Prof. Joel Hayward's Books and Articles

Professor Joel Hayward, ZDaF, BA, MA Hons, PhD, FRSA, FRHistS

Prayers Before Battle

"Prayers Before Battle:
The Spiritual Utterances of Three Great Commanders"

by Dr. Joel Hayward

The [U.S.] Army Chaplaincy

Winter-Spring 2002, pp. 32-40.



"There is many a boy who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous speech at Columbus, Ohio, on 12 August 1880 sums up what most people who have lived through the privations and horrors of war — service personnel and civilians alike — actually believe about their experiences. War is frightening and destructive and tends to bring out the worst in people: hatred, cowardice, violence, brutality. It is hell.

Yet, paradoxically, war also brings out the very best human traits: love of country and kin, self-sacrifice, courage and comradeship. In many cases the ever-present specter of pain and death also raises interest in spiritual issues and creates a greater reliance on God’s grace, comfort and protection. Countless unknown warriors, and even many of history’s greatest leaders, fall into this category. Devout and God-fearing, they have seen true value in seeking God’s counsel and blessings before, during and after battle. 

This article focuses on three of warfare’s greatest commanders, two of them seldom thought of as devout or godly but often regarded as aggressive and warlike, to show that even those who choose the profession of arms, and excel at their “trade,” are not necessarily devoid of spiritual awareness. Relying on God’s will and blessings as much, if not more, than on their armies’ or fleets’ abilities, these three heroes nonetheless remained passionately committed to the justice of their causes and used all their energy and skills to attain victory over their enemies.

They also stressed the importance of prayer, asking God not only for protection and success, but also for generosity and humility if He should give them victory, and peace and comfort if He should withhold it. One of the prayers below even asks God for a submissive heart should He choose to take him from this world. Its prescient author died soon after, but with dignity, humility and a lack of fear. He accepted the Lord’s will and looked forward to being in His presence.


. . . . . . .


Prayer of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson
(Off Cape Trafalgar, 21 October 1805)

May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.    [1]


These beautiful words are found in the personal diary of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson (1758 - 1805), who is naval history’s grandest figure and the most well known and revered warrior in England’s pantheon of heroes. In an age when a successful admiral might gain one victory in fleet or squadron action during his lifetime, Nelson gained three: at the Battle of the Nile (1798), the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The scale and significance of these victories was also unparalleled. His taking of nineteen French and Spanish ships off Cape Trafalgar — the “great and glorious victory” he prayed for — gave him more enemy ships than any of his predecessors had captured or destroyed in all their battles put together, and, more important, it secured for Great Britain command of the sea for over a century.



Killed by a sharpshooter at the height of the battle, Nelson died the way he always wanted: at the moment of victory in a great battle in the service of his country. He had devoted virtually his entire life, from 12-year-old midshipman to 47-year-old vice admiral, to his great loves: God, his country and the Navy. For them he sacrificed much blood, an eye, an arm and finally his life. Yet, he was no saint. His vanity was legendary, as was his craving for fame. The only factor mitigating against his egotism, which often prompted foolish behaviour, was his total lack of malevolence. Unlike Napoleon Bonaparte, the other larger-than-life figure from the period, Nelson never sought to dominate, exploit or overpower people. 

Aside from during battle, which transformed him into a firebrand, he was consistently gentle, encouraging and generous and quite capable of weeping when friends and family — or even sailors on his ships — suffered misfortune. His seven-year affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of a British diplomat, also damages his otherwise spotless reputation, especially as the great love between them soon led him to separate permanently, and in unpleasant circumstances, from his ill-suited but long-suffering wife, Fanny. Yet, even that departure from the Christian values he extolled is balanced by the fact that that he remained deeply, rapturously in love with Emma, and she with him. In God’s eyes, he believed their union was blessed.

