Published: 28 April 2014

Becoming an expert: Steve Bellis on Catholic Chaplains on the Western Front

Steve Bellis

The Institute of Irish Studies offered me a multi-disciplinary education as an undergraduate and this has been the motif for this thesis which offers an opportunity to study religion, class, race, social and military history at the micro level.

My research began with anxieties about finding sources and were exacerbated when I realised that many of the secondary sources in circulation were ‘doubtful’. The existing historiography, I discovered, was too distant, error prone and repetitive.

My first decision was to opt for discovering as much primary information as I could. Consequently there was lot of footwork required but in time doors opened and relationships with archivists developed, revealing much original material; the problem now is not where do I find information but what do I leave out?

The joy of handling original documents and having a sense of personal contact with these exceptional men through their own letters and diaries, more than makes up for the effort, and despite the rather bleak subject it really is good fun.

I am not a military or religious student per se, although these histories provide essential contextual background, my interest is exploring the chaplains as people. This opens up the fascinating world of the late-Victorian and post-Edwardian mind-set so that class, racism, inter-Catholic tensions and anti-Catholic prejudices and more, may be analysed as I follow the lives of these incredibly brave men, from seminary education to the front and sometimes the grave.

If there is such a thing as retrospective ethnography I would claim to be attempting this style of analysis, in other words trying to look at their life in their shoes, a contemporary perspective to apply modern values would, I believe, be artificial.

Lancashire in mid-nineteenth century had the largest indigenous Catholic population in Britain to be massively increased by the Irish Famine 1845-52. Tensions developed not only between the two Catholic communities but with the dominant Protestant political and demographic reality. Not only anti-Irish questions emerge but also the pre-existing tensions between the south and north of England, both within Catholicism and the country in general.

How would these influences affect the delivery of the sacraments to wounded and dying men at the front and in field hospitals? How would they react and how on earth did they find the courage to ‘go over the top’ with the infantry, armed only with a rosary, prayer book and anointing oils?

It is too early to conclude my work, I am halfway through the writing phase and still learning, but I will say I have learnt so much not only about the subject but about me that I wished I had started many years ago!

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