplain

George was posted to Dover, where his unit’s task was to transport the troops defending Dover from invasion. Then, in November 1916, out of the blue, he was invited to become a Chaplain.

‘Since I had enlisted neither I nor Hilda had ever received a single line from the Primitive Methodist Church, their only recognition that I had joined the forces being to stop the payment of the small children’s allowance…. All the more surprising therefore when … I received a short cryptic note from the Revd Joseph E. Gilbert, Chaplain to the Forces, Aldershot and member of the United Board. Gilbert was junior to me at Hartley but as soon as the War broke out he had been appointed a chaplain…. Gilbert wrote to tell me there was to be an increase in the number of United Board chaplains… He proposed to nominate me if I was willing to accept and go overseas at once after appointment… After a couple of days to get used to the idea I wrote thanking Gilbert and saying I would gladly accept the nomination.’

Into the Front Line

He found himself crossing to France with other newly appointed Primitive Methodist chaplains.  ‘Looking, like me, somewhat lost’, were Swinnerton who had been serving as a Sergeant in the Lancashire Fusiliers, and Bunny Woodward who had been at Hartley at the same time as Gray and had already been in France with the RAMC. There was also George Kendall, who was returning for his second term of office.

Gray was posted to the 11th South Wales Borderers, and meeting a lad who had been in his Sunday School at Blackwood and was now a “runner”, he was taken to his first dug-out.  ‘I still hadn’t a ghost of an idea how a padre was expected to behave but I hoped I enough gumption not to make a fool of myself. I was soon in trouble as the Colonel wanted to know how I had come into the front line without a steel helmet or gas respirator…I was sent back to the transport lines to be fitted out…and was told to stay there until the battalion came back to its rest camp.’

At first he shared a canvas hut with the Anglican chaplain, but after he was killed by a ‘whiz bang’, Gray moved into a dug-out in the line. ‘The dug-out had plenty of good top protection and a bed made out of a wooden frame and wire netting. Being on the bank of the canal it was always dripping with water… but I took no harm… I found the doctor a great help though he pulled my leg a good deal. His First Aid Post was always open to me and I was able to help men as they passed through… Only now and then would Jerry suddenly break out into a Straffe.’

George Kendall was also a Primitive Methodist Chaplain with the 38th Welsh Division, and they worked as a team in taking services. Kendall usually preached, and Gray lead the singing or played whatever instrument was to hand, as he did not speak Welsh.

Woodbine Willie

Early in 1917 Gray was moved to the 41st Division and attached to the 10th Royal West Kent Regiment. When they marched to the Ypres Salient it was clear a major offensive was being planned, and Gray took up a position in the Regimental Aid Post to ‘catch the wounded as they were brought out’. A fortnight before, he had used a donation from the Primitive Methodist Psalmody Association of Liverpool to buy two sandbags full of cigarettes, ‘and like Woodbine Willie I toured the lines distributing them to the men who had dug themselves in.’

On the last Sunday of July before the offensive it began to rain. At Gray’s service for the 123rd Brigade in a corrugated hut, his words were drummed out by the rain. He let ‘the lads keep on singing to a tinny piano until we had exhausted the hymn book’. Gray was ordered to stay behind to work in the Casualty Clearing Station, but marched through the night with each company until ordered to turn back.

‘Through the night I must have had a few words with every man… I walked a bit with RSM Andrews and as usual exchanged our latest jokes and quoted our favourite bits of Browning and Stevenson, and then he went on. The last bit of the overland track I spent with Dillon until we reached the assembly area and guides took the companies over, and then with a “cheerio Dill” and “cheerio Padre”, for we didn’t shake hands on these occasions, I left him at the head of his platoon. I never saw either of them again for both were killed on the first day of Passchendaele, July 31st 1917.’

The Blighty Express

Gray then returned to his duties at the Casualty Clearing Station “feeling unutterably miserable”. For the first two days and nights the Station was crowded with desperately wounded men. The less wounded were patched up and sent to the railhead bound for base hospitals.  Sayer Ellis, a Wesleyan chaplain at the Regimental Aid Post of 122nd Brigade, was running ‘what he called the Blighty Express, a narrow gauge track on which stretchers were being run back to a loading station for ambulances and Ellis and his batman were supplying hot cocoa while they stopped to be checked.’

As the 41st Division was withdrawn, reinforced, and put back into the Battle during August and September, Gray went forward to work in advanced dressing stations. ‘I can never forget the sight when I found them in a large field drawn up in straggling lines for checking. Of 123rd Brigade there were only enough men for a battalion, and the 10th Royal West Kents were reduced to a company.’

A crisis of faith

The loss of his friends, and the strain of writing hundreds of letters a day to bereaved families, caused Gray to have a crisis of faith. After receiving letters from Mrs Andrews and Dillon’s friends ‘I tried to find something to say which would bring a gleam of comfort.., but just then my own faith was reeling at the sheer horror of Passchendaele.’  

The Primitive Methodist Army Committee minutes record that he tried to resign his position as chaplain. The alternative was to return to the Royal Flying Corps, so he stayed on.  There was some respite when the Division was moved to the coast near Dunkirk to be refitted and retrained.  ‘I held my services on Sundays out on the dunes with the men sitting at ease and in comfort.’

Trench fever

His next destination was the Italian Front on the Piave River. The long journey, enging in a march to the Front of 120 miles in six days, proved too much for Gray. He became increasingly ill with what was eventually diagnosed as Trench Fever and had to return to hospital in Genoa. He was ill for three months. Upon recovery he was appointed chaplain to the No 11 GeneralHospital, where he had been a patient and which was overflowing with casualties and sick soldiers from the Italian Front.  He enjoyed his new chaplaincy work, ‘determining from the very first to make no distinctions in my visits to the wards’.

He encountered prejudice when working with West Indian soldiers employed as a military labour force in the docks. One of them was admitted to hospital with pneumonia, and it was decided it would not be appropriate for a white woman to nurse him. Rhoda Whyte, who played the organ for Gray’s services, volunteered, as a nurse and a Chistian.

From Temperance to Beer

Gray’s next posting was to the Army Schools at Padua, where officers were trained or retrained in various military skills. Here, apart from conventional chaplaincy duties, Gray ran a hostel for 20 or so young officers undergoing courses in mountain transport. Essentially Gray was catering manager. His previously temperance views were challenged, when he found himself bringing in casks of beer for the soldiers.

In September 1918, he was sent to a large Casualty Clearing Station near Venice. The final assault on the Austrian positions was about to be mounted but already the Station was full of British and Austrian casualties. The Commanding Officer asked Gray to take charge of the organisation of the Austrian casualties. Here he used what he had learnt in France, separating the dying into a ‘moribund tent’ for comfort rather than treatment, and organising first aid for the rest. When the emergency was over Gray was ordered to bed with hot milk and rum and he slept for twenty-four hours.

His final posting was to Taranto where 10,000 West Indians were under canvas awaiting repatriation. They had served in Europe and the Middle East, partly as combat troops and partly as a labour corps. Many of the men had been away for three years or more. Taranto had been a transit base for the Middle East and troop movements still made the port a busy place, and the chaplains’ work, as the Brigadier explained to Gray and his two Baptist colleagues, was to keep the men occupied and quiet until shipping arrived to take them home.

A varied experience

His chaplaincy experience was incredibly varied. As well as holding services, conducting burials, and writing to the bereaved, he played instruments, edited a unit magazine, organised sports competitions, cooked, served as a hospital chaplain, ran a hostel for officers, and created an orderly casualty clearance station out of chaos for wounded Austrian prisoners. Gray was finally demobilised in February 1919.


J H Thompson, ‘The Free Church Army Chaplain 1830-1930’, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1990.


No Comments

Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this page!

Add a comment about this page

Your email address will not be published.