Today is the memorial day of Saint Jean Marie Vianney (the Curé d`Ars) who died this day in 1859. We recall his great work performed after great trials and tribulations.
However we do not commemorate and celebrate as we should the great work performed quietly and without fuss by the vast majority of priests now and in the past.
Today is also the anniversary of the day ninety six years ago in 1914 when France and Germany declared war on each other, and Britain declared war on Germany. The carnage continued unceasingly until 11th November 1918.
Among the priests whose actions and work has been now overlooked are those priests who served in the Armed Forces during the Great War.
In some ways, by doing so, they performed just as great a service (if not greater) to their faith as someone like Blessed Cardinal Newman.
It will be recalled that in the Nineteenth Century and before, Roman Catholics in Britain had always been subject to the charge that somehow they were not really "British": it was alleged that they served two masters.
The canard of having a "dual allegiance" hung about Roman Catholics.
See “How Dreadful This Perversion”: John Henry Newman responds to Gladstone and John Henry Newman and the Issue of Infallibility
Newman had taken up the cudgels against Gladstone over this issue in his Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk on Occasion of Mr. Gladstone's Recent Expostulation (27 December 1874; published February 1875)
Gladstone had charged that " No one can become her [Rome's] convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom and placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of another."
Newman demolished him verbally, logically, theologically. But the whispers continued.
The actions of the British Catholic priests in the armed forces in the First World War played a substantial part in delivering the last rites for these canards and burying them.
And not only in Britain.
In the British Empire as it then was: Canada, Australia, and the other vast territories.
In France where the bravery of the French priests helped to turn the anti-Clericalist tide which had almost laid low the Church in France since 1905.
In Italy where an anti-clericalist regime and party had been in power since 1870 and had been daggers drawn with the Vatican.
As well of course as in the Opposite side: Germany (where Bismarck`s Kulturkampf was within living memory) and Austria-Hungary
These brave men did not fight but shared fully in the privations which their fellow soldiers suffered, ministering to their charges, dealing with their spiritual needs when Religion was still a serious matter, all at the risk of their own lives.
Most importantly through the Mass and the sacraments they brought and made manifest Christ to their fellow men trapped in a living Hell
In the battles nothing was sacrosanct. Towns, cultivated fields, churches and cathedrals were laid waste and became literally "wastelands" where men struggled to kill each other. Centuries of human civilisation and civilised behaviour were forgotten and overturned.
They fought on both sides of the various conflicts and battlegrounds we know as the First World War - a conflict which until then was without parallel in the history of mankind.
They had to serve in extraordinary situations which must have tested their own personal faith to the full
We do not know much about their experiences, their sufferings and deaths and what happened to the survivors after the end of the War.
Here is part of the lengthy account of one anonymous padre (probably non-Catholic) who was awarded the Military Cross and bar:
"The war treated me kindly. I was wounded, gassed, and had shell-shock, but they were all relatively slight. I received decorations which thousands earned quite as genuinely without recognition.
As a combatant private and a brigade chaplain, I was in almost every part of the line on the Western Front. I came through with a great pride in men and a bitter hatred of war.
Memories besiege my mind. I can only select. I remember vividly certain bonny lads of twelve or thirteen haunting our billets behind the line, touting for buyers of their sisters' bodies at 50 centimes. I remember also a mother offering her daughter of sixteen in a whisper as she handed out eggs and chips.
During one spell in the line a bantam battalion was on our right. They were sturdy fighters. One day a party of Prussians raided them and a huge German ran off with a bantam under his arm.
Our platoon sergeant during one period was an old Regular. He could carry drink well from long practice. Once when we were out of the line someone made a bet of 20 francs that he could not get drunk on French beer. He tried hard all one night. They carried him to his billet at closing time. He was very ill, but as sober as a judge.
There was no romance in the War for private soldiers. There were great days when there were comfortable latrines available and when the bread ration was four to a loaf. Such days were infrequent.
