From the Archives: Chaplains of the Crimean War

POST BY MAllen

Letter from John Butt, chaplain at the Crimea
Letter from John Butt, 29 January 1855, chaplain, who served as the fourth Roman Catholic Bishop of Southwark from 1885, to Lady Georgiana Fullerton, Catholic benefactress

This year, the 30th of March marks the 160th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris: the Treaty which put an end to over two years of fighting between Russia and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia in the Crimean War. It was to be a war of several firsts: it was one of the first conflicts to use modern technologies such as explosive naval shells, railways, and telegraphs, one of the first to be documented extensively in written reports and photographs, and it was the first occasion on which the British Government appointed permanent Catholic chaplains to the army.

Among those chaplains were two Jesuits of the English Province (as it was then): Fr Joseph Woollett SJ (1818-1898) and Fr Gerrard Strickland SJ (1822-1856). You may have deduced from the dates of the latter that Fr Strickland was sadly not to return from the Crimea. In an account of Woollett and Strickland prepared for the Letterae Annuae in the Archives (reference UI/10/2) we are told that:

Since the fall of Sebastopol, the English army had enjoyed the best of health, and the hospital work became light. The Frs felt free to offer their services to the chaplain in the French camp and they proposed that they... should visit the French hospitals which were full with cases of fever, scurvy and frost bite...The Frs saw the danger they incurred and could not expect to escape any more than the French clergy – but charity called them and they were happy to answer the call.

Fr Woollett caught the fever in March 1856 but after a severe illness recovered. Fr Strickland was taken ill two days after Woollett embarked for England but was not so fortunate; he died on the 26th of April. He was buried at Cathcart’s Hill and the funeral was attended by the whole of his Regiment, and by men from every other Regiment in the Division.

Fr Woollett had left England in March 1855, about a year and a half into the conflict, with Fr Strickland arriving in the Crimea in August that year. The Fathers would have said Mass at an early hour every morning in their respective tents and, according to the account for the Letterae Annuae, would have had anywhere from one to ten communicants, while on Sundays there could be 30 to 80 when Mass was held in the open air. According to the regulations of the War Office, all officers and soldiers not otherwise engaged on duty on a Sunday had to be present on parade for the Divine Service of his own Faith – “half the infantry being Catholics it was a fine spectacle to see every Sunday two or three thousand troops at the adorable sacrifice.”

But it was in the camp hospitals that the priests would have spent most of their time, setting off in the morning and working there for most of the day, particularly during the spring and summer as fever and cholera attacked the troops, or after an attempt on the batteries of the town, to catch the dying and those in immediate danger. The round of hospitals was often made twice during the day.

Fr Woollett sums up his duties neatly by opening several of his letters from the Crimea (in Letters and Notices vol. 22): ‘Mass, Communion, hospital visited’, before going into greater detail about his day.

Below is a letter written by Fr Woollett , 11 April 1855, on his way to the Crimea, describing his encounter with Florence Nightingale (please click to enlarge):

Image of letter from Fr Woollett in Letters & Notices

To find out more about the experiences of Frs Woollett, Strickland and Butt, please contact the Jesuits in Britain Archives.