Letters > Complex story of Catholic chaplains in First World War

08 August 2014

Complex story of Catholic chaplains in First World War

Having been looking forward to Professor Rafferty’s article on Catholic chaplains in the First World War, ("With God at their side", The Tablet, 1 August) I was sad to read something that, whilst showing the importance of Catholic chaplains, was so ill informed about the nature of their organisation. Before war had even been declared, Cardinal Bourne had written to bishops and the leaders of religious orders indicating that he was likely to be asked to find more chaplains for the services. The July 1914 Army List listed the names of 13 commissioned Catholic chaplains. Of these, nine were to be among the 54 chaplains who were among those who travelled to France with the initial deployment.

The well organised deployment was not the work of a chaplains’ department in the War Office that was characterised by,"‘institutional incompetence and dreadful disorganisation". The civil servant who administered the non-Anglican chaplains was effectively only assisting the church leaders, such as Bourne, to meet the policy needs as dictated by the army authorities. That these needed to change was obvious to many. Indeed The Tablet recorded in its edition of 28 November 1914 that it was satisfied with the arrangements being made for Catholic chaplains.

More damaging to the picture that the article was trying to draw was the inclusion of an unattributed quote from Robert Graves’, "Goodbye to all that". Now generally regarded as having been written with a particular bias, his comment about a Commanding Officer, "getting rid of four Anglican chaplains before applying for a Catholic one," must be regarded as of dubious worth as historical evidence.

Finally, it seems strange that there is no mention of Fr Finn, who died on 25 April 1915 whilst with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the initial assault landings at Gallipoli. He was the first chaplain to be killed in action. His willingness to minister alongside the men to whom he was a chaplain was undoubtedly one of the acts that helped redefine the nature of British army chaplaincy as the war progressed.

The story of army chaplaincy in World War One is a complex one and deserves a more considered appreciation than it has been given in this article.
Revd Dr Peter Howson, author of Muddling Through: The Organisation of British Army Chaplaincy in World War One (Helion, 2013)

When my uncle John Joseph (always called Jack) Petre crashed his Nieuport Scout plane on 13 April 1917 near Chippily, in Flanders, his chaplain, Fr W.A.Byrne OSB wrote within two days to his parents, my grandparents. I have a copy of his letters:

"I am the RC chaplain at 20 CCS, and for about six weeks until last Tuesday your son’s Squadron was not far from me … I learnt last night the very sad news that your son was killed on Friday. I used to see your son from time to time, and admired his modesty and humility, as did everyone who knew him out here. What I want particularly to tell you is, that last Saturday, Holy Saturday, he arranged for me to hear confessions on Saturday night and say Mass and give Holy Communion on Easter Sunday morning to the men of his squadron. He came quite humbly, the only officer amongst his men both on the Saturday and the Sunday. The last words I had with him were for a brief moment after Mass on Sunday, when he was going to see about one of his officers whom he thought to be a Catholic, and was not turning up."

Jack, just 23, was a Squadron Commander in the RNAS with a DSC and Croix de Guerre. A week later the chaplain wrote again to Jack’s father:

"I have been rather hard pressed the last few days – this fighting keeps one busy – I have written to enquire where your dear boy was buried and if I can find out who was the priest who buried him, I will let you know."

After the armistice Fr W. Byrne visited my grandparents.

This compassion must have meant so much to my grandparents, as Jack was the second son they lost to aviation.
Ann Hales-Tooke (nee Petre), Cambridge

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