Life was unutterably boring. I was a company runner, but most men had an almost unchangeable routine.
We knew nothing about the meaning of our masterly inactivity. We received shells but saw no Germans save on occasional raids.
We felt that the War would outlast us all. Most men longed for a Blighty. When I became a chaplain I saw more actual fighting. I think of Arras. I was with the first brigade that lived in the catacombs under the town.
They were very deep below the ground and were lighted by electricity. They were huge, irregular caves out of which the stone of which the cathedral was built had been hewn. They were connected by passages with each other and with the sewers under Arras.
They were very silent, for men went out to work or fight and came back to sleep. We rested there before the Easter Battle of Arras, 1917.
In front of Arras I saw my first German booby traps. They had withdrawn quietly from their line, destroying most of their dug-outs as they went.
Our troops thrust out patrols to discover their new line. I visited a new company headquarters. In the corner of the dug-out there was a heap of dirt out of which a beautifully carved crucifix projected. I reached down to examine it.
"Good God! Don't touch it!" the company commander yelled. The bottom of it was attached to a bomb.
Battalion headquarters was in a huge German dug-out which had four entrances. Three had been destroyed and the fourth partially destroyed. In the main room there was a huge fire-place with a wide chimney.
In the chimney the brigade bombing officer found a large bomb and in other parts of the dug-out eight other bombs.
A fire would have exploded the lot. In my unit there was a superstition that it was dangerous to carry French cartridges.
I was going round with the C.O. during the later stages of the Easter show when we passed a dead soldier of our battalion. The C.O. examined his pockets and, curiously enough, found a clip of French cartridges.
We spent eight months in and out of shell-hole positions in front of Ypres. Often we came out less than half as strong as we went in. It was an animal and often beastly life. The wonder was that there was as much morality behind the lines after such an existence.
In this area I had my first experience of sportsmanship among Germans. The Menin road between Hooge Tunnel and Clapham Junction (a captured pillbox) was a raised road. Any working party setting foot on it was strafed by machine-gunners who had it under direct observation.
As a result, troops journeyed under the shelter of the right bank of the road. In one show for a number of hours I made journeys with wounded men down the road itself. Machine guns never opened on us. Round the entrance to the tunnel, however, we lost over seventy stretcher bearers by shell-fire.
One of the men we carried out was Private C. of a Cornish regiment. He was only twenty. Later I saw him at the advanced dressing station. He had one leg blown off, the other badly injured, and other wounds in the body and face.
The doctor said he could not live, but he did. I was with him as they dressed his wounds. Only seldom did he groan. Each time he looked up and said, "S-sorry , padre." He had a stutter. When they had almost finished he gave a twisted smile and said, "P-padre, the c-c-canary that k-kicked me had g-got hob nails in its b-boots." I saw him later in England. I wish I could see him again.
Early in I9I8 we took over from the French down south. It was a very quiet part of the line...."
On the British side, two Irish Jesuits stand out: Father Francis Patrick Browne MC and Bar, SJ (3 January 1880 – 7 July 1960) and Father William Doyle S J, M C( 1873-1917 )
Father Francis Patrick Browne MC and Bar SJ
Father Browne was born in 1880 in Cork, Ireland, the youngest of the eight children
He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest on July 31, 1915, aged 35. He then joined the Irish Guards as a chaplain. He served with the Guards until the spring of 1920, including service at the Battle of the Somme and at Locre, Wytschaete, Messines Ridge, Paschendaele, Ypres, Amiens and Arras in Flanders. He was injured five times during the war, once severely in a gas attack, and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar for his valour in combat.
For more about this remarkable man who survived the war see:
Father William Doyle SJ MC
Unfortunately Father William Doyle SJ MC, of the Royal Dublin Fusliers, 16th Irish Division, fell in the Battle of Langemarck in the Third Battle of Ypres, June 1917 - November 1917.
