Vicar in the trenches: The story of Reverend Theodore Hardy in the Great War. COMMEMORATIONS of the Great War feature soldiers, painters and poets. But there was one breed of non-combatants that has been rather forgotten: Chaplains. By the end of the war there were 3,500 clergy in khaki, going about their rounds in a dog collar and representing God while all hell broke loose.
They were a mixed bunch and many were frankly worse than useless. Padre’s who got the least respect were the ones who preached patriotism behind the lines and frightened the men going to the front. But some performed quiet miracles on the front line, earning undying admiration. Perhaps the most astonishing of them all was a small, unassuming country vicar and one-time headmaster from near Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. He joined up as a relatively ‘old man at 51.’ He was to become the most highly decorated non-combatant of the Great War, winning to his considerable embarrassment the Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross and the Victoria Cross. His name was Theodore Bayley Hardy.
He insisted on working in the thick of the fighting, belly crawling to men who were stranded or wounded in no man’s land with his habitual phrase: “It’s only me, boys.” He brought first aid, cigarettes and sweets and saved many lives by retrieving men who had lost hope. Soldiers grew used to his tenacious courage that should have got him killed umpteen times. Hardy arrived at the front in August 1916 as temporary chaplain 4th class, joining the 8th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment. His age was against him but he argued he would be useful on the front line as he was already a widower with grown-up children.
He added that although he was a coward he had no fear of death. That last part was to prove far from being a boast. His meeting with possibly the most famous chaplain of the war set the pattern for his ministry among the shell craters. Father Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy MC was a jug-eared young padre who thanks to his habit of handing out smokes to the wounded was known affectionately as “Woodbine Willie”. Studdert-Kennedy had this advice: “Live with the men. Go everywhere they go. “The best place for a padre is where there is most danger of death.” Hardy took this to heart.
He decided that his job would be in the trenches, when necessary under fire and in the slime. He soon showed his mettle. His DSO was earned when he went out to rescue a party of men stuck in the mud in no man’s land. It was the beginning of the so-called “battle of the mud”, an offensive known as Passchendaele, fought from the end of July 1917 in one of the wettest summers on record. The shells tore up the delicate lowland drainage system of Flanders and reduced the ground to a brown porridge that swallowed up men and mules. The casualties on both sides were horrific. Apart from the Lincolns also under Hardy’s care were the 8th Somersets. The men knew they had it when a tot of rum was issued at 3am, July 31 and they went over the top at the start of this immensely bloody campaign, fought mostly in sheeting rain. Hardy was with them.
By night the scene was carnage. The intense shelling drowned out the screaming of the wounded and dying. Hardy went out with the rescue party, bandaged wounds, carried the injured to a dressing station until all the men except one were brought in. He then organised a party for the rescue of this man and remained with him for 36 hours, chatting, encouraging and feeding the lad until finally death intervened. Hardy was eventually found in a shell hole, collapsed from exhaustion. He was awarded the DSO. It is believed that had there been sufficient witnesses a VC would have been assured. Within days Hardy clocked up the MC.Army Chaplain Theodore Bayley Hardy (circled) above. This time the troops were to attack on October 4, an action that earned one young man in the unit, Private Sage, the VC. He threw himself on a German grenade lobbed into a shell hole full of men. Amazingly he survived his wounds. Hardy looked after him. The weather had worsened by October and it took eight men to carry a loaded stretcher across the mud. Hardy went out with almost every team of bearers of whom a 100 were lost in a single week. Without sleep and under murderous shell fire Hardy went about his business with great calm and a kindly grin, a sight which kept the men from hysteria. This time he was awarded the MC for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to the wounded. Word had got around that Hardy was a useful man in a storm.
He was by 1918 extremely lucky to be alive. No padre had seen as much action as he. During the great German spring offensive in 1918 Hardy went on a series of patrols and raids between April 5-27, extricating the wounded and marooned. One Somerset lad was stuck in the wire with a mangled leg. He was slowly bleeding to death. Then he heard “it’s only me” as Hardy slithered into view. He tied up his wounded leg while discussing in school cricket in whispers. He left the boy and soon returned as promised with a sergeant who snipped the wire, deadening the sound with a cloth so the German machine gun post wouldn’t hear them. They got the lad back to safety – an incredible feat.
The sergeant got the DCM and Hardy the VC. Interestingly there seems to have been no gung-ho streak in Hardy’s make-up. He was not medal hungry. When told he had won the VC for a series of actions he said: “I really must protest.” It was a medal, which in the opinion of the men, “he should have had served up for breakfast everyday”. Hardy would habitually cover the array of ribbons on his chest with his arm so as not to put off young recruits who might be intimidated. Although appointed chaplain to the King, Hardy refused to leave the front. The best thing he could do was carry on, he reckoned. Inevitably his luck ran out.
The small figure of Hardy was last seen crossing the River Selle on October 10 to join his men. A machine gun was then heard and the padre was hit in the thigh. He told those who came to his aid: “I’m sorry to cause you so much trouble boys but I think I’ve been hit.” He was evacuated but a few days later, pneumonia set in and he died just three weeks before the Armistice – to the great sorrow of his men and the army as a whole. One hundred and sixty-three chaplains died in the war. There were other men of the cloth who lived exemplary lives at the front. But the respect and affection earned by Hardy was unique. If any single Briton deserves to be remembered for their unstinting humanity during that savage war the tiny, self-effacing Rev Theodore Hardy must surely be a candidate. Original story by Robert Gore-Langton. ‘Daily Express’.
Yet one more story of comradeship, unselfishness, and incredible heroism, which should never be forgotten…
The Royal Navy Chaplains attached to Commando Forces attend the ‘All Arms Commando Course’, which is a strict pass/fail and not a Gawd given right to a beret of green. In my time ‘under a green lid’ I met some cracking Padre’s; each of whom would attend a Company run-ashore at the drop of a hat, and spin dit’s that would make the devil blush. One particular little Welsh Padre was rumoured to have hollow legs, such was his capacity for real ale. And he could recite/sing every bawdy rugby song, which he quite often did in a hearty voice that put Tom Jones to shame… Yours Aye.