James Cunningham’s visit to Downside Abbey

This blog post is written by James Cunningham, a first year M.Litt student who has been partially funded by the Department of History for his studies.

This current academic year I began an MLitt in history, that I hope will turn into a PhD, under the supervision of Professor De Meneses. For my theses I chose the topic ‘The Post-War Experiences of the Great War Irish Chaplains, Home and Abroad 1918-1939’. Sadly, this brave cohort of men appear to have been neglected in the historiography of First World War veterans and their names and experiences of the post-war era forgotten, hence why I chose this as my topic.

Fr. Bernard Stephen Rawlinson, Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain on the Western Front

Source: https://media.iwm.org.uk/ciim5/433/696/large_000000.jpg?_ga=2.184704489.131533454.1554363750-836709055.1552311446
©Imperial War Museum

lOne of the aims of my research is to produce a prosopographic database of all the Irish born chaplains who served with the British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces in the Great War. Unfortunately the records of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department were destroyed in the London Blitz during the Second World War, so no comprehensive record of the men who served survives and those that do are fragmented and incomplete. Coming from dioceses and religious orders over 800 men volunteered to serve as Catholic chaplains in the Great War and approximately around a third of that number are of Irish birth. One collection that contains the names of many of the Catholic chaplains are the Rawlinson papers, held in the archive of Downside Abbey. Father Bernard Stephen Rawlinson was the Senior Principle (Catholic) Chaplain on the Western Front and was responsible for all the British Army Catholic chaplains serving there. Within his papers there is a vast array of correspondence, both official and private between himself, the War Office and the chaplains, meaning that for a research student like myself trying to produce a prosopographic database it is an invaluable resource.

Downside Abbey

(Photograph: Author’s own)

Unfortunately, but fortunately for myself, this archival resource has not been digitised and this means that a personal visit is the only way in which it can be viewed. Having been fortunate to have been awarded a travel grant of €500 from the history department, I arranged to visit Downside’s archive to view the Rawlinson papers. On my arrival at Downside, the archivist, Stephen Parsons presented me with two boxes containing correspondence between Fr. Rawlinson and others in the years 1918 and 1919. Within this correspondence I was able to ascertain the names of a number of Irish chaplains that I had not previously identified and a number of others with Irish surnames that will need further research, as well as being able to add further information into my database for those I had already accounted for. Also, within the archive there are 139 individual files of chaplains that contain correspondence between themselves and Fr. Rawlinson. The correspondence beginning in 1914 contains information such as asking for leave; asking for replacement chaplains and to the report of a chaplain suffering a nervous breakdown whilst in the frontline and deserting his post.

In one letter asking for a chaplain for a Scottish regiment Fr. P.A. Oddie, an English chaplain in charge of a division writes to Fr. Rawlinson, ‘Would it be possible to send someone who is not a wild and rabid and rough Irishman?’. In a confidential report written about newly arrived chaplains at the Front, Fr James Scannell, an Irish chaplain, writes of Fr James Gallagher from Kilcar in Co. Donegal, ‘A ‘Wild Irishman’ I hope he will swallow his politics for the duration. An able man but not tactful’. Although these excerpts appear unkind to Irish chaplains, the archive has many examples that highlight how devoted to their charges these chaplains were and how that was reciprocated by the soldiers themselves. Indeed, Fr Oddie who appeared sceptical of Irish chaplains writes of Fr Kennedy, an Irish chaplain attached to 26th (Highland) Brigade, ‘he is very holy and very good’.

I found the archive at Downside a very valuable resource that contain within the Rawlinson papers a story of courage, bravery and devotion, not only during the Great War but beyond, that needs to be brought to light. The story of these men does not end with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918, but only begins a chapter on a post-war period that was to see them experience so much more in a changing world landscape. It is that experience and their role within it that I hope to bring to fruition in my theses. By naming these men in my prosopographic database, I hope they will no longer be the forgotten veterans of the Great War.

Commonwealth War Grave of Pte A. W. Powell in St Vigor’s, Stratton-on-the-Fosse.
(Photograph: Author’s own)

As a side note to my visit, I came across a Commonwealth War Grave in the graveyard of the local Anglican parish church, St Vigor’s. The inscription on the headstone read Private A. W. Powell, Somerset Light Infantry, 9th August 1942, Aged 57. His story and ultimate sacrifice will become another research project for me when time permits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s