He was awarded the Military Cross in January, 1917 though many believed that he deserved the Victoria Cross
Here is an extract from Father Alfred O`Rahilly`s biography of Father Doyle (see below) which describes some of Father Doyle`s experiences on the Somme:
"The opening sentences of Fr. Doyle s next letter to his father (11th September, 1916) sufficiently indicate the terrible nature of the ordeal which we are about to recount.
`I have been through the most terrible experience of my whole life, in comparison with which all that I have witnessed or suffered since my arrival in France seems of little consequence ; a time of such awful horror that I believe if the good God had not helped me powerfully by His grace I could never have endured it. To sum up all in one word, for the past week I have been living literally in hell, amid sights and scenes and dangers enough to test the courage of the bravest ; but through it all my confidence and trust in our Blessed Lord s protection never wavered, for I felt that somehow, even if it needed a miracle, He would bring me safe through the furnace of tribulation.
I was hit three times, on the last occasion by a piece of shell big enough to have taken off half my leg, but wonderful to relate I did not receive a wound or scratch there is some advantage, you see, in having a good thick skin !
As you can imagine, I am pretty well worn out and exhausted, rather shaken by the terrific strain of those days and nights without any real sleep or repose, with nerves tingling, ever on the jump, like the rest of us ; but it is all over now ; we are well behind the firing line on our way at last for a good long rest, which report says will be enjoyed close to the sea.`
His previous letter had been written from Bray, near Albert, on the river Somme, where there was a huge concentration of French and British forces. Each morning Fr. Doyle said Mass in the open and gave Holy Communion to hundreds of the men.
`I wish you could have seen them,` he writes, `kneeling there before the whole camp, recollected and prayerful a grand profession surely of the faith that is in them. More than one non-Catholic was touched by it ; and it made many a one, I am sure, turn to God in the hour of need.`
On the evening of Sunday, 3rd September, just as they were sitting down to dinner, spread on a pile of empty shell boxes, urgent orders reached the 16th Division to march in ten minutes. `There was only time` says Fr. Doyle, `to grab a slice of bread and hack off a piece of meat before rushing to get one s kit.`
`As luck would have it,` he adds, `I had had nothing to eat since the morning and was famished, but there was nothing for it but to tighten one s belt and look happy`
There are occasions when even the world can appreciate Jesuit obedience ! After a couple of hours tramp a halt was called and an order came to stock all impedimenta kits, packs, blankets, etc., by the side of the road. Fr. Doyle, it is almost needless to say, held on to his Mass things, though to his great sorrow for five days he was unable to offer the Holy Sacrifice `the biggest privation of the whole campaign.` "
Quite a "cult" has now developed about this remarkable Jesuit, see
Here are some contemporary photographs of these priests in action and the places in which they carried out their vocations;
Emile Camille Albert Le Play b.1875
Mass at the 43rd division of the 29th regiment of artillery between Oostduinkerke and Nieuport 1915
4.4 x 10.6 cm
Musée de l'Armée, Paris
Paul Castelnau 1880 - 1944
Abbé Even, Almoner in the 51st division
10th September 1917
Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris
Father Louis Lenoir (1882-1917) celebrating Mass at Gravena (Greek Macedonia)
6.7 x 4.5 cm
Musée de l'Armée, Paris
Henri Terrier 1887 - 1918
Sub-Lieutenant Pape (sic) saying Mass in the 2nd Line of the 262nd Infantry Regiment1915
11.8 x 8.3 cm
Musée de l'Armée, Paris
A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).
French troopers under General Gouraud, with their machine guns amongst the ruins of a cathedral near the Marne, driving back the Germans. 1918. Central News Photo Service. (War Dept.)
A shell bursting on an Italian entrenchment
Italian front: Alpine troops with supply mules towards the second Canton of Stelvio
Austrian troops in Spring 1916 under Punta d`Albiolo