In any event, Nelson’s flaws and poor choices only show him to be typically human, capable of making mistakes like anyone else. He realised this, of course, and made peace with himself, as well as one can, by staying ever thankful for the talents as a warrior and the opportunities to use them that God had bestowed upon him. For over 200 years now, Britain has felt the same gratitude. And for good reason: no other Briton, with the possible exception of Sir Winston Churchill, has done more to inspire the nation to unite against tyranny. The Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington certainly won splendid triumphs, but they never raised national morale and inspired the British people to fight for victory to the degree that Nelson and Churchill did.

Nelson’s devotion to God, country and navy stems from his birth in September 1758 as the son of a humble Norfolk parson (who was doubtless his greatest early influence) and his entry into naval service at the tender age of twelve. His first years at sea brought him under the guidance of William Locker, a fatherly captain and faithful Christian, who inspired the young Nelson to share his loves of God, England and the sea. At age 18 Nelson rose to lieutenant and two years later to commander of a frigate. Thus, the 20-year-old became the youngest captain in the history of the Royal Navy.

He became a rear admiral and a household name in England following his heroic and skillful contribution to the Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797, and despite losing his right arm in a failed attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife later that year (to go with the eye blinded three years earlier at Calvi) he never caused the British people to grow disillusioned with his efforts. On the contrary, they delighted in the news that he destroyed Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion fleet on 1 August 1798, and forced the Danes, through a tough battle at Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, to cease supporting France and agree to a treaty with Britain. 

When a French invasion of Britain loomed in 1801, his great popularity prompted the Admiralty to place him in charge of Britain’s naval forces in the channel, where his presence would boost morale and reassure the fearful. After a short spell of peace with France ended in May 1803 and rekindled fear of invasion, an exhausted Nelson once more gave up the rest he craved to meet his nation’s expectation of vigilance, valour and victory. After trying to entice the French Mediterranean Fleet out of Toulon so he could destroy it once and for all, Nelson failed to stop it slipping through his net and escaping from the Mediterranean. Gripped by anxiety about its possible link-up with a Spanish fleet, which would probably attempt an invasion of Britain, Nelson doggedly pursued the French fleet for four months back and forth across the Atlantic. He failed to bring it to battle, but won further praise at home for protecting the West Indies and displaying such tenacity and dedication.

In September 1805 Nelson rejoined his fleet after a brief period of shore leave and prepared a final showdown with the Combined Franco-Spanish Fleet. This time he would not let it escape without battle. The stakes were too high. Nelson conceived a marvelous tactical plan. Rather than engage the enemy in parallel lines of battle (the pattern of naval warfare for over a century) he would attack the enemy fleet from a right angle, using two separate squadrons to break the enemy line into three sections, each of which would be defeated in detail. It was a bold plan — no, a most perilous plan, especially as it would expose the ships in the two spearheads to heavy cannon fire — yet Nelson, selfless and valiant, refused to place himself into a ship further back. To ensure proper execution and to inspire his sailors, he would remain in one of the two spearhead ships that would bear the brunt of the enemy’s firepower.

Nelson was acutely aware of the risks, for both his fleet and his own person. Five weeks before the battle commenced he wrote in his diary these moving, humble words: “May the great God whom I adore enable me to meet the expectations of my country; and if it is His good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the Throne of His Mercy. If it is His good providence to cut short my days upon Earth, I bow with the greatest submission, relying that He will protect those so dear to me, that I may leave behind. His will be done: Amen, Amen, Amen.”

On 21 October 1805, the day Nelson realised battle was imminent and drafted his famous battle prayer, he prayed on his knees in his cabin before ordering the enemy to be engaged according to his innovative plan. It worked marvelously, with the Combined Fleet suffering a humiliating and total defeat. Nelson lived long enough to learn that he had justified his nation’s trust and permanently removed the threat of invasion. “Thank God I have done my duty,” he sighed as he lay dying. He asked those present to ensure that Lady Hamilton and the daughter she bore him would be taken care of. Then, with his pain increasing and death approaching, his mind turned again to the Creator he soon anticipated meeting and to whom he had committed his soul. To Dr. Scott he whispered, almost as a rhetorical question: “Doctor, I have not been a great sinner.” The last words caught by Dr. Scott, bending close to the great admiral’s lips, were the fitting: “God and my Country.” Despite his flaws, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson had served them both extremely well.


