Monks at War

From 1914-1922, members of Downside’s monastic community served as military chaplains to British forces. 15 monks volunteered to ‘swap the cowl for khaki’ and joined the chaplain’s department filling numerous roles and seeing action in various locations. 

Dom Bede Camm served as a chaplain at hospitals in Egypt, tending to wounded returning from Gallipoli and the fighting which occurred in the middle east.

Dom Stanislaus Chatterton was the only Downside monk to serve as a chaplain to the navy, serving on various ships including HMS Hampshire, the ship on which Lord Kitchener was killed. Dom Stanislaus missed the sailing of the ship due to being on leave.

Dom Norbert Birt spent his war in Southampton as a chaplain at the military hospital at Netley, administering to the religious needs of thousands of men across three large complexes. 

The other monks served on the Western Front, from the early battles of 1914 and even as part of the army of occupation in Germany until 1922. Their experiences were all different, but resonate with what we know of life in that area of the war. Dom Urban Butler, son of the famous artist Lady Butler saw action at the Somme, spending three days and nights tending to the wounded in a basement of a chateau without a break. His letters home are a vivid account of a chaplain’s war and bring home the horrors and reality of this conflict [click here to listen to an account recorded by BBC Radio Somerset].

Two members of the community were wounded; Dom Ambrose Agius serving with the Royal Artillery and Dom Richard Davey with the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Dom Richard’s wound, taken whilst seeing to a wounded man during action, ended his war. He returned home in early 1918. Dom Ambrose’s wound was less serious and he witnessed the Battle of Paschendaele, and gave an interesting account of a Mass at Christmas 1917. 

Dom Raymund Webster found the whole war a difficult thing to be involved in. He spent two years as a chaplain before resigning his position, unable to continue due to his distaste for war. He returned to Downside in 1917. 

Dom Paul Brookfield and Dom Odo Langdale carried out their duties with little fuss and great success. Dom Paul’s letters home show a man who dealt with the war through good humour. He described being given a bicycle to get about on during the winter of 1917, when roads were impassable. He wrote to HQ asking instead for a sewing machine, which he would find more useful. Dom Odo was the one monk who went to Germany and did not return to Somerset until mid 1922. 

The one monk to receive a Military Cross was Dom Oswald Berkeley, who served from 1915-1918. His work was described as ‘giving men comfort when in danger.’ 

Dom John Chapman did not become a member of the Downside community until 1918, but his contribution to the war was great. Serving first on Salisbury Plain, he moved to the front in 1915 before being given charge of all chaplains in Calais which was a hospital and POW camp. He ended the war in Switzerland where he ministered to German troops interred there. 

Dom Ferdinand Friend served from 1917-1918 at aid stations and in the trenches. He revelled in the work he did, remarking that it was wonderful to get to men who had not seen a priest in civilian life for years. He left the Downside community in 1925.

Dom Roger Hudleston had the shortest war of all the monks, joining in April 1918. Yet he was the most widely travelled, moving through eastern and central Europe with an ambulance unit before being demobilised in early 1919. 

Perhaps the most influential Downside monk at war was Dom Stephen Rawlinson. He joined in 1914 on the outbreak of war and was involved in the early battles of the conflict. In 1915 he was moved to HQ where he became Principal Catholic Chaplain and Assistant Principal Chaplain on the Western Front. In short, he was in charge of hundreds of chaplains and administered their work as best he could. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, Portuguese Order of Christ, the Order of St Michael and St George, an OBE and was Mentioned in Despatches five times. He was most ably assisted by Dom Dominic Young who was his assistant for much of the war. When the Abbot of Downside wrote to ask for Dom Dominic’s return in 1918, Rawlinson replied that ‘perhaps the fact that Downside is running the chaplain’s department would be of some interest to you.’