John Wesley himself was drawn to preach to soldiers and noted their appearance in Methodist societies and congregations with pleasure. They provided him with some of his earliest itinerants, such as John Haime and Sampson Staniforth. Soldiers were the first to introduce Methodism in a number of other places. In 1769 there was a Methodist society of 32 at Gibraltar, with the approval and protection of Lord Cornwallis, the garrison Commander. But during the Napoleonic Wars a different attitude prevailed. The drilling of the militia on Sundays posed a question of conscience for Methodists. In 1803 members of the Gibraltar garrison were court-martialled and punished for attending Methodist meetings. The Committee of Privileges was the outcome of this.
W.H. Rule was the first to develop the concept of Methodist chaplaincy, first at Gibraltar and later at Aldershot, following the Crimean War. But there was a long struggle before Methodist preachers were permitted to care for Methodist personnel and Methodists themselves allowed to parade for worship at Methodist churches. This was granted in the 1870s by the Royal Navy and in 1881 by the Army. The first Garrison Chapel to be opened was at Aldershot in 1860. In 1857 Rule advocated the need for a Soldiers' Home at Aldershot and the first was opened there in 1869 during the time of Joseph Webster (1817-99; e.m. 1847). Similar 'Homes' (known as 'Wesley Houses') were later opened in all important military and naval centres. During World War I PM and UM (but not WM) chaplains worked in conjunction with Baptist and Congregational colleagues in a United Chaplaincy Board. At Methodist Union a Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force Board was established, with a secretary who liaised with the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry over the appointment of chaplains. In February 2019 a service was held in the chapel at Wellington Barracks to mark the centenary of the granting of the Royal Prefix to the Chaplaincy Department.
In World War II some 430 ministers served as chaplains, plus a few Wesley Deaconesses (serving without rank) with the Women's Services. But only in the post-war years have Methodist chaplains been granted the same status as Anglican clergy. In 1997 the Rev. David Wilkes OBE (e.m. 1973) was appointed Assistant Chaplain General to HM Land Forces, becoming Deputy Chaplain General in 2000 and in 2004 the first Methodist Chaplain General.In 1998 there were 21 full-time chaplains (including one in Ireland) holding commissions, plus 49 circuit ministers serving as officiating chaplains and 4 as territorial army chaplains. The link between forces chaplaincy and Methodism has been through Home Mission ever since the 1850s.
The Museum of Army Chaplaincy, formerly at Bagshot Park, is now located at Amport House, near Andover.
'For the most part the Padre's job was diverse, difficult and dangerous. On occasions he had to run the Officers' Mess, superintend the men's canteen, sell the cakes, the tea, the Woodbines at five a penny, accompany the troops on their long marches, footslog it on the cobbled roads, be exposed to the sweltering sun or the pouring rain, grope his way through the intense darkness, live with the lads in the narrow trenches, the flimsy shelters, the battered houses, the destroyed villages, the shelter of the ridges. Although unarmed he went sometimes with them over the top into the fury of the battle, not to fight, but to rescue the fallen, attend the wounded, minister to the dying, reverently bury the dead, write to their loved ones, break the sad news about wounds or death, and to comfort all who suffered or were in distress.
'Through all this and much more he was expected to show the brave face, maintain a stout heart, exercise a fine courage and fortitude, preserve and display a very high standard of morale and cheerfulness.'
R.F. Wearmouth, Pages from a Padre's Diary (1958) p.34