The Catholic Magazine Tasmania Sept. 1919 pp 16-17
A Chaplain’s Letter
By the courtesy of His Grace the Archbishop of Hobart we reproduce the following interesting letter from Father Bernard Page, S.J., (written to his parents) who was at the front as an Army Chaplain with a cavalry division from October 1914 till the end of the war, and is now in a similar capacity with the infantry brigade in the Russian Relief Force, under General Grogan, V.C., in the north of Russia. Father Page is the son of Mr. Humphrey Page who some twenty years ago was a member of our House of Assembly. Since his return to Europe Mr. Page has been for a number of years Camerière Segrato to His Holiness. Mr. and Mrs. Page were shut up in Bruges during the terrible four years of German occupation. During all this time Father Page received no direct communication from his parents, and only once any tidings at all. After the armistice he visited them in Bruges, and then volunteered for