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Dominican Chaplains in World War I

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The English Province archives reveal the wartime ministry - and suffering - of the Friars.

The Wayside Cross

One hundred years ago this summer, shortly before the battle of Passchendaele was launched, Dominican friars at Woodchester erected a Wayside Cross close to their priory. Consecrated on Trinity Sunday, 3rd June 1917, it was one of the earliest memorials to men who lost their lives in the Great War. Re-dedicated this June by Bishop Declan Lang, the anniversary also recalls the role which English Dominicans played as military chaplains during the war. No fewer than seventeen friars served as chaplains at different periods; the largest number were attached to the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, though some were sent to Gallipoli, or were stationed in Egypt, Palestine, and further East, while a few acted as naval chaplains. Priests of different characters and ages (the youngest was twenty-seven when he became a chaplain, the oldest sixty-five, though most were in their thirties), much of what they experienced is now lost, but what little we know reveals their dedication and no little suffering.

1936: Procession at the Wayside Cross at Woodchester.

The Friars' War

Some were dogged by ill-health and injury. Dysentery put Frs Thedore Bull and Ethelbert Rigby into adjacent beds at a Maltese hospital in 1915. From there they had gone to Gallipoli, where Fr Bull was later injured. No sooner had Fr Albert Knapp transferred to France in 1916 than he was seriously weakened by influenza, and he would later be debilitated by recurrent bouts of enteritis. Fr George Naylor crossed to France in mid-October that year, but a letter of 1st December from the Assistant to the Principal Chaplain related that 'The Rev. G Naylor... has already broken down and will I conclude be evacuated to England with Chest trouble very shortly.'

His right lung had haemorrhaged in the trenches. Though he recovered sufficiently to be sent in 1917 to the Middle East, he was struck down at Baghdad by tuberculosis in June 1918 and invalided out of the army.

A few flourished in their new role. Fr Sebastian Gates was dispatched to Gibraltar at the end of 1915 and remained in the navy until forced to retire in 1921 at the age of seventy. A fearless and candid man, who identified closely with the sailors whom he served, these were said to be the happiest years of his life. A confidential report shows that Fr Felix Couturier, assistant to the Principal Chaplain in Egypt from December 1915, soon proved himself 'a chaplain of outstanding ability, strong character, an excellent administrator, and organizer: hard working and tireless'. Awarded the MC, he so impressed the Foreign Office that it advanced his appointment as Apostolic Visitor to Egypt in 1919.

For many friars, their service as army chaplains brought first-hand experience of the harsh conditions and terrible suffering involved in modern warfare. Fr Dunstan Sargent was on his way to England from Grenada, in order to serve as a chaplain, when his ship was torpedoed. He spent the night in a water-logged boat on a rough sea. Fr Gilbert Tigar wrote from the No. 7 Casualty Clearing Station in 1916 to ask readers of the Dominican magazine The Rosary for rosaries ('about a gross a month') which he gave out to the wounded. He had a room at the top of the hospital, a former school, where his table was 'two bacon boxes' and his chair another box 'Brooke Bond's tea pattern'. When the hospital moved to a former convent, he found the chapel turned into a ward for the most gravely injured to whom he gave the last rites. Fr Bernard Delaney kept for many years after the war the detailed instructions to chaplains on the burial of the dead and the recording of their graves.

Fr Raymund Devas had two brothers, a Jesuit and a Franciscan, who also served as army chaplains in France, and their occasional meetings were a source of strength, but another brother, a regular officer, was killed on 13th November 1916 not long after serving Fr Raymund's Mass. Fr Raymund himself was awarded the MC in 1918 for 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in visiting front-line trenches during heavy fighting, where his coolness and courage greatly assisted in maintaining the confidence and morale of the men'. The previous 30th November, Fr Bertrand Pike had been in the 'Gloster Rd', a sunken road about eleven miles south of Cambrai, where he was helping the Battalion Medical Orderly with the wounded, when German soldiers suddenly took them prisoner. He would spend the next three and a half months as a Prisoner of War. On his release, he returned to the trenches, from where he appealed to readers of The Rosary magazine for copies of 'the Storyteller, Premier, Nash, and the Royal, etc.,' so that the troops could read 'when out of the trenches for a few days' and so 'forget for a short while the horrors of the line'.

Ministry to 'Deserters'

One of the hardest tasks faced by the chaplains was to accompany in their final hours soldiers who were to be shot for 'desertion'. Late one night Fr Paul Weeks learnt that a soldier of his had been condemned to death. According to a later account by Fr Edwin Essex, the man was not a Catholic, 'but, being regarded as a "bad lot" by his own chaplain, had been left to face death as best he could. Fr Paul thought otherwise. All that night he spent in a fruitless effort to obtain for the man an eleventh-hour reprieve; having failed, he returned to the doomed soldier, talked to him of the life to come, received him into the Church, and, the next morning, stood by him as he bravely faced the firing squad.'

Fr Delaney was instrumental in getting one young deserter released after his papers were providentially lost. He also remembered the courage with which another deserter faced death after refusing to return to the line: 'He died bravely and without flinching. He made his confession and received Holy Communion and came out to meet death walking erect, smart and polished to the last button.'

At the end of the war, most of these chaplains returned to the Province. It is impossible to gauge how deeply they were changed by their experiences. Not a few would serve on the missions. Frs Pike and Naylor would be sent to South Africa; Fr Gates and Fr Devas would spend many years on Grenada. Fr Rigby left the Order. Fr Bernard Delaney would become Provincial. Fr Felix Couturier became Bishop of Alexandria, Ontario, in 1921. We should not forget their ministry to so many hundreds if not thousands of soldiers.

– Fr Richard Finn OP


Peter James commented on 10-Jul-2017 09:10 PM
I understand that Fr Henry St John Bede O.P. one-time Master at Laxton and the first Head Master at Llanarth was according to his tales of his times in the Trenches a Chaplain in the First World War telling us pupils just how quickly he could say the essence of the Mass in order to give Holy Communion to the Troops prior to their going over the Top with a very high chance of being killed, A much loved man in spite of being a strict disciplinarian . Peter James.
Anonymous commented on 10-Jul-2017 09:55 PM
A remarkable, unknown story, well researched and lovingly recorded - for which thanks.
Mrs R. Camp commented on 27-Aug-2017 08:37 PM
Many thanks for such an interesting and touching article. May I ask what became of Fr Ethelbert Rigby after he left the order?

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