When the Boer War began in 1899 Britain’s imperial forces fielded six officially commissioned Catholic chaplains, who were increased to 12 by the surrender in 1902. But even though some 63 other priests enlisted as officiating or acting chaplains there was still an acute shortage, particularly to serve the 40,000 mainly Catholic Irish troops.
The government was particularly glad to receive help from the monks of the English Benedictine Congregation which after being exiled in Europe during the penal centuries had started to return to Britain after the outbreak of the French Revolution.
For their new book, Monks in the Military, James Hagerty and Steven Parsons have plucked from the Congregation’s archives, as well as some recent published works, the stories of the remarkable fathers who took temporary leave from the calm of their monasteries to share the dangerous lives of men in the trenches.
Dom Norbert Birt was one of three Downside monks who arrived in South Africa to discover the chaplain’s first lesson: military matters take priority. He was about to join the Leinster Regiment, which had not seen a priest for months, when they were suddenly sent off on patrol. Given a horse, he celebrated Mass in diverse places and camped on the veldt, but while he could say his Office in the saddle, meditation was to be a problem. Although having no doubts about the British cause, he was sickened by the wholesale slaughter of enemy livestock, which was unlikely to reconcile the Boers to Britain’s kindly rule.
Dom Stephen Rawlinson had an even tougher time, catching sunstroke and experiencing a Boer night attack when 70 were killed or wounded. Writing to thank his mother for the many prayers being offered him – “they are certainly required” – he recalled being cheered on obtaining wine to celebrate Mass after two months. His account of sleeping in swamps and living on quarter rations was reserved for his abbot.
Dom Eustache Fuchs of St Thomas’s Abbey, Erdington, did not experience front-line action. But he had the grim duty of attending a condemned soldier who had killed an officer, reciting the Our Father until giving the signal for the trapdoor to be released at the words “Forgive us our trespasses”. On returning from the burial deeply depressed, he was summoned to deal with a corporal who had committed suicide.
Soldiers’ complaints about not receiving the sacraments before going into battle was certainly one problem. The Protestant suspicion of “Romans” was less pronounced in the Army than in the Royal Navy. But Lord Kitchener had been concerned that Irish priests tending Catholics in English regiments might cause trouble by proselytising.
Yet Dom Ambrose Agius’s post-war volume of verse about his time in the trenches helped to overcome suspicion of Catholics in the front line; and Dom “Dolly” Brookes, a close friend of Field Marshal Lord Alexander, was awarded an MC for inspiring the Irish Guards on Anzio beach by reading his breviary under fire. However, I remember Dom Vincent Cavanagh saying that, unlike young officers from Protestant schools, Catholics never discussed their schooldays if non-Catholics were present.
While abbots appreciated their monks’ bravery at the front they were aware that every dead chaplain was a serious loss to manpower. After several years service under strain most were glad to return to the calm of their monasteries, which the Amplefordian Dom George Forbes said was as easy as slipping a hand into a well-worn glove. Nevertheless some were slow to adapt. Dom Bede Camm’s brethren joked that he wrote A Day in the Cloister because that was the longest he spent in one.
Back in uniform again in 1939, Dom Stephen had an ulcer and was deemed too old for front-line service at 74. But with an eye for slackers who did not celebrate Mass often enough and seemed reluctant confessors, he wrote a paper on the proper organisation of chaplains and moved to a training ship in heavily bombed Plymouth, where he conducted services and visited the wounded while carefully recording the heavy losses in bombing raids.
Since 1945 the number of chaplains has inevitably declined, though Dolly Brookes was appointed to Malta in 1953 and Dom Nicholas Holman was called up in the Suez action. But there has still been plenty of variety for their successors.
Dom Michael Fava of Farnborough served on operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. After the bitter civil war in Sierra Leone he found himself part of an international programme working with Christian and Muslim chaplains.
Serving with the RAF in the Gulf, Dom Gordon Beattie of Ampleforth found himself no longer appointed a “chaplain”, but a “morale and welfare officer”, though the men addressed him as “Father”.
He was subjected to four Scud missile attacks in two different countries, pausing on one occasion during the Offertory at a Sunday Mass to lead the congregation in donning chemical warfare suits before the celebration continued after the all-clear.
Monks in the Military is published by Downside Abbey Press, £14.99
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.