From St Beuno's to the trenches: SJ Chaplains in WWI

Published on 19 Jun 2018
Trenches near Angres Wikimedia Commons

by Tim McEvoy

‘It is pouring with rain and I am writing in a damp tent, while … shells are flying over my head towards a gun of ours in the rear. In the week I have been “in it.” I could, I think, count on one hand the hours of sleep I have had. You simply could never imagine the inferno at night.’[i] So writes Fr R. Garrold SJ from the trenches of the Western Front in October 1916. He was one of a large number of military chaplains sent by the English Province of the Society of Jesus to serve troops during the First World War. Together with the Irish Jesuits and the English Benedictines, they provided the bulk of the Catholic chaplains ministering in the armed forces who were conspicuous for their presence on the front line.[ii]

St Beuno’s played a significant role in this history. One hundred years ago last month, eleven young Jesuits were ordained priests in the Main Chapel and, we are told, were immediately offered by the English Provincial to the Bishop for the Forces as military chaplains. ‘Frs. F. Sharkey, E. Carter, and 9 others recently ordained – This will bring the number of Chaplains the Province has sent up to 84. Of these two have been killed (Frs. D. Doyle, Monteith) … The eleven new Chaplains mentioned above left for France on May 8 and 28.’[iii]

One year previously, the situation at St Beuno’s had been much the same. An entry from March 1917 records ‘All the 4th year Theologians have left St. Beuno’s either to become Army Chaplains, or to take the place of others in the Colleges.’[iv]

These men were rushing to fill a perceived shortage of Catholic chaplains, whose primary role was regarded, by themselves and their superiors, as that of administering the sacraments to Catholic servicemen. Demand had exploded, particularly amongst the Irish regiments, and initial official distrust on religious and political grounds had gradually relented. Typically, in the army, there were 12 chaplains present to a division (which could range in strength from 8,000 to 30,000 men) of whom 4 were Catholic, 4 Church of England and 4 Non-Conformist. At the very start of the war there had been only 12 Catholic priests in total serving the British Expeditionary Force, and Lord Kitchener had been extremely reluctant to increase their number. [v]

Some of these Jesuits have entered the annals of military history. At least 12 received the Military Cross for gallantry, including Fr Henry Day, who had been present at Gallipoli. Perhaps the most famous is the Irish Jesuit, Fr Willie Doyle, chaplain to the 16th Irish Division, who was mentioned in despatches for his heroic conduct during the Battle of Loos and eventually killed in the Battle of Langemarck on 16 August 1917.

But there were lesser known heroes too, including Doyle’s namesake mentioned above, the English Fr. D. Doyle, chaplain to the 2nd Leinster Regiment (recruited from Ireland), who was killed at the Somme in August 1916. His letters were frequently printed in the Jesuit periodical, Letters and Notices, and provide a sobering glimpse of life as a military chaplain during the war.

In a letter dated 14 January 1916, Doyle describes the day his regiment was moved to the front, their task to hold the line between two roads nick-named Oxford Street and Regent Street:

‘Up at 3 a.m., a ride of one hour after my Mass, train for some hours, and then a march to a camp in the rear. We arrived at 4 p.m. and encamped in thick mud. You cannot realize what it is like, duck-boards have to be put down before one can move about. Over these one goes at a kind of fox-trot, for they are slippery. Even so the spirits of the men were wonderful, and next day they set to work to tidy things up and bring more comfort into things, though it is impossible to do anything to get rid of the mud…My hut was just the size of a novice’s cubicle, unfurnished absolutely, and, instead of a door, a piece of canvas put up to keep out the wind, which was cutting…My Mass I said in a stable open at the side. The men had to stand ankle-deep in mud the whole time. Yet someone always finds a piece of carpet or sacking for the priest to stand on…’

As he wrote from his dugout, he noted, ‘the noise is appalling, for we are “strafing” [sic] one another. Today is the first time I have heard “Mother,” as the Tommies call one of our guns, which makes a terrific noise.’[vi]

Sleep deprivation was a persistent problem faced by chaplains on the front line. A colleague of Doyle’s could yet note the weird juxtaposition of this man-made violence with nature’s consolations: ‘While a bombardment was in progress, a lark was soaring merrily above it all; and the uproar of a night’s persistent shelling did not prevent the nightingales in an adjoining wood from indulging in their carolling.’[vii]

Doyle’s efforts did not go unnoticed. A glowing description of ‘this good man’ appears in a letter from an American Catholic officer to his relatives in California, Lieutenant ‘Harry’ A. Butters of the Royal Field Artillery. Harry spent several nights encamped with Doyle, who was ‘worked hard’ to satisfy the spiritual needs of the devout Irish troops:

‘Every morning he says Mass for the reserve company behind the trenches, at which every free man is present a couple of times each a week. Every evening he says the Rosary in the front line fire trench for the whole battalion, and at the end administers general absolution to every man there. Quite as often as not he is cut down to two or three decades by hostile shelling, and once, at least, men have been killed and wounded by German fire while the Rosary was being said.’

‘Easter rolled up yesterday [Easter 1916] and I attended one of the most beautiful open-air Masses I have ever seen, offered by Fr. Doyle. Half of his regiment was present, the other half having attended early Mass, and in the interim he journeyed around the camp to give Communion to the sentries – kneeling with a rifle and fixed bayonet. It was stirring.’[viii]

It was to Fr Doyle that Harry made his own last confession before himself being killed at the Battle of the Somme on 31 August 1916.

Doyle’s own words provide a moving encomium to his life and service, and to those countless other victims of the Great War on all sides. As he moved to the front line with his men, he wrote, ‘I felt the sadness of war deeply. In the out-house of a farm I said Mass and gave Communion to over 500 of my men. I turned to say a few practical words to them at the end of Mass on sorrow for sin and prayers to Our Lady, and felt so moved I could hardly speak as I saw so many young faces round me, many of whom one knows will not survive these eight days; in fact, have already not survived it.’

He ends his letter abruptly and poignantly, ‘In spite of dangers and temptations of camp life, there are many real saints among the men. I must not write more as I am called away to bury some who have fallen.’[ix]


The above image is of a painting entitled ‘Trenches Near Angres’, 1918, by the Canadian artist A. Y. Jackson, reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


[i] Letters and Notices, January 1917, p. 18.

[ii] Oliver P. Rafferty SJ, ‘Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the First World War,’ Letters and Notices, no. 444, Winter 2014, p. 328.

[iii] Letters and Notices, July-October 1918, p. 423.

[iv] Letters and Notices, January 1917, p. 127.

[v] Rafferty, ‘Catholic Chaplains to the British Forces in the First World War,’ p. 326.

[vi] Letters and Notices, July 1917, pp. 174-76.

[vii] Ibid., p. 184.

[viii] Letters and Notices, January 1917, pp. 88-89.

[ix] Letters and Notices, July 1917, pp. 174-76.