New Research In Military History Conference, Toc H, and the Battle for Identity In Inter-War Britain

Posted by Bethany Rowley

On the 17th and 18th of November 2017, I was honoured to attend and present my research at the 8th New Research in Military History Conference held at the beautiful St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Sponsored by the Society for Army Historical Research, this conference brought together all aspects of military history, which was presented by researchers from across the world. Having never presented at a conference before, I was nervous and unsure of what to expect. The day started with a welcoming speech from Dr Matthew Ford (University of Sussex), who along with Adam Storring (University of Cambridge), Arthur Kuhle (Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin), Tobias Roeder (University of Cambridge), and Lucia Staiano-Daniels (UCLA) helped organise and wonderfully run this conference.

Across the two days there were twenty-eight panels with three speakers in each. On the 17th, the day I was presenting, there was also a talk on publishing over lunch, and a keynote lecture at the end of the day. This was by Professor Brendan Simms (University of Cambridge) who discussed ‘La Haye Sainte: the writing and the relevance’, and how he was hoping to turn his research into a video game. Chaired by Professor Bill Allison (Georgia Southern University) my panel was called ‘POW’s, Lost Cause and Identity’ and we presented in The Boys Smith Room. Anne Buckley (Leeds University) spoke first. She talked about her work on the motivations for the camp activities of officer POW’s in the First World War, using Raikeswood Camp, Skipton (North Yorkshire) as a case study. Interestingly, she incorporated objects from the camp into her talk. Then, Jean-Michael spoke about the western powers and German POW’S during the Second World War as he discussed sharing the burden of Hitler’s soldiers. I was next. The question and answer session which followed was luckily informal and sparked lots of useful discussion and debate.

Below is a summary of the talk I gave. It was titled: ‘Disabled ex-servicemen, Christian Charity and the Battle for Identity in Inter-War Britain:

What is Toc H?

At Sanctuary Wood in July 1915, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot of the Rifle Bigrade lost his life at The Battle of Hooge.[1] In December, Talbot House was opened as a response of the army authorities and the Army Chaplains Department to the lack of recreational facilities at Poperinge, Belgium. This was the work of Gilbert’s brother, The Reverend Neville Talbot, senior chaplain to the Sixth Division of The British Expeditionary Force.[2] Calling upon the Reverend Phillip ‘Tubby’ Clayton for help, they wanted to provide an alternative to the estaminets and brothels of the town. For Talbot, Clayton, who had been stationed at number sixteen-base hospital at Le Treport since arriving on the Western Front early in 1915, seemed the ideal man to ensure the success of this rest house, with his eccentric personality and ability to mix with soldiers of all rank.[3] For Allied soldiers wanting respite from the Front Line, Clayton ran the centre as ‘a home from home where friendships could be consecrated and sad hearts renewed and cheered’.[4] Turning the top floor into a Chapel, Christianity remained at the heart of this home.

In the Great War, there was only one house, but, by the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, there were 1,500 around the world.[5] Perpetuating the work and ethos of Talbot House, this became known as the Toc H movement. [6] After the Armistice, Talbot House was referred to by its initials in the Army signaller code of the time, and subsequently became known as Toc H. Talbot and Clayton believed that the best way to help ex- servicemen in inter-war Britain was not financial or domestic interference, but through acts of service. The same principles apply to the organisation today.

Toc H: War Disability and Identity

As my research progresses it is becoming increasingly evident that charities offered less and less religious aid or service to disabled ex-servicemen as the distance from the conflict grew. Although inherently Christian, Toc H does not challenge this interpretation.

For example, A nameless Toc H Padre wrote ‘A Litany Concerning Toc H’ in 1915:

“Father, let Thy Hand uphold/ The named and nameless dead; The maimed; the blind;/ The Deaf; the dumb;/ The living half-forgot/ The lone hearts still comfortless, / The mind that has dethroned its reason/ The soul that has enthroned its doubts, / the men that move like pawns, and stray like sheep. Bless them and keep them ……/ With our blessed dead in rich remembrance, as thus we seek to raise up children to them, help us no less to be ourselves Thy children, through Thine Own Son who died for us, Christ Jesus, Lord’. [7]

From the early days of Toc H’s existence, the war disabled were therefore held in the hearts, minds and prayers of Padres and the men who visited Talbot House in Belgium. But, as Toc H spread across England this disability focus appears less and less prominent. Whilst documents detailing efforts by Toc H to relieve unemployment exist, such as advertising jobs for members in local newspapers, no documents exist on specific schemes for disabled ex-servicemen. Likewise, Toc H policies on the disabled can be found, along with measures to help the ‘blind, dumb and deaf’ across Britain, but, no evidence has been found detailing specific care measures taken by Toc H for the war disabled. Interestingly a policy for allowing disabled men to become members, which focused on accepting the physically and not mentally ill, was only considered by Toc H after both world wars in 1959. [8]The difficulty the organisation had in allowing disabled and men of non-Christian faith to join, suggests that it was not an exclusive organisation despite advertising that it was ‘open to all children of God’. Conforming to social expectations to be a member of the Toc H ‘family’ you had to be male, Christian and healthy. Very rarely were exceptions made, and if they were it was when a man became disabled after he was already a member.

Religious and masculine identity thus intertwine with the recurring family metaphor in Toc H literature. In published books by members, their annual journal and in newspapers, Toc H enforces that a man’s primary responsibilities are his home and daily work, unsurprising as family and love is referenced in The Four Points of Compass. These are the aims by which Toc H members should build their lives by: Friendship: To love widely: Service: To build bravely: Fair-mindedness: To think fairly: The Kingdom of God: To witness humbly.[9] As reported above, membership disputes suggest that ‘fair-mindedness was not always applied. It was later suggested that the Fourth Point should include ‘to spread the Gospel without preaching it’. This was not included. It has instead become a motto rather than an aim, as it reminds members that in Toc H, Christianity is determined by actions and not words, and that ‘lives speak while words are only spoken’. [10]

This ‘family’ analogy extends beyond domestic circles to the love of God: Toc H is first and foremost a ‘Christian Family’. Members, wrote Tubby in 1921 are ‘just a cross section of mankind, differing in their ideas on nearly every subject under the sun, but bound together in the belief that they are all one family, and that some of the things which divide them are imaginary and the rest of their own making’. [11] As such, Toc H was both a religious and social ‘experiment’. This is also an inherent paradox of the organisation. With such a focus on equality, women could not become members and it was agreed in 1924 that they should have their own organisation rather than join Toc H. This was ‘The League of Women Helpers’. Thus, the family referred to was one of men and not women. Masculine domesticity and the Christian position of men at the helm withheld. Hence, familial ties amongst men and God were behind the rapid growth of Toc H. The answer to what Toc H is and male identity within this Christian platform therefore must, as argued by Clayton throughout the 1920’s and 30’s ‘be sought in the lives of men’. [12]

[1] Birmingham University Special Collections: Toc H – Section 6 – History/POW, Toc H In The Countryside, Toc H Publications – no date, p.3

[2] T. Lever, Clayton of Toc H (London, 1971), pp. 40 – 42.

[3] Parker, Linda, A Living Memorial – The Toc H Movement and Talbot House as ‘Living Memorials’ (unpublished article), p.5

[4] P. B. Clayton, Tales of Talbot House, p. 36; Lever, Clayton of Toc H, p. 44.

[5] Birmingham University Special Collections: Booklet: The Story of Toc H – author only given as B.T.D and no date – printed in England. P.5

[6] Parker, Linda, A Living Memorial, p.1

[7] Birmingham University, Toc H Section 10, B2, A Treasury Of Prayers and Praises For Use In Toc H: the spirit of the man is the lamp of the Lord – reprint of the 1924 edition – July 1926 – p.15

[8] Birmingham University, Toc H Section Two, SP1: Policy Regarding Handicaps

[9] University of Leeds, Liddle Collection C-50/ TOC, Toc H defined, p.7

[10] Harcourt, Tubby Clayton, pp. 88-90; University of Leeds, Liddle Collection C-50/ TOC – Toc H defined, P.12

[11] Birmingham University Special Collections, Toc H Section 6: Booklet: The Story of Toc H, p.7

[12] Birmingham University Special Collections: Toc H Section 5 PC6, book three, – Press Cuttings 1932-1935