21 May 2020, The Tablet

‘A priest has to stay’


80th anniversary of Dunkirk

‘A priest has to stay’

Dom Gervase in Army uniform.
Photo © Downside abbey General Trust

 

Eighty years ago, a Benedictine monk and chaplain to the forces was killed tending to the wounded and dying on the beaches of Dunkirk. His great-nephew tells the dramatic story of Dom Gervase Hobson Matthews’ last days, drawing on his letters and his recently recovered diary

It was a moment that would represent the decision of a lifetime. Having fulfilled the task set before him to escort a group of nursing sisters to the coast – risking gunfire and aerial bombardment in the process – Dom Gervase had the option of joining them on the boat with the promise of swift and safe passage to England. A pass to go aboard had been made out for him. Would he stay or would he go?

Father Gervase decided he would go back to rejoin his military unit. It was late on the evening of 22 May 1940 and the Battle of Dunkirk was but four days away. Turning back into the direct line of fire – almost literally – Dom Gervase was under no illusion about the risk he was taking. 

That we should know so much about Dom Gervase’s experiences as a chaplain with the British Expeditionary Force in northern France is thanks to the meticulous record the 36-year-old Benedictine monk kept of this momentous chapter in his life. For decades, his family and his monastery – Downside Abbey, in Somerset – had believed that his wartime diary had been lost … until it was returned to Downside about five years ago. The diary, found with his priest’s stole on the beaches at Dunkirk, and the letters to family and friends, convey both the unflappable spirit of wartime and Gervase’s warmth and humanity; he is as ready and willing to spot something faintly ridiculous as he is to recount the horrors of war.

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