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.
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