From the archives: Clergy in khaki

By Neil Sayer, Archdiocesan archivist

The centenary of the Armistice that halted the First World War occurs in November. Services of remembrance are likely to be especially poignant, and anyone attending them might like to offer a prayer for those priests who served, and especially those who died, in the ‘War to end wars’.

There was no conscription for clergymen, but nevertheless by 1917 at least 21 secular priests of our Archdiocese were serving as Chaplains to the Forces. One of the earliest to join up was Rev Fred Gillett, who went from Sacred Heart, Liverpool, to the Army Service Corps in 1915. He served for two years at the front in France and Belgium, and wrote to Archbishop Whiteside in 1918 describing some of his experiences.

Near Arras, he said, ‘one is struck by the contrast of the untouched crucifixes standing out over ruined and demolished villages’. He praised the devotion of Catholic troops from Lancashire, Ireland and Canada, and added: ‘I have rubbed up against the Americans and they are an excellent lot – good Catholics, regular with their duties, and full of keenness to get at the Hun and finish things.’

Rev James Lonergan went from a curacy at St Sylvester’s, Liverpool, to serve in France as chaplain to a battalion of the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, where, he reported to the Archbishop, ‘Nearly all the men are from Barrow, Ulverston, Lancaster and Manchester’.

More exotically, Rev Thomas Kenny ministered to Greeks and Indians when he went from Sacred Heart in Wigan to Thessaloniki, as chaplain to the Middlesex Regiment. His letters, written in pencil as ink was hard to come by at the front, tell of the many practical difficulties of working with troops in a war zone, including ‘tramping two or three miles over very heavy ground carrying my altar kit to say Mass for some isolated troops, to find that they are unable to attend owing to sudden and important duties’.

Four Liverpool priests are known have died during the war. Rev James Leeson, formerly a student and a teacher at St Edward’s College, and the Tipperary-born Rev Patrick Looby were both killed in action in France in 1917. Rev Thomas Baines died on 31 May 1918, killed by a bomb during an air raid on a camp behind the lines in France. The Jesuit mission at St Francis Xavier in Liverpool also lost a priest when Rev Robert Monteith died of wounds received during an artillery barrage on 27 November 1917.