. . . . . . .


General Robert E. Lee’s Call to Prayer
(Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 13 August 1863)


Soldiers! We have sinned against Almighty God. We have forgotten his signal mercies, and have cultivated a revengeful, haughty, and boastful spirit. We have not remembered that the defenders of a just cause should be pure in His eyes; that “our times are in His Hands,” and we have relied too much on our own arms for the achievement of our independence. God is our only refuge and our strength. Let us humble ourselves before Him. Let us confess our many sins, and beseech Him to give us a higher courage, a purer patriotism, and more determined will; that He will convert the hearts of our enemies; that He will hasten the time when war, with its sorrows and sufferings, shall cease, and that He will give us a name and a place among the nations of the earth.        -- R.E. Lee, General          [2]


Photographs of Robert Edward Lee (1807-1870), who ended the American Civil War as General in Chief of the Confederate Armies, reveal a gentle, meditative face that belies the warrior heart that beat within his breast. Yet he was a true master of war — the cruelty and horrors of which always grieved him — who earned fame in the Civil War as a righteous, resourceful and highly skilled leader of men. Respected even by his opponents, including General Ulysses S. Grant, his Union counterpart, Lee earned a reputation that has survived the passage of time.


General Lee’s entire life, like that of Nelson, can be summed up by one word: service. It began early with service to his family. When his father, a hero of the American War of Independence, died in 1818, the eleven-year-old Robert shouldered the responsibility of caring for his disabled mother and ailing sister. In 1829 he graduated second from the United States Military Academy at West Point, without a single demerit, and began his distinguished 36-year career military career of service to his nation. That career included combat in the Mexican War and a successful term as Superintendent of West Point. Family responsibilities forced him to take two years leave in the late 1850s, after which he was sent to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, to quell abolitionist John Brown’s ill-fated insurrection.

Lee’s reputation was so high when the Civil War broke out in 1861 that President Lincoln and Lieutenant General Winfield Scott offered him field command of the United States Army. Lee declined, considering himself duty-bound to serve his home state, Virginia, even though he personally did not favour the southern states’ secession from the Union. Lee soon became a general in the Confederate States Army but, for almost a year, his strategic mind and flair for battle were wasted on the organisation of coastal defences. By mid-1862, however, he had become both President Jefferson Davis’s principal military advisor and commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. In many great battles throughout the next three years Lee engaged and often beat stronger Union forces, demonstrating his ability to read a situation instantly, knack for anticipating an enemy’s movements, sure grasp of defensive tactics, and inspirational leadership.

Lee’s letters, orders and dispatches were routinely peppered with reverential praise and thanks to God. For example, on 15 July 1863, he closed a letter to his wife with these God-fearing words: “We are all well. I hope we will yet be able to damage our adversaries when they meet us. That it should be so, we must implore the forgiveness of God for our sins, and the continuance of His blessing. There is nothing but His almighty power that can sustain us. God bless you all.”

Believing that it was important to have an army which prayed as well as fought, he also encouraged and then strongly supported President Davis’s call for a national day of “fasting, humiliation and prayer” and issued the order of 13 August 1863 (printed above) as his own call to prayer. “A strict observance of the day is enjoined upon the officers and soldiers of this army,” Lee instructed, allowing the army a one-day suspension of all unnecessary military duties. 

In February 1865, Lee assumed command of all Confederate forces, but his well deserved promotion failed to save the southern cause, which simply could not overcome the north’s vast economic, industrial, logistical and manpower advantages. Two months later, on 9 April, Lee surrendered his army to his equally gifted rival, General Grant, in order to spare his hungry, weary troops further hardship. He accepted defeat as God’s will, and with tears streaming down his cheeks, bade farewell to his troops with these words:

After four years of arduous service, marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.… You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed; and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration of myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell.    -- R.E. Lee, General 

Lee’s greatest challenge actually lay ahead: convincing the southern states that, although God had allowed their enemies to triumph over them, they should accept His will and reconcile themselves to the outcome, which involved the restoration of the north and south as a single nation. Lee rose to the challenge and became one of America’s most prominent proponents of a just peace, a peace that would allow the south to rejoin the Union with dignity and honour. Lee’s Military Secretary later wrote:

He [Lee] set to work to use his great influence to reconcile the People of the South to the hard consequences of their defeat, to inspire them with hope, to lead them to accept, freely and frankly, the government that had been established by the result of the war.

Lee himself summed up his views in a letter to the Governor of Virginia, who found it hard to accept defeat. Lee gently told him that:

all [people] should unite in honest efforts to obliterate the effects of the war and to restore the blessings of peace.… They should promote harmony and good feeling, qualify themselves to vote and elect to the state and general legislatures wise and patriotic men, who will devote their abilities to the interests of the country and the healing of all dissentions.

Lee’s godliness, humility and devotion to the cause of peace certainly helped calm tensions in the immediate postwar period. And they did much for Lee’s already healthy reputation in the north. He became president of Washington College, Lexington, Virginia (today Washington and Lee University) and earned widespread praise for his devotion to his students and his inspiration to young Americans everywhere. His death on 12 October 1870 was mourned by northerners and southerners alike, and his name still invokes strong, and universally positive sentiments. 


. . . . . . .


Prayer of General George S. Patton, Jr.
(France, December 1944)

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.                  [3]

This prayer is probably the most famous battle prayer of the 20th century. It was written by a chaplain upon instructions from the toughest, most aggressive operational commander the Allies had in World War II: General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton, whom few would normally associate with such reverence and Christian devotion. Instead, he is well known for his genius for war as well as for his cursing, his vain and theatrical appearance and manner and his angry slapping of a soldier he considered cowardly. Yet he was devout and believed fervently in the power of God’s intervention. His most famous prayer (reproduced above) had a wide circulation, with 250,000 copies in card form being distributed to the soldiers of the United States Third Army at a critical time in the Allied advance through France towards Germany. And its apparent positive result — as requested, the torrential rains gave way to “fair weather for battle” — made it legendary. 

Aware after D-Day in June 1944 that defeat loomed, but still deluding himself that he might stave it off even at the eleventh hour, Adolf Hitler planned one last desperate attempt to stop the Western Allies and force a truce on them. If his Wehrmacht could drive a wedge between American and British forces by pushing through the Ardennes forest and taking Antwerp — in similar fashion to their 1940 attack — they might crush Allied morale and secure for the Nazi leader a negotiated peace in the west. The Wehrmacht could then concentrate on defeating his real enemy: the Soviet Union.

The Wehrmacht assembled three armies, totaling nine panzer and 14 infantry divisions (250,000 men in all), in the area behind the Ardennes forest. Hitler ordered total secrecy, and few of his generals received full briefings until a few days before the jump-off date. Rains, foggy weather, movements under cover of darkness, radio silence and careful camouflage all helped to maintain a higher than usual level of secrecy.

The complacent Allies remained convinced, despite several signs that trouble was brewing, that the Wehrmacht had taken heavy punishment since D-Day and could no longer mount anything more than a small spoiling effort in the west. As a result, the panzers and mechanised forces that burst out of the forest on 16 December 1944 achieved both strategic and tactical surprise. They quickly overwhelmed and drove back the relatively weak United States First Army elements guarding the Allied line along the Ardennes sector. By late-December those forces and their follow-up infantry had driven a large salient in the line and were well on their way to achieving Hitler’s goals. They benefitted from poor flying weather, which kept powerful and desperately needed Allied air forces grounded.

It was at this point that Patton, who brilliantly turned Third Army’s spearhead units at right angles to plunge into the German “bulge” and provide a strong defence against further German exploitation, witnessed his famous prayer going out to all his troops. An Episcopalian, and a regular in church attendance and practices (unless duty made his presence impossible), Patton often knelt in prayer during critical moments and seemed unconcerned by who saw him. He intended the card not only to encourage prayer in his army and foster Christmas cheer, but to bring the “fair weather for battle” that the Allies urgently needed. 

Despite the distribution date of mid-late December and the Christmas message on the flip side of the little cards on which the prayer was printed, the prayer was not actually conceived, as some people think, during Patton’s famous drive to relieve trapped American forces at Bastogne. It originated a month earlier, when Patton’s frustration at dreadful weather finally compelled him to telephone the Third Army chaplain and monsignor, Chaplain (COL) James O’Neill and request a prayer. “We’ve got to get not only the chaplains but every man in Third Army to pray,” he explained. “We must ask God to stop these rains. These rains are the margin that holds victory or defeat.”

O’Neill replied that he would soon return with something appropriate. He pondered the question: “What use would General Patton make of the prayer? Surely not for private devotion. If he intended it for circulation to chaplains or others, with Christmas not far removed, it might be proper to type the Army Commander’s Christmas Greetings on the reverse side.” So O’Neill drafted this message for the other side of the small prayer card.

To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God’s blessings rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day. 

G.S. Patton, Jr.
Lieutenant General
Commanding, Third United States Army

Patton was delighted and approved both messages, ordering that they be printed on a wallet-size prayer card that each and every soldier in his army could keep on him. The general then explained why he wanted the prayer written:

"Chaplain, I am a strong believer in prayer. There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working and by praying. Any great military operation takes careful planning or thinking. Then you must have well-trained troops to carry it out: that’s working. But between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown. That unknown spells defeat or victory, success or failure. It is the reaction of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes. Some people call that getting the breaks; I call it God.… God has His part, or margin in everything. That’s where prayer comes in. Up to now, in the Third Army, God has been very good to us. We have never retreated; we have suffered no defeats, no famine, no epidemics. This is because a lot of people back home are praying for us."

The prayer card went out to troops at about the same time as the Germans began their great attack. The timing was marvelous, as were subsequent events. Patton’s counteroffensive was truly a masterpiece of military maneuver, and within days the bad weather — which the Germans counted on and the Allies prayed against — cleared enough for American and British aircraft to cause havoc. The German advance petered out in early January 1945, having cost Hitler 100,000 casualties, 800 tanks and all his fuel reserves. Now he really had nothing left to stave off the destruction that brought his “thousand-year Reich” to a miserable end four months later.

Patton was naturally thrilled, proclaiming: “Hot dog! I guess I’ll have another 100,000 of those prayers printed.… Get him [Chaplain O’Neill] up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” O’Neill duly arrived and became the only US Army chaplain ever decorated with the Bronze Star for writing a prayer. “You’re the most popular man in this headquarters,” the general said. “You sure stand in good with the Lord and soldiers.” Then, as an affectionate gesture and a way of saying “well done!,” the grinning general gently cracked a humbled O’Neill on the side of his steel helmet with his riding crop.


Endnotes and Recommended Reading

1. Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, with notes by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas, GCMG (London: Chatham, 1998 reprint edition. First published in 1844-1846), Volume VII, 139-140. 

2. Captain Robert E. Lee, (son) The Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee (New York: Smithmark: 1995), 105-106.

3. M. Blumenson, The Patton Papers: Volume II 1940-1945 (New York: Da Capo Press edition, 1996. First published in 1974), 605-606.

C. Hibbert, Nelson: A Personal History (London: Viking, 1994).

F. Lee, General Lee: A Biography of Robert E. Lee (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994).

C. D’Este, A Genius for War: A Life of General George S. Patton (London: HarperCollins, 1995).


Dr. Joel Hayward is a senior lecturer in Defence and Strategic Studies at Massey University in New Zealand. He has published widely on doctrinal, tactical and strategic issues and is currently working on a thematic study of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, the great English naval hero.