What have academics learnt about the war from Robert Keable’s writings?

What have academics learnt about the war from Robert Keable’s writings?

March 24, 2024

The 2024 Spring edition of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research includes my article on the South African Native Labour Contingent[i]. This is my first peer-reviewed article on the First World War and is an attempt to examine the recruitment, conditions of service and treatment of the men of the SANLC. For the article I leant heavily on the writings of Robert Keable who served in France as a chaplain to the Contingent.

I am not the first to use Robert Keable’s writings to draw conclusions about the war and I thought it would be interesting to look at a few other academics who have done so.

Dr Peter Howson

Peter Howson is a former army chaplain and Methodist minister who specialises – among other areas – in World War One chaplains. He has written a number of acclaimed books, but I was drawn to his article on the contribution of chaplains to the discussion of the nature of post-war society.[ii]

Howson's interest lies in the discussions that occurred in the Chaplain General’s office and the British high command about the future after the war. A few people believed that morale was dropping in the ranks of the army over a growing fear about what Britian might be like after the war. In order to explain to the soldiers what they were fighting for and what the future would look like it was decided that a leaflet or tract should be written and distributed to all members of the British Army.  

The leaflet was written but it seemed to go missing. It was believed that all stocks were destroyed during the German advance of March 1918. However recently , Howson found a copy in the Museum of Army chaplaincy.

In his article Howson examines the content of the leaflet. Of particular interest to me was the claim that the war was being fought to secure four main aims.

  1. Homes in which children would be enabled to grow up strong in body and mind.
  2. An education which gives children the fullest chance in life to which their fullest natural gifts entitle them.
  3. Industrial conditions which give the worker an opportunity of a full human life; and as a necessary means to an end, a spirit of good will and co-operation among all concerned.
  4. Justice for women; a resolute stand against prostitution – the self-discipline which keeps a man at his best, and maintains married life as our ideal.

Alongside the writing of the leaflet, it was decided to organise a lecture tour in France where soldiers would be told about the future awaiting them after the war.

Perhaps surprisingly there is very little mention of the leaflet or the lecture tour in the papers of the leading men involved.

Intriguingly the only real evidence that training began and that a leaflet was distributed to some men comes in two books by Robert Keable, his novel Simon Called Peter and his memoir Standing By. There is no mention in the papers of either Bishop Gwynne who was the prime mover of the plan or the diaries of O’Rorke, who worked closely with the Bishop.

Howson explains that Robert Keable must have attended a meeting recruiting chaplains for the lecture tour, as he lampoons such a meeting in Simon Called Peter.

In the novel Keable explains the scheme.

The scheme was simple and far-reaching. Lectures would be given all over the areas occupied by British troops. Every base would be organised in such a way that lectures and even detailed courses of study would be available for everyone. Every chaplain, hutworker, and social entertainer must do his or her bit. They must know how to speak wisely and well- not all in public, but, everyone as the occasion offered, privately, in hut or camp, to inquiring and dissatisfied Tommies. They would doubtless feel themselves insufficient for these things, but study circles were to be formed and literature obtained which would completely furnish them with information. He would conclude by merely laying on the table a bundle of the splendid papers and tracts already prepared for the work.[iii]

Keable goes on to explain in Simon Called Peter that the chaplains were told that regular soldiers would not be allowed to ask questions to the officers or get up and argue with them as that would be ‘subverse (sic) of all discipline.’ A Labour MP pointed out a fatal flaw in the scheme saying the men would not accept such restrictions. ‘They’re not going to line up like pupils of Dotheboys Academy, for a spoonful of brimstone and treacle.’ (Dotheboys Academy being Mr Wackford Squeers’s school in Nicholas Nickleby).

In the novel Peter Graham is recruited to begin training for the lecture tour but the whole scheme is ended by the German Spring Offensive.

Howson also points out that Keable, in his memoir of his war experience Standing By, obliquely makes mention of the topics that were to be discussed in the lectures:

Those things which England has been ready to die for, we mean to make England live for. They are: Homes, Full Education, Sound Industrial Conditions, and Purity.

These of course mirror the four aims quoted above. And Keable went on to quote the final page of the tract written by the someone in the Army Chaplains’ Department and signed by Field Marshal Haig, Major-General Simms and Bishop Gwynne:

The devotion and loyalty of the vast majority of our soldiers is centred on Christ Himself as the Leader. Men under him can and will bring in the Kingdom of God here on earth. In His Name we ask you to think of these practical questions, and to prepare yourselves to face them. With His Spirit understood and His Laws obeyed, surrounded by the unseen fellowship of those who - like Him - have died for others, we shall see the better England of our dreams and theirs.

Howson argues that the evidence from Keable’s novel and memoir was important in confirming both the training of the chaplains and the distribution of the leaflet.

Dr George Simmers

George Simmers writes a fascinating blog about World War One literature called Great War Fiction.[iv] In his PhD thesis on World War One fiction[v] he looks at the novels written during and after the war, and questions the extent to which the novels give us a true understanding of the soldier’s experience. His main point is that First World War fiction is so varied that it is very simplistic to suggest – as many commentators have – that the novels are ‘transmitting a propagandist message (either for or against the war)’ and he claims that careful reading ‘raises searching questions about warfare, about social relations and about human nature’.[vi]

Simmers looks at Simon Called Peter for evidence of a novel presenting a transformative element of the war. He points out that while many wartime texts show sinners being redeemed by their wartime experience, Keable was suggesting that the war could teach lessons to the sinless. He recognises that many readers were probably drawn to Simon Called Peter by salacious curiosity, but suggests that some, aware that the War had disturbed many conventional assumptions about sex and gender roles, were intrigued by Keable’s story.

Simmers focuses on the character Julie, in Simon Called Peter, the unconventional South African nurse, who he believes ‘is very different from the typical idealised nurse of romantic fiction’. It is interesting that Simmers concentrates on Julie since many of the early book advertisements, certainly in America, used descriptions of her to help promote and sell the novel. Two examples of quotes in advertisements:

The Public Ledger:  It is Julie’s story as well as Peter’s – Julie vivid, alluring, whimsical, worldly wise.’

The Boston Transcript: How few authors could have seen or depicted Julie! She is wayward and intoxicating and tender. She is gay and observing, friendly and loyal, and in the end she is strong, strong beyond most. Most of all she is lovable.

Simmers argues that the depiction of Julie allowed readers to address the fact that the War had not only affected men but had also changed the life of many women. Thousands of young women had left their sheltered lives at home to work in hospitals and elsewhere and had returned home transformed. A number of writers writing about their war experience, including Vera Britten[vii] and Irene Rathbone[viii], hinted about their sexual experiences. Simmers quotes the historian Cate Haste who said: ‘the war demolished the myth of female sexual apathy, since there had been so much evidence, and fear, of women’s sexual activity.’[ix]

Keable did not do subtlety. Julie is clearly not a virgin when she first meets Peter, and Keable does not hold back when he describes Peter and Julie’s weekend together in a London hotel. Simmers draws an intriguing conclusion about the success and possible importance of Simon Called Peter.

Keable's philosophy of love, formulated in high-flown idealistic language, offered a way for post-war readers to acknowledge and consider such experiences, and to explore unorthodox and potentially troubling ideas about how the disruptions of the War may have affected the men and women involved in it. Since the War has liberated its clergyman hero, the book’s final verdict on the conflict is a positive one; the assumptions of pre-war society have been shaken up, and realities have been acknowledged.[x]

Professor Michael Snape

Michael Snape is Professor of Anglican Studies at Durham University who has written – alongside many other topics – extensively about World War One chaplains. His 2011 article on Church of England Army Chaplains[xi] makes mention of the work of Robert Keable.

Snape’s general thesis is that the folklore and historiology of the war has falsely perpetuated a belief that the bulk of army chaplains skulked behind the lines while British soldiers fought and died in the trenches. Snape suggests this is a very unfair characterisation of over 5,000 chaplains who served during the war, and in particular the 60% who were Anglicans. Snape points out that during the second half of the war many Anglican priests were deployed near the front lines. 96 chaplains suffered fatalities from enemy action between 1916 and 1918, (at least 59 Anglicans); and over 400 were awarded medals for assisting wounded men under fire (including 3 Victoria crosses and 250 Military crosses).

Snape’s argument is that the anti-Anglican propaganda was perpetuated by a number of writers. He discusses the war journalist Philip Gibbs and the Manchester Guardian writer CE Montague who both criticised Anglican priests, but who had both showed before the war that they were both naturally inclined against the Anglican clergy. He also writes about Rupert Greaves and his very unreliable memoir Goodbye to all that. And he draws attention to the novel Retreat: a story of 1918, by Charles Benstead with its damning portrayal of an Anglican chaplain.

But much of his ire is directed at Robert Keable. Snape blames Keable for ‘providing titillating stories and scurrilous allegations concerning the clergy’ through his ‘work and career as a former chaplain’. Snape is very selective in his biography of Keable. He mentions his book City of Dawn as the forerunner to Standing by, ignoring his 7 other books and numerous articles written before the Standing By. He suggests he was not a member of the Army Chaplains Department (and so ill-placed to speak on other spheres of chaplains’ work) when in fact he was seconded to the department, and was part of the training group who were to deliver lectures to the troops on the future of Britain after the war. Snape’s main criticism is reserved for his writing and publishing of Simon Called Peter with the main character – a young chaplain – having an affair with a free-spirited nurse, having a sexually charged friendship with a French prostitute and going to parties where he kissed waitresses and put champagne corks down ladies’ stockings.’ Snape suggest the writing of the book and subsequent publicity helped batter the reputation of Anglican priests (after incorrectly suggesting he converted to Roman Catholicism before he died). He implies that Keable’s own relationship with a female driver during the war and his decision to forsake his wife for his mistress in 1922 did further harm. Although in reality his affair during the war and the decision to separate from his wife only became generally known in the 1980s.

I can fully understand why Snape believes certain writers immediately after the war helped give Anglican priests a bad reputation. A review of Simon Called Peter in the Eastbourne Chronicle soon after it was published expresses Snape’s view very well:

If they did not know how untrue it was, thousands of readers might gather the impression that life of our officers in France was one long round of drinking and immorality… The character of Peter Graham is a libel, an infamous libel, on those brave, painstaking, sympathetic fellows, the padres, who were often a comfort to the living and always a solace to the dying.

My worry is that Snape’s criticisms of Keable place the author alongside other writers who exaggerated or frankly made up tales of Anglican chaplains. I think it is important that we understand that Keable was an honest writer and even in his novel he wrote about things he had seen and experienced.  I am more than happy to concede that the Anglican chaplains have been unfairly treated by writers over the years, but I do think it is important that we accept that some did not behave themselves and did not acquit themselves as well as others.

It is also important to question the reaction of lower ranked soldiers to the padres. Keable’s whole argument in his memoir Standing By is that the vast majority of soldiers turned their back on religion. He claimed the chaplain’s role therefore was to ‘keep the men’s spirits up’, ‘provide them with amusements’ and to ‘offer a flavouring of religion sufficiently toned down so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings’.[i]  Snape quotes the official historian of the war Sir J.E. Edmonds as saying:

Nothing can be truer than that the troops liked having chaplains with them … they were a potent influence in the domain of morale, and often a useful link between the man in the ranks and his officer.[ii]

He also quotes a chaplain, F.R. Barry, who served in France who quoted soldiers saying: ‘I don’t know how we could get on without [the padre].’

Robert Keable in Standing By does not challenge this viewpoint. He wrote:

Every man you meet, when he gets to know you, will tell you what a rattling fine chap his own chaplain is; but every man who meets you looks stony, and shuts up … until he knows you.

I would suggest Keable is not such a bad witness as Snape suggests. I think we can all agree that some, perhaps most of the chaplains did good work and supported the men ably. But whether they did the job of a priest, preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, teaching the Faith, that I think is questionable.

Keable asked whether Christianity was ‘a dogmatic, sacramental, sacerdotal religion’ or ‘a theistic system of ethics’. His conclusion was that the British Army and the vast majority of chaplains accepted it was the latter.[iii]


[i] R. Keable, Standing By, Nisbet 1919, p. 35

[ii] Snape, Church of England, pp. 321-322

[iii] Keable, Standing By, p 41



[i] S. Keable-Elliott, ‘The First Ten Thousand, The First Battalions of the South African Native Labour Contingent in France in World War One’. The journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol.102, No. 408, (Spring 2024), pp. 59-78

[ii] P. Howson, ‘Reflections on the Contributions of British Army Chaplains on the Western Front to the Discussion in the Winter of 1917-18 of the Nature of Post-war British Society,’ The journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol.92, No. 369, (2014), pp. 60-72

[iii] R. Keable, Simon Called Peter, Constable 1921, p148

[iv] https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/george-simmers/

[v] G. Simmers, 2009, ‘Military Fictions, Stories about Soldiers, 1914-1930’, PhD thesis, Oxford Brooks University.

[vi] Simmers, Military Fictions, p. 263

[vii] V. Brittain, Testament of Youth: an autobiographical study of the years 1900-1925, (London: Virago, 1978),

[viii] I. Rathbone, We That Were Young (first published 1932) (New York. Feminist Press, 1989)

[ix] C. Haste, Rules of Desire: Sex in Britain: World War I to the Present (London: Pimlico, 1992), p56,

[x] Simmers, Military Fictions, p. 135

[xi] M. Snape, 2011, 'Church of England Army Chaplains in the First World War: Goodbye to 'Goodbye to All That'', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 62, no. 2, pp. 318-345.