Neil E. Allison “Fighting the good fight”

Neil Allison, ‘Fighting the good fight: Changing attitudes to War in the Twentieth Century’. In: Brian Talbot (Ed) A Distinctive People: A Thematic Study of Aspects of the Witness of Baptists in Scotland in the Twentieth Century. (Paternoster: Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, 2014). ISBN 978-1-84227-851-2. pp. 178-203. Chapter review.

Neil E. Allison is perhaps best known as the official historian for the United Board and his work on Baptist chaplaincy in the two World Wars. His Clash of Empires 1914-1918 was received with critical acclaim when it was first published in 2008. This was subsequently followed by a number of peer-reviewed articles and a chapter in Michael Snape and Edward Madigan’s The Clergy in Khaki: New Perspectives on British Army Chaplaincy in the First World War, which was published by Ashgate in 2013. This review will look at Allison’s most recent work which was published in May this year.

Needless to say that the chapter is useful on a number of levels; not least where the testimony of Scottish Baptist ministers who served as chaplains in the YMCA, and that of Scottish pacifists and conscientious objectors who resisted compulsory conscription is concerned. It is interesting to note the difference in the treatment of prisoners where the regulations were more severe in Scotland: the prisoners being ‘forced to sleep without a mattress for up to fourteen days compared to seven in England.’ (pp. 184-85)

The home front is also ably covered where practical support was given to those serving in uniform and the families left behind. This largely involved the Baptist women’s groups and the Women’s Auxiliary who had been mandated by the Baptist Union of Scotland to provide ‘a liberal and continuous supply of comforts for our soldiers and sailors.’ (p. 187). Far from passive, these groups were very much active in the community and played a vital part in the upkeep of morale both at home and abroad. The monies raised to provide two motor ambulances in the first few months of the war also proved of tremendous use.

No less compelling are the accounts of those chaplains which saw front-line service – although I must declare an interest here where the Rev. W.C. Charteris is mentioned and where my own interests in 10/West Yorkshire Regiment meet. It is also encouraging to see my work here referenced in the author’s footnotes, and for which I thank Neil Allison for the inspiration in his Shakespeare’s Men at the Front (2005) which was hugely influential. The Rev. Willliam Cramb Charteris went to war with 10/West Yorks in July 1915 and remained with the battalion until the end of 1916.

Charteris’s attitude to war is perhaps illustrative of the attitude of many (Scottish) Baptists which saw the reasons for going to war as right and just:

Whilst not wishing to judge any man, we believe it is a tender conscience and a love of righteousness and liberty which have driven the choicest of our sons and brothers to take their place in the Kingdom’s forces. (pp. 185-186).

The impact of the First World War on the Scottish Baptist Churches is neatly brought out where Ayr Baptist Church, Springburn Church, Charlotte Chapel (Edinburgh), and Stirling are represented amongst the churches which sent their men to war. It is estimated that at least one-fifth of the 5,000 members who went to war from these and other churches never came back. (p. 188)

Indeed, the themes of remembrance and commemoration are sensitively dealt with throughout the chapter, as are the hopes for the post-war period in which the emphasis was placed by some on the prevention of war rather than forcing the nation into it in the future. (p. 190)

Attitudes to war did, however, change, and what we see is a shift in the interwar period when the emergence of National Socialism came to the fore and Britain later declared war on Germany in 1939. This clearly perceptible shift reflects that of a just and righteous war found in the rhetoric of the First World War and that of the good and ideological war which has come to largely define the Second: although the Scottish Baptists helped to recruit chaplains from amongst their own ministers in much the same way as before.

The shift in the use of language and war and how it is used to give meaning and make sense of war is something Neil Allison skillfully brings out in the changing attitudes to war and the conflicts which have emerged since 1945 such as the Falkland Conflict (1982), the First Gulf War (1991), Bosnia (1991-95), and Kosovo (1998-99). Much of the language used in the latter crises involving the call for intervention or the need for humanitarian aid in its appeal through NATO and the United Nations.

Neil E. Allison is suitably qualified to comment having served in the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department as a Padre on a number of operational tours. His personal experience that of witness to the changing attitudes (and horrors) of war in the last fifteen to twenty years. We are also reminded too of those left at home, where this is recognized in Allison’s chapter and the inclusion of the families’ concerns for their loved ones.

All in all, Fighting the Good Fight is a thoroughly engaging chapter. It provides a reliable witness to the changing attitudes of war in the twentieth century and the moral and ethical perspectives which have helped to shape those attitudes during the last hundred years. It is a must for those students with an interest in the events of the last century – particularly those students with a serious interest in the First World War.

Other contributors to the themes found in A Distinctive People include Brian Talbot (Ed), Christine Lumsden, and Derek Murray, amongst other Baptist scholars. A full list of contributors may be found below.

3 thoughts on “Neil E. Allison “Fighting the good fight”

  1. Trying to understand what church ministers did during their visits to the front during WW! particularly those who went out with YMCA.. I have a distant Congregational relative Walter M Cownie who served two stints in France WW1 but we have no additional information about his service.and what he did and endured.
    I have been in touch with Rev Damp, Bedford and he thought Rev Neil E Allison may be able to help. I see he has written on ministers service in WW1 and if there is a book which covers the topic will gladly purchase a recommented text. Was there ever a register of ministers who served in WW1 ?

    Thanks and look forward to any information you are able to provide..

    Douglas Bruce


    1. Thank you for your query, Douglas.

      Neil’s ‘Clash of Empires 1914-1939’ covers the role of the United Board (UB) chaplains in these two theatres of war, including the role of Congregationalists serving with the UB in the FWW. Neil doesn’t cover the YMCA. For more specific information I would contact Birmingham University Special Collections which hold the YMCA archives. However, if you are interested in purchasing a copy of Neil’s work you can contact him via the Baptist Union of Scotland who will forward any details. It was through the BUS that I initially made contact with Neil.

      David Stowe


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