The Great War remembered

Jesuit parishes and other communities throughout Britain are joining the rest of the country today in recalling the outbreak of the First World War, the role its members played in the conflict and the sacrifice of so many thousands.

The Great War is being remembered especially at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. More than 1,000 pupils from the school were sent to the trenches; 167 of them died in active service. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to Old Stonyhurst pupils – the first was to Maurice Dease, who was also an old boy of Wimbledon College.

Almost 40 former pupils of Stonyhurst served as Military Chaplains during the First World War. Brief biographies of some of them can be found here. In addition to the 31 old boys who were Jesuit priests, there were also two Benedictines (Dom Odo Grattan OSB/Marmaduke Langdale and Dom Adrian Weld-Blundell OSB), as well as a Franciscan – Philip Devas (Fr Dominic OFM) – who was also awarded an OBE.

Among the memoirs held by Stonyhurst College is this one by Lieutenant Richard Gethin of the 2nd Munsters. It was written two days before he was killed in action:

“At 7am in the morning, we had Mass for the battalion in the wood on two bully-beef boxes, and everybody went to Holy Communion. It was a wonderful sight to see everybody kneeling in the slush and soaked to the skin, praying and hearing Mass – some for the last time.”

Corporal John Forsyth, an alumnus of Wimbledon College, consoled Brigadier-General Paul Kenna VC,  DSO, after he had been mortally wounded. Kenna was an old Stonyhurst boy who rose to be Commander of the Notts and Derby Brigade on the Gallipoli Peninsula. “I was there when he was hit,” wrote Corporal Forsyth, “and helped to ease him by bathing his head. I heard him say something about Agnus Dei, so I asked if he wished for one. He said he had one but would like to have a crucifix. At the moment I forgot about my rosary, so I gave him the medal which he eagerly took. The two hours I spent with him I shall always remember. It was grand to see the comfort and reflief these simple objects of piety gave his mind. He died about four hours later.”

The photo shows Mass being celebrated behind the Trenches at Gallipoli. The soldier in the centre of the group of three - with his head bowed behind the line of men - is Noel Somers, an Old Stonyhurst boy of the 14th Battalian, 4th Infantry Brigade, Commonwealth Forces. He was killed in action on 8 August 1915.

Read about Jesuit chaplain and First World War artist, Fr Leslie Walker SJ.