British Catholics and the Great War

British Catholics and the Great War


Fr Nicholas Schofield reflects on the centenary of the First World War

The First World War is one of the most iconic parts of our recent history: trenches and zeppelins, gasmasks and dug outs, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Blackadder Goes Forth. Although none of us were alive during this ‘war to end all wars’, most people over the age` of 40 will have met at least one veteran, and many of our families still pass on stories of their own ‘war heroes’ and, in some cases, bear the scars of that conflict.


As we continue marking the centenary of this conflict, it is useful to focus on the British Catholic experience of the war. This is a vast subject, of course, but a relatively forgotten one. Countless books have been written on all sorts of aspects of the Great War – the development of military technology, for example, or the emancipation of women - but little is said about the role of the churches and faith.  Indeed, most of the participants in the war were at least nominally Christian and this coloured their letters and diaries, while much of the imagery and iconography of the war had religious overtones.

English Catholics in 1914

In 1914 English Catholics were enjoying growth and increasing respectability. They were still a minority and the subject of prejudice and suspicion. But their position was almost unrecognisable compared to a century previously. The Catholic population, which had been so enlarged by Irish immigrants, was now well served by a network of churches, religious houses and schools (which now received some state funding). London had a new Catholic Cathedral at Westminster, almost a stone’s throw from Parliament, and a few years before the war had hosted the International Eucharistic Congress. Indeed, Catholics could be grateful to the British Government, especially given the experiences of their fellow Catholics elsewhere in Europe – the 1905 Law of Separation of Church and State in France, for example, had led to the closure of many religious houses. The Great War in many ways furthered this process of the consolidation and integration of Catholics in British society – as I will try to explain. But let us start at the beginning.

The countdown to war began in earnest with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914. At the time, however, most British people were unconcerned about this tragic event on the other side of Europe and were more focussed on the question of Irish Home Rule, which threatened to erupt into civil war. Catholics, like everyone else, seemed to carry on regardless during those hot summer months. And so it was a surprise to many when Great Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August.

Many (including the clergy) were getting ready for the summer holidays. Fr Timothy Ring, Rector of the busy London mission of Commercial Road, told his parishioners:

When I left home for our peaceful Clergy Retreat at St Edmund’s [Ware] on July 27, life’s course was flowing on, in its normal placidity. Excursions and holidays were uppermost concerns in many minds. By the end of the week all Europe was ablaze, and the cry “to arms!” was being shrieked by Governments to every little community that could raise a penny-pistol.


Many of the bishops quickly published Pastoral Letters. Cardinal Bourne noted that war was ‘one of the greatest material evils that the world can see, but our Divine Master has warned us that it is an evil for which we must be prepared’. But there was a general consensus that the war was justified and that good could come out of it. The clergy joined in and were hopeful that their flock would do their duty. One of the most popular preachers of the day, Fr Bernard Vaughan, a Jesuit and brother of Cardinal Vaughan, was particularly vocal as he toured the country encouraging young men to join up and boosting the morale of troops. It was reported that he told the Cameron Highlanders in August 1914 that ‘the war might be long, the losses would be counted by hundreds of thousands, but in the end the shout of victory would be on their side, and the sacrament of fire through which they passed would be for the cleansing of Europe, which would emerge chastened and purified by its purging flames.’


The aggressive nature of the German advance through Belgium immediately appeared to justify the declaration of war. The Germans saw any civilian resistance as a major threat to their war plans and a clear breach of international law. The reaction was severe. The town of Louvain (home of a famous Catholic university) witnessed one of the great tragedies of those opening weeks – 248 civilians were shot and two thousand buildings destroyed, including the collegiate church of St Peter and the university library, with its 300,000 volumes. This caused disbelieve around the world, including among the many British clergy who had trained there. Another widely-reported ‘atrocity’ occurred at Dinant, where 674 people were killed; one out of every ten inhabitants. Since it was believed that such resistance was organised ‘from above’, priests were treated with especial suspicion and many were shot.

Such ‘atrocities’ unsurprisingly led to an ever-widening stream of Belgian refugees, a quarter of million crossing the Channel to England, where they were welcomed with open arms and deep sympathy. When the first contingent arrived at Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire, they seemed dazed for they had been ‘hiding for a fortnight or more behind hedges and in woods’; ‘one old woman had been driven out of her bed by the German soldiers, and actually arrived in London in her night clothes.’


War effort


There were many initiatives on the Home Front to support these refugees and the war effort at large. In the early weeks of the war, Fr George Craven (a future bishop) told a congregation at Westminster Cathedral:

We who cannot shoulder a gun must do everything we can to help the Empire. We must do this by our self-sacrifice, by our charity to those who are suffering from the War, and above all by our prayers.

There were many such initiatives. Miss Cunningham of South Kensington set up a Correspondence Guild in 1915 in which letters and parcels would be exchanged twice monthly and correspondents would ‘inform their soldier that they will specially remember him in their prayers, and have Mass said for him should anything happen’. The Catholic Women’s League did much to set up Catholic Soldier’s Huts both at home and near the Front – a refuge for Catholic soldiers where they would find accommodation, refreshments, Catholic literature and occasionally Mass. Many Catholic institutions were turned into hospitals.


Priests were closely involved in the war effort themselves – in the parishes they prayed for the troops, comforted the bereaved and inspired the men to do their duty; at the Front they acted as chaplains. The clergy remained exempt from conscription, when that was introduced, but must have been aware that over the Channel, many of the French clergy had been conscripted – a result of the complete separation of Church and State. Some worked as chaplains and medical orderlies, but others were expected to be ordinary front-line soldiers and were forbidden to exercise their priestly function. About 4,500 French clergy and religious were killed in action. Among those called up were French religious residing in England (some had been exiled here as a result of the anti-clerical laws). A monk of Farnborough Abbey killed in February 1915 was one of two members of that community to be awarded the Croix de Guerre. Later that year, the Trappists at Woodleigh, near Kingsbridge (Devon), lost Fr Gabriel. As it happened, the day he was killed was the day of the opening of the monastery’s new church, which he had designed.

Catholic chaplains were known for their closeness to the troops, partly since the wounded and dying required the sacraments. A private of the Irish Guards wrote in 1915 that his chaplain was ‘our mascot, our lucky star’ and noted how other soldiers were often heard to remark, ‘that Irish chaplain does stick to his lot, doesn’t he?’

Chaplains: Gallipoli and the trenches

Some 172 chaplains of all denominations were killed in action and a high proportion of these were Catholic. Indeed, the first chaplain to be killed was at Gallipoli: Fr William Finn, who had been working in the diocese of Middlesbrough and was attached to 1/Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was told to stay on the boat but seeing the casualties said: ‘the priest's place is beside the dying soldier; I must go.’ He was hit in the chest as he leapt on to the gangplank but managed to attend to many of the wounded soldiers. He was finally killed after receiving a head wound while administering the sacraments. Fr Finn was posthumously awarded the Military Cross; it seems that he got no higher decoration because he had disobeyed orders to remain in the safety of the boat! Interestingly, the church of the Sacred Heart in Hull was later built in his memory, thanks to the generosity of his brother. Indeed, a number of post-war churches were built in memory of the war dead. 

One of the most famous chaplains was the saintly Irish Jesuit, Fr William Doyle. By the time of his death during the Battle of Passchendaele on 16 August 1917, he was attached to 8/Royal Dublin Fusiliers and had been seen ‘all day hither and thither over the battlefield like an angel of mercy.’He left many vivid descriptions of his experiences, including this very moving description of Mass in the trenches:

By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice – but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.

Devotion and courage

The war did much to dispel the negative myths that were still in circulation about Catholics. Many were impressed by the devotion and courage of the chaplains and began to realise the power of the sacramental system. Guy Chapman, an Anglican, famously said that ‘the Church of Rome sent a man into action spiritually cleansed. The Church of England could only offer you a cigarette.’

Non-Catholic soldiers often appreciated the tactile nature of Catholic devotion and eagerly accepted gifts of medals and rosaries, even if they saw them as no more than lucky talismans. A senior chaplain, Mgr Bickerstaffe-Drew, asked his aged mother to write to the convent at Roehampton to send him fresh supplies: ‘I have given away about 1,200 and have none left. Medals, small crucifixes, rosaries, scapulars, Agnus Deis, I could give away lots of, and am always being asked for.’

The Great War led to many conversions. A priest writing in 1930 concluded that ‘either directly or indirectly through the War a very large number of individuals have been received into the Catholic Church, who otherwise, humanly speaking, would have remained outside. Well-informed observers have estimated this number for England at 70,000.’

The War also helped ‘catholicise’ British culture. For many soldiers, it was their first experience of a Catholic country and a Catholic landscape with churches and convents, shrines and statues. As a result, there was even a short-lived British organisation called the Wayside Cross Society, aiming to promote their erection both as memorials and places of prayer. Unfortunately, it was closed down in 1919 since such crucifixes were still deemed too ‘popish’ for the English.

Nevertheless, the mass casualties inspired the Church of England to adopt some sort of prayer for the dead, which originally had been one of the more noticeable differences between Catholics and Protestants. The war memorials, the Remembrance Services and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were all inspired to some extent by Catholic practice. The established Church had to walk a tightrope, however, between offering comfort to bereaved families and keeping true to its Protestant roots.


In France and Belgium much comment was made on the survival of religious images amidst the devastation. One soldier wrote in 1915: ‘it is little short of miraculous how the wayside shrines and statues inserted in the fronts of the houses have escaped injury. In at least half-a-dozen cases I have seen the whole front of a house wrecked except the niche from which a statue of Our Lady or the Sacred Heart held outstretched arms to all the passers-by.’ Then there was the church of Notre Dame in Albert, where the German bombardment caused the gilded statue of the Virgin and Child on top of the steeple to lean forward, almost at a right angle. ‘It is really wonderful,’ wrote one officer, ‘and personally I think it is a miracle. The statue is huge (with an immense base), and of metal; all the girders which used to support it are smashed, and the statue appears to be suspended in mid-air.’ According to legend, ‘when the Virgin fell, the war would end’ – which nearly proved to be the case, because the ‘Leaning Virgin’ fell several months before the Armistice.


This was not an ecumenical age but there were tentative steps in co-operation across the denominations. Although Catholic chaplains were not involved in joint Church Parades, war broke down some boundaries – Mass was said in non-Catholic army huts, such as those run by the YMCA. Chaplains of different denominations, who perhaps might not have had much to do with each other during peacetime, were thrown together. Shortly after arriving at Havre in August 1914, for example, Mgr Bickerstaffe-Drew had the privilege of sleeping in his own tent due to his seniority ‘but the Church of England Chaplain was to be one of three, so I gave him half my tent.’

British Catholics were gaining a new respectability and the war gave them an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism. A problem was posed, however, by the attitude of Pope Benedict XV, elected in September 1914 after the death of St Pius X, who (it was said) had died of a broken heart after the outbreak of hostilities. Benedict was careful to remain neutral and to continually call for peace. His message was mostly ignored; the Allies thought he was too pro-German, ‘Papa Boche’, and British Catholic leaders continued to support the war effort and emphasise that the pope’s stance was not doctrinal but political. When a group called the Guild of the Pope’s Peace was started in England, it was actually condemned by one bishop. The pope’s position seemed to put question marks over the reliability of Catholic troops, who owed loyalty to Rome. Sir Douglas Haig (himself a Scottish Presbyterian) was harsh in his assessment of the Irish soldiers in the offensive of March 1918: ‘Our 16th (Irish) Division…is said not to be so full of fight as the others. In fact, certain Irish units did very badly and gave way immediately the enemy showed.’ Old prejudices took a long time to die.


Nevertheless the number of Catholic soldiers at the front – including the first VC of the war, Lt Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers (an old boy of Stonyhurst) – clearly showed that it was possible to be a British subject and a good Catholic at the same time. Perhaps most astonishing was the number of Irish Catholics who joined up to fight for King and Country. Let us remember that many expected there to be civil war in Ireland in 1914 over the issue of Home Rule and, at the outbreak of war, the British Army made sure they had enough troops at home in case things kicked off. Yet the war led to a temporary armistice: Unionists and Nationalists fought and died side by side in the Irish regiments.

It could be said that the First World War left a positive legacy for British Catholicism. Despite the tragic bloodshed, Catholics were able to grow in confidence and respectability, old anti-Catholic myths began to disappear, the lay apostolate was given a boost on the Home Front and the denominations began to work together. As we come to the final stage of the centenary, let us remember the sacrifices made by so many, Catholic and non-Catholic, Allied and Axis.


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2017