A recording of Fr Fitzmaurice SJ's account of witnessing an execution during the First World War.
The most unnerving experience that I have had since the war began—perhaps the worst I have ever had--was having to attend a man sentenced to be shot, and having to be present when the sentence was carried out. It was my first case of the kind, and, please God, may it be my last. I had the redeeming consolation of knowing that the poor boy (he was nineteen) died a magnificent death.
I went to see him the day before, heard his confession, and talked to him a little, arranged a little time-table for him of reading and praying, plotting to get his mind easy so that he might sleep.
I don't know what I said to him quite, but I do know that the Comforter of the Afflicted helped me, for he was almost happy when I left with the promise of Holy Communion before his great sacrifice on the morrow. Next morning I had to be up before daybreak—he was to be shot at dawn —for I had a three mile ride. I called at a convent chapel for the Blessed Sacrament at half-past four, and I was in the boy's cell as the church clock outside struck five. I found he had had a fairly good night, getting to sleep early according to my stratagem, and not waking till 2.30.
After that, the Corporal of the Guard told me, he had spent all the time with his prayer-book and beads. He was obviously glad to see me for what I had brought. When we were alone, I placed our Lord on the straw—there was nowhere else to put Him, and after all, it wasn't the first time He had been laid on the straw, was it?
The next, and last half-hour was spent as the last half-hour should be spent. We made our thanksgiving together, and all the while, though I was fully intent -upon what we were doing, I was painfully conscious of every detail of the moving picture that was being played outside.
Again the clock chimed out, a quarter past. A knock at the door and the Corporal entered with a glass of hot coffee and rum for the prisoner. I took it and closed the door again, and made him drink it slowly while we talked about the men outside, the Corporal, who was kind and a R.C., and some of the Guard who were sympathetic too, and silent, of one who was from his own town in Lancashire, and who was his pal, and so the hot drink was finished.
Then we said the Sorrowful Mysteries which I had timed to take us just to the end. During the " Crucifixion " my heart began to race as I heard the firing party some distance away formed up and marched off to the place to await our arrival. As we said the " Hail Holy Queen," there was some stir outside, and I was aware, though they made no noise, that the Corporal and his Guard were standing ready for us, hand upon the key.
Then we said the Angelus, and as I said the Fidelium Animae, the half-hour struck, the key was turned, and the door opened on the fixed bayonets of the escort. My boy stood to attention with a spring: I fixed his cap on, and he marched out of his cell like a soldier.
Then in the passage queer things happened,—the corporal and the escort all shook the poor lad by the hand and said good¬bye. I did the same and blessed him, and them. One man said to me : " He's a good boy, Father." " He's the bravest boy here." And we marched off.
In two minutes we were there—a garden. It was now full day¬light, a lovely spring day beginning, but what strange flowers in this garden : the firing party drawn up, a second party in case of accidents, the Provost Marshal and staff officers, the doctor, the stake near the wall—and the grave already dug. Straight up to the stake he walked, was blindfolded and fastened to it.
I whispered a last word in his ear, and then with a smile, seen by all, and in a voice as steady as a rock, and for all to hear, he said : " Alright, Father, I'm ready." The rest is silence.
We buried him there, and the very staff-officers, who had been his unwilling executioners, were there bareheaded as chief mourners. Two of them were Catholics too.
Thus the boy really died in the end for his country after all—for an example and a sacrifice, that's how I put it to him, and so he offered himself up for us. His death was necessary, though he had committed no fearful moral crime, and he died a hero in God's eyes—and in ours too. R.I.P.
Fr John Luck was born 9 January 1867 in Aldershot to Richard and Ellen Luck. He had one older sister, Eliza, and four younger sisters: Lucy, Margaret, Emma and Mary, known as May. His youngest sister, Alice, died shortly before her second birthday.
Luck entered the Society at Manresa, 7 September 1888. His large build made him well qualified to take on the job of Master of Outdoor Works as a novice, and he continued in this role unofficially at St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst. He had a keen interest in art and archaeology and at Stonyhurst excavated two mounds in the Winkley Hall estate, believing them to be sepulchral barrows. He had two articles published in the Stonyhurst Magazine for 1894-95 and wrote a paper for the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society on his findings.
Passing from the Seminary to the College, he spent four years (1895-99) as assistant prefect of the secular philosophers. There he took an interest in the study of the numerous stone crosses in the surrounding countryside and published a summary of observations in 1910 in the Stonyhurst Magazine.
He made his most important contribution to Christian Archaeology while attached to staff of St Mary’s-on-the-Quay, Bristol, where he identified the shrines of Bristol Cathedral and many of the old churches in and around the city as being either Altars of Repose or Easter Sepulchres, and described his researches in the Tablet, 7 April 1934. At his last assignment at Farm Street he undertook the task of cleaning and polishing the pictures on the walls in the refectory.
Luck was ordained 31 July 1901 at St Beuno’s College and completed his Tertianship at Tronchiennes, Belgium. His final vows were taken 2 February 1903. During his life as a priest he was attached to the mission staff of several churches, usually as a curate and mostly in Lancashire. In 1911 Luck left Stonyhurst to open a House of Retreat for men in Lewisham, diocese of Southwark, but the project was abandoned. However in August of that year, Thornbury (later Campion) House, Isleworth was opened for the same purpose with Luck as Superior. He remained there until 1915 when he was gazetted as a Chaplain to the Forces, in which capacity he served until 1919.
During the War Luck was first barracked with the 11th Battalion Scottish Rifles at Sutton Veny, where troops were trained prior to deployment to Northern France. He was then charged to the Royal Army Medical Corps with the 79th Brigade and proceeded to France in September 1915. In November 1915 the Division moved to Salonika via Marseilles. In his letters Luck describes his work as a chaplain, which includes saying mass, censoring the troops’ letters and visiting patients. He also provides in depth descriptions of the camps and his accommodation. Towards the end of 1916 Luck is treated for dysentery in Malta, but travels back to Salonika to take up his work.
Between 1923 and 1924 Luck lived in a cottage in the recently purchased Heythrop estate in Oxford which was to house a tertiary education college, acting as a sort of caretaker while alterations and additions were made.
Between 1928 and 1930 he was parish priest at St Winefride’s, Holywell. The last 9 years of his life were spent at Farm Street, London. To within the last 3 weeks of his life he said 11 o’ clock mass on weekdays and generally had about six converts under his instruction, and as Spiritual Father he was Confessor to most of the community.
He died on Christmas Day in the Hospital of Our Lady of Consolation, Lambeth, after three weeks’ illness. His requiem took place at Farm Street.