Fr Tom Nangle was a gallant and highly capable chaplain who spent two years in the trenches during World War I encouraging the survivors, comforting the dying and burying the dead. Afterwards he played a vital role in collecting the bodies and creating memorials across Europe to his fellow soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; but his own story was long lost in the cracks of history.
There were some doubts at St Patrick’s seminary in Co Carlow (where the island’s priests were trained) about whether he was ready for ordination in 1913, despite his obvious talents. But the Newfoundland Church urgently needed recruits, and when the war began the following year, he was working as a priest in the capital, St John’s. Fr Nangle immediately asked to become a chaplain, and was eventually granted his wish he forced the issue by enlisting as an ordinary soldier.
Some three months after the regiment had suffered 90 per cent casualties in half an hour in the French village of Beaumont Hamel – proportionately the highest loss of any unit on the first day of the Somme – he arrived at the front dispensing cheery confidence to Catholics and Protestants alike.
In one of his first telegrams home he wrote how all the Catholics came to Confession. The next day one man disappeared under a large shell. Another died on a German parapet, while a third was wounded in the stomach to survive for a week. On a visit to a ruined church, Fr Nangle recalled, he hopped into an unoccupied grave and listening to the music of a Maxim gun’s bullets zipping through the trees.
In addition to fulfilling his priestly duties under fire, Fr Nangle organised a hockey match on a frozen duck pond, helped to design a Christmas card and corresponded with the governor of Newfoundland. But when he returned home on leave after being wounded in the shoulder, he incurred archiepiscopal disapproval by speaking at a recruitment meeting.
Following the Armistice, he returned to parish duties for four months. Then he was appointed to the Imperial War Graves Commission and dispatched by the Newfoundland government to collect and re-bury his countrymen’s remains, a gruesome experience he found more dispiriting than performing the Last Rites. Although accompanied by a stretcher-bearer, he found it difficult to identify where actions had taken place. Many of the bodies recovered had lost their cloth identity discs and were little more than a gelatinous mass, while the stench affected the health of the diggers. What depressed him was the knowledge that he had encouraged these young men to join up as “thoughtless cannon fodder”.
The formidable Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche of St John’s asked for a tour of the battlefields and granted him permission to celebrate Mass wherever he went for a year. Fr Nangle helped to choose the sites on which a statue of a magnificent caribou stag, its head erect trumpeting from a rock, would be placed in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Britain. But these were going to be a financial burden for an island experiencing the early winds of post-war depression.
His manner too did not win unanimous approval. A new governor declined to support his appointment as a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. There may also have been some resentment of his rise to lieutenant-colonel to serve as aide-de-camp to Earl Haig, the commander-in-chief, on his visit to the island for the unveiling of the dominion’s national monument. Talk had drifted from the front about him being married, but was dismissed. This must have been resented all the more when his decision to leave the Church was confirmed in 1925. The absence of any mention of him in the diocesan archives is evidence of the shock this caused.
At first he considered emigrating to Australia, but was put off by the prospect of its large Irish population and instead chose Northern Rhodesia, which had few Catholics. Marrying a local girl 20 years his junior, with whom he had four children, he farmed and was briefly an MP before becoming a popular mayor of Que Que, where he ran a newspaper and gave his pension to needy South African veterans.
Nangle never returned to Newfoundland, but his family believe he had contact with the Church in his last years. The shroud of silence which had descended on his memory was only lifted in the last decade, according to his biographers.
Today his achievements and the enormous strain he bore are now acknowledged by the Church. The Most Rev Martin William Currie, present Archbishop of St John’s, expressed regret about his treatment when a plaque about him was unveiled at his school, St Bonaventure’s College, last month. A street has been named after him and an opera entitled Ours composed about his story.
Soldier Priest in the Killing Fields of Europe by Gary Browne and Darrin McGrath (Downhome Books, St John’s, Newfoundland)
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