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The last parting: Jesuits and Armistice

DAMIEN BURKE :: At the end of the First World War, Irish Jesuits serving as chaplains had to deal with two main issues: their demobilisation and influenza. Some chaplains asked immediately to be demobbed back to Ireland; others wanted to continue as chaplains. Of the thirty-two Jesuits chaplains in the war, five had died, while sixteen were still serving.

Fr Edward Sydes SJ, serving with the Australian forces, would die from a blood clot, four days after the Armistice. Fr Gerard Corr SJ wrote from France in late 1918 that he has: “a heavy cold…of the Spanish variety, which has been so prevalent everywhere and in many places so fatal”, while Fr John Elliott SJ was recuperating from pneumonia: “On next Tuesday I shall be a month here. I am only 8st 7lbs with my clothes on.”

Fr Patrick Morris SJ, who worked at the Clipstone Camp in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, comments: “What havoc the influenza has brought… We had a bad time in camp here… [T]hree of my boys died, but they were well prepared”. He caught the flu himself but “went to bed immediately and nipped it in the bud”. Fr Timothy Carey SJ, of the British Province, would die from the effects of influenza in February 1919, at Calais, France. Writing on 13 November 1918, Fr Frank Browne SJ describes the day of the Armistice:

Isn’t it grand to think that the end has come & come so well for our side: please God it will come for us at home soon, & equally well. Here all is excitement and rejoicing. I happened to be in Dieppe at the fateful 11 o’clock Monday last. I was at the Ordnance store outside which is a great railway siding… Eleven o’ clock was signaled by every engine furiously blowing its whistle. Then nearly all of them proceeded to career up & down the hacks – still whistling. On several of them men sat astride the boilers waving flats & ringing bells. This lasted for 20 mins. On the other side of the quarry Co. of Engineers burst a charge displacing several tons of rock, & then fired Verey lights & flares. But all this was nothing compared with the French outburst in the town. As I drove into the town our car was pelted with confetti by girls, all of whom were gay with tricolor ribbons. The Belgian emigres organised a march through the town with their military band and all the soldiers & Officers present. The bugles were blowing as they entered the main street, which was crowded with rejoicing people. Suddenly, the bugles stopped, & the Band struck up the Marseillaise. For a moment there was a kind of silence, then with a roar, the whole crowd of people took it up. Woman appeared at every window waving flags, & singing: assistants rushed to the doors of shops & joined in the great chorus: children shouted & sang & wriggled through the crowd. It was one of the most inspiring spontaneous demonstrations it has ever been my fortune to witness.

Fr Henry Gill SJ, on leave on 10 November 1918 wrote:

In the mean time I had made arrangement for a trip of the greatest possible interest to   myself. I was to be motored to Chaumout to get the train to Paris…and on the way I was to pay a visit to Domremy the birthplace of Joan of Arc. I looked forward to this visit with great pleasure. I had set out from Rouen, where the Saint was put to death, to begin my work at the front, and now after almost four years I was to visit her birthplace, and her Basilica, and to have the opportunity of making a pilgrimage to thank her for her protection during these years. For I had set out under her patronage.

Fr Gill physically survived the war, but mentally, would suffer from what we call today post-traumatic stress, but in his time, was called nerves. The chaplain’s correspondence in the Irish Jesuit Archives is naturally concerned with men, and their service in this blood letting. The female experience is a vacuum, left to poets and writers like Katharine Tynan of Clondalkin (1859-1931). Two of her sons served in the war.  The poem, The Last Parting, was included in the Jesuit publication, The Irish Monthly, in October 1915. The profits from her volume of poetry, Flower of Youth, Poems in War Time, were given to aid a Dublin Red Cross Hospital.

He is not dead. They do not know,
Who pity her, her secret ease,
How he is near her, how they go,
Her hand in his.

The last sad parting now is done.
She can look back as from afar
And pity her whose dearest one
Went to the War.