Baines, Thomas – priest


Fr Tom Baines Preston-born priest
Fr Tom Baines – killed in action on the Western Front in 1918, aged 31

by Stephen Bellis

Fr Tom Baines, as he was known, was born in Preston on 29 November 1886 and was killed in action on 31 May 1918.

Son of Joseph and Elizabeth, the 1891 census shows Tom as aged four, his brothers Joseph and William two years and three months respectively. Joseph was a corn and seed warehouseman and they lived a respectably modest life at 165 St. George’s Road, Preston. He later had a sister who will testify to the difficult financial situation which his family endured after the invalidity of his father, which Fr Tom had alleviated through his Army pay.

Young Tom went to Ushaw Preparatory College, Durham, before ‘crossing the green’ to the seminary in his late teens. He was at Ushaw for eighteen years as student, minor, and professor achieving the title Doctor of Divinity. During this period he was ordained priest by Archbishop Whiteside of Liverpool on 8 August 1915 at English Martyrs, Preston.

Related articles:
Lancashire’s Catholic chaplains on the Western Front
Preston priests go to war: Fr Bernard Page and Fr John Myerscough
Great War conscription and Preston’s ‘class ceiling’
Friargate’s Catholic ‘chapels’ 1605-1990
When Preston’s Catholics had to lie under ye Bushel
Christopher Tootle – priest at Fernyhalgh

The Great War was draining priestly resources as many went to ‘The Western Front’, over 700 in all with about 3-400 in France and Belgium at any one time. Accordingly, Fr Tom was asked to fill the gap by becoming curate in the parish of St. Francis of Assisi, Garston, Liverpool. The next year he volunteered to become Chaplain to the Forces.

Catholic chaplains were ‘attached to’ the Army and not ‘established’ as Anglican chaplains were. This was a decision made by Cardinal Bourne after experiences of the Boer War, accordingly the independence of Catholic religious ministry was respected by both Army and Church alike. Alas, for historians this presents problems. The details of many at the Public Records Office at Kew are spasmodic, although where death was concerned often exhaustive. It is possible to chart Fr Tom’s death but little about his time at The Front. Most Diocesan priests were considered ‘on mission’ and therefore operated independently under the Principal Chaplain in the field, Colonel (Fr) Bernard Rawlinson O.B.E. In these pre-social media days chaplains knew what they had to do and just had to ‘get on with it’.

Little correspondence, therefore, exists between Fr Tom and the authorities. However, there is one such letter which illustrates life at the personal level. It is not uncommon for tittle tattle between chaplains but there was also a more serious deep-rooted nature to criticism. Tensions from sectarianism were one of the causes, as Rawlinson commented after Fr Fred Gillett, a Lytham priest, had been wrongly accused of drunkenness:

With regard to the accusations brought against Fr Gillett of the Liverpool Archdiocese, I have now carefully investigated the matter and found that there is not a vestige of truth in any of them. He has been doing good work with his Division for some considerable time.

He concluded: ‘It is of course easier to make a report of this sort than disprove it’.

As Catholic chaplains were placed by Fr Rawlinson and not the Army, any disturbances which might affect the reputation of the Catholic effort were dealt with internally and effectively, if not always to the advantage of a chaplain.

Fr Tom would soon experience this for himself. The trail is short but not straightforward. It appears that Fr Tom was initially allotted the 57th Division most probably the 2/5 South Lancashire regiment, where Fr Philip Devas, a Franciscan, was the Senior Chaplain (usually over three or four chaplains). His second temporary placement was with the 24/27th Northumberland Fusiliers, the Tyneside Irish. These had a fair share of Catholics in their ranks, always a cause of celebration for a chaplain. Fr Tom wrote to Rawlinson 13 January, 1918:

After reading your kind letter I feel ‘so bucked’ that I could go forth abroad and fall on somebody’s neck. For some time I have been in the ‘fed up’ stage: for, after all, everything seemed to go against me. The thing that galled me was the insinuation that I had been shirking. The Christmas day Service was to be taken by Father Devas: but he put it off because Colonel Cranston of the Kings [Kings Liverpool Regiment] said the men were out wiring until 4 a.m. on Christmas day. (But….) if the General had found out that an R.C. service had taken place all would have gone on as usual and I would still be with the old Division. However, I had more or less settled down and forgiven everyone ‘for kicking me out’. I am certainly among friends, for I know many of the officers in this Brigade.

He explained that this was temporary:

Unfortunately I cannot stay here as Fr McBrearty (Hexham priest with 1st Tyneside Irish) will be back in a month. Can you tell me now what I will be posted to? The S.C.F. said I shall probably be posted to the Artillery. Is that so?

Chaplains usually preferred divisional work with fighting regiments as the chance to celebrate Mass, offer other Sacraments and Devotions, and generally be around the men at leisure and in battle, provided an opportunity to give both pastoral and spiritual succour. By its nature artillery units were often divorced from their regiments and harder to accommodate. Together with Machine Gun Companies it was often more dangerous work too.

Luck ran out for Fr Tom, he was attached to 152nd Royal Field Artillery. This unit of 18 pounder guns were effective but ‘sitting ducks’ for return fire. It is sadly ironic that Fr. Tom was not killed by a shell but by a bomb, and at a time in May 1918, when the German Spring Offensive was running out of steam as the allies were stabilising before their own ‘great push’. He was hit on 30 May and died next day of wounds. The Preston Catholic News 8 June reported:

A brother chaplain writing of the sad event says; ‘The general sent down the Church of England chaplain to see our poor friend. He tells me it was a bomb from a German plane. Fr Baines was at the window looking for a chance to do his duty as a priest for Portuguese who were being bombed, when he was knocked down. This clergyman’s praise of Fr Baines is extraordinary. He says: ‘He was a perfect Christian, with priest written all over him, and loved by all, and everyone, from the general down is unreservedly sorry.’

Fr Rawlinson’s account varies slightly:

He was with Divisional Artillery, and was in a house with other officers when the Germans started bombing the place. Fr Baines went outside to see if he could see the plane and a bomb fell close to him almost immediately, badly shattering both legs and taking off his right hand. He was removed to a C.C.S. and was attended to by Fr O’Mara S.J. and lived until 1 p.m. of the next day and was conscious most of the day, [another account refers to him being in shock]. I buried him on Sunday last at Aire, where a large number of priests, officers, and men attended the funeral.

Gravestone of Fr Tom Baines
Fr Baines’s gravestone at Aire Communal Cemetery, France

After his death, we can observe the British Army’s fastidious bureaucracy when dealing with death. Much correspondence flowed internally and with the family. A telegram had arrived on 31 May from the Casualty Clearing Station stating he was ‘dangerously ill’ and we now know he died at 1 p.m. that day. His family then had to deal with the practicalities. His mother wrote on 19 September asking for any personal effects and monies owed as they were: ‘greatly dependent on him for our support’. Paperwork continued and on 12 December his sister ‘M’ attached his will and requested monies owed as her father was now an invalid and she was acting on his behalf.

Eventually the family were paid a Service Gratuity by Contract of £31.00 and allowances owed of £12.5.5. However, Fr Tom’s possessions show that his vow of poverty was well observed:

1 collar
1 tie
1 pair of braces
1 tobacco pouch
1 pipe case
10 buttons, 6 stars, 2 badges
1 pair scissors
2 studs
2 pencils

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