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The Jesuit who photographed the First World War

Fr Francis Browne (Wikimedia)

Father Francis Browne SJ was already famous for taking the last photos of the Titanic

We are still in November 2018 – the centenary month of the ending of the Great War. Despite the changes in society in the last 100 years, not least the decline in formal religious belief and practice, respect for the sacrifices made by a generation of young men in World War I has only grown with each new generation. In our village, 40 years ago, only a handful of people stood by the war memorial on 11 November. The numbers have slowly expanded so that today there are probably 100 or more. It seems that the further removed we are from the actual carnage, the greater our collective wish to mourn it.

Following a mention of the priest and photographer, Father Francis Browne SJ (1880-1960) in my recent blog on a book about the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another book was sent to me: Father Browne’s First World War, edited by E E O’Donnell SJ (Messenger Publications). It deserves a mention, not only because of the quality of the photographs themselves but because of the personality of the man who took them. As O’Donnell writes in his introduction, “Frank Browne was a genuinely holy man. He always put his priesthood first and foremost. I feel certain that he would like to be remembered as a good priest who took some good photographs.”

The young priest was sent to France in 1916 as chaplain to the Irish Guards. His ministry included the Somme, Messines Ridge, Paschendaele, Ypres, Amiens and Arras – almost all the well-known areas of conflict. Wounded five times and once severely gassed, Browne always insisted on returning to the front line. His commanding officer, Colonel Harold Alexander, later Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis, wrote when he died that “Father Browne was the bravest man I ever met.”

Alongside courage were modesty and devotion. 2,300 Irish Guards died in the war and the chaplain had to write many letters of condolence. Never merely a ritual expression of sympathy Browne always gave them a personal touch, writing to one mother that her son was “a dear good lad” with whom, a few days before his death, he had “had a chat about Galway…He still preserved the little bit of shamrock that came to him with your letter of 14th…” while to another, written shortly after the first, he wrote regretting that he could not give her any definite details of her son’s death: “From the nature of the fighting you will understand that that no matter how hard I tried, I could not reach all those who fell in time to administer the Last Sacraments.”

A close friend of the revered WWI chaplain, Fr Willie Doyle SJ, Browne wrote after his death on 16 August 1917 that in recent months “he was my greatest help and to his saintly advice and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything that I felt and did…May he rest in peace – it seems superfluous to pray for him.”

All this puts the photographs themselves into context. Already famous for taking the last photos of the Titanic on her maiden voyage in 1912 (Browne was ordered off the ship at Cork by the Jesuit Provincial, an order that saved his life), he showed a rare gift for composition, atmosphere and for seizing on the most resonant aspect of a scene, demonstrated in his “Interior of fortified hut, Flanders 1917”, the hut he and Fr Doyle used for Mass. Generally his photos were uncaptioned; they speak for themselves, such as one of the Front Line near Bethune (1916) showing a solitary soldier marching through a ruined landscape; soldiers attending to a dying comrade in the trenches; or the devastation of the beautiful medieval Cloth Hall in Ypres (1917).

It was also Fr Browne who took the photograph of Rudyard Kipling at the Irish Guards’ barracks in 1919, gazing straight at the camera, immobile in grief. His only son John was killed while fighting with the Irish Guards and his father was painfully aware that if he had not used his influence on John’s behalf, his son’s poor eyesight would have barred him from fighting. In Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards, written in memory of John, there are more than 20 references to Father Browne.

One image can convey more than innumerable words; with his eye, hand and heart in careful and sympathetic alignment, Browne’s memorable photos remain a permanent part of a sorrowful record.