He has always borne the reputation of being a fearless priest, who allowed no dictates of expediency to stand between him and the goal which his conscience dictated. His methods have at times bordered on the unconventional, and have brought him unsought publicity. Often misunderstood by many people, he has made many enduring friendships by his deep qualities of sympathy and understanding.
Arthur Ernest White was born on 27 August 1883 in London, England. He attended Leeds University, and trained as a priest at the Church of England’s College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, West Yorkshire. He was a curate in Elland, Yorkshire, when early in 1912 the Bishop of Bunbury, Western Australia, travelled to England seeking priests for his newly established Bush Brotherhood of St Boniface.
The Bush Brotherhood, as it was known, was formed in 1911 and based in Williams. Here, a small band of priests committed themselves to itinerant work in a large agricultural diocese for at least three years.
White and six other British priests accepted the challenge of work in the large south west diocese. For White, who had always suffered from a painful ear condition, there was the hope of relief in a warmer climate. He arrived in August 1912 and moved into the House of Grace, built for the Bush Brotherhood near Williams, and formally dedicated in 1913. It was here that White lived ‘in a state of voluntary poverty’, making long journeys into the bush to meet the spiritual needs of isolated settlers. In September 1916, the Bishop of Bunbury reflected that ‘we miss today the genial presence of Brother Arthur White’. He explained that he had ‘felt called to offer one of its [the Bush Brotherhood’s] number for national service at the front’. White was that ‘offering’ and was already in France by this time.
White was on neither the First nor Second Convoys from Albany, but left Fremantle on 6 June 1916 with the 44th Battalion, AIF, aboard HMAT Suevic. The ship was farewelled with flags, handkerchiefs and streamers by ‘the biggest crowd that had ever assembled on a West Australian waterfront’. The ship was ‘uncomfortably crowded’ with a total of around 1,600 on board.
The failure of an ash valve to close in the bottom of the Suevic caused a leak, and as a result the ship had to put into Durban to be patched up by divers before the scheduled Capetown visit. The sea voyage lasted seven weeks and the troops were happy to reach England on 21 July 1916. They entrained for Salisbury Plain where they marched into Larkhill Camp, not far from Stonehenge.
Larkhill Camp comprised many huts spread over a large area. The routine included drills, kit inspections, route marches and parades. White conducted services, sacraments and religious instruction, providing counselling and general pastoral support. The 44th Battalion moved from the camp and embarked for France in late November 1916.
In November 1916, White went to the Armentières sector in northern France as chaplain with the 44th Battalion. Conditions were miserable. The first night was to be remembered as one of ‘icy misery, with a bitter wind howling across the top of the hill, and the slush and mud underfoot giving a foretaste of the great influence it was to have over the men’s lives during the next two years’. Over the next year, White’s service with the battalion was intermittent, owing to chronic health problems.
As a chaplain in France with the 44th Battalion, White provided spiritual support and counselling to the troops. He helped them cope with their day-to-day struggles as they lived with the appalling realities of the Western Front. The battalion suffered its first battle deaths at Armentières on 31 December 1916. Thereafter the chaplains were kept busy attending burial parties. White also provided practical support to the troops in the freezing trenches. He supplied amenities, assisted in writing letters home and comforted the wounded.
In his time on the battlefield, White thought deeply about the role and the future of the Anglican Church after the war. He felt confident that the Anglican Church was the best church for the nation but wondered if it would ‘stand the test of the battle field’. He hoped that the troops would return home to find a vibrant church so that the message he preached in France would not be lost.
In November 1916, no doubt as a result of the freezing, damp and exposed conditions of the Armentières sector, White began to experience the middle ear problems he had endured since childhood. In February 1917, his ear problem (otitis media) worsened. He reported pain in both ears and was transferred to the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth, on 11 February, so that the chronic inflammation could be dealt with. Here his septum was removed, but constant pain saw him discharged to Perham Downs convalescent facility in late March. He was transferred to the 1st Australian Division Base Depot and returned to France in late September 1917. Four weeks later, White reported sick with both ear drums perforated, and was again admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital. This time doctors declared him permanently unfit for service.
On the battlefield, White was always a sympathetic and understanding listener. He was conscious of the need to maintain the men’s morale despite the harsh conditions. White supported the use of alcohol in moderation to encourage ‘friendly feelings and the knowledge that one had mates, thus building up a unit’s esprit de corps’. His view was that beer ‘which sometimes inebriates, always cheers’. In 1918, when asked if he thought that alcohol was ruinous to the efficiency of the army, he answered that the only ruined army he knew of was the Russian, which had prohibited drink.
After being declared permanently unfit for home or overseas service, White left for Australia on HMAT Runic on 20 December 1917. He was admitted to No. 8 Australian General Hospital (8 AGH) in Fremantle on 6 February 1918, and discharged six days later. His appointment to the AIF was then terminated.
After his discharge from the AIF, White assumed a series of positions in Melbourne and quickly became a respected, well known and hard-working priest. His first post was chaplain at Caulfield Military Hospital, and it was here that he began to grapple with the future of the Anglican Church. In speaking to the Church of England Men’s Society (CEMS) in June 1918, he commented that in both England and France the Church had ‘awakened’. He complained that when he returned to Australia from the battlefields of France, he found the Church ‘asleep’. He likened the church to an army, and urged the 250 men in the audience to be the intelligence section. He added that: ‘most of the parsons were coming back from the front red hot revolutionaries’. He considered that ‘the church’s opportunity was now!’ And in one final word to the men of the CEMS, he urged ‘Hustle!’
In June 1918 White married an ex-Army nurse, Clara Elsie Welman, known as Elsie, in Sydney. Their son, John Francis, was born in 1919. White was appointed as curate to St John’s Latrobe Street Melbourne in 1919, and in 1920 he worked at Christ Church Brunswick. In May 1923 he was appointed Archdeacon of Broken Hill, serving there for over six years until his departure for Albany in late 1929.
White had always wanted to return to the south west of Western Australia, and in 1929 seized the opportunity offered. In September 1929, he was appointed rector of the Church of St John the Evangelist, Albany.
On 25 April 1930, his first Anzac Day in Albany, White started the day with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist at dawn, the time the convoys had left in 1914. In a later service, White led his parishioners on a pilgrimage to the summit of Mount Clarence, where they watched a wreath, tossed out by a boatman in the Sound, float out to sea. He believed that:
anyone could lay a wreath on a monument, but there was something beautiful about … dropping the wreath in the sea in memory of all those men who made their last contact with Australia here.
The Anzac Day service continues today.
White left St John’s and Albany in 1938, becoming rector at Forbes in the Bathurst Diocese. From this position he retired to Herberton, Queensland, in May 1954. Still eager to serve, he agreed to assist the Sisters of the Sacred Advent in caring for the spiritual life of the children of St Mary’s Church of England School. He died four months later on 24 September 1954.
In 1924, on the 10th Anniversary of the outbreak of the war, Archdeacon White reflected on the events of those four years, 1914 to 1918. He said:
War is a senseless way for civilian humanity to settle its differences. It releases the lower passions from restraint, spreads unhappiness everywhere and tends to exalt the power of hate into a manly virtue. . . . Ten years ago great things were done in order that a tyrannous menace might be destroyed, but these are the days when great things might be done to build up a righteous and just Commonwealth. Our men died for others. Now what is needed is the spirit that will inspire men and women to live, think and work for others.
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls – Arthur Ernest White
Brown, S, ‘The life and myths of Padre White’, radio transcript, ABC Great Southern, 28 April 2008, viewed 11 March 2014, http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/04/24/2226839.htm
Browning, N 2009, The Westralian Battalion: The History of the 44th Battalion AIF 1916-1919 and the Western Australian Rifles, First Reprint, Quality Press, Western Australia
Longmore, C. Captain 1920, ‘Eggs-a-Cook’ The Story of the Forty-Fourth, The Naval & Military Press Ltd in association with the Imperial War Museum, Great Britain
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office, B2455, Arthur Ernest White’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; WHITE ARTHUR ERNEST, 1914-1920
Herberton Community Website, Rev. Arthur Ernest (‘Padre’) White, accessed 12 March 2014, http://herberton.weebly.com/padre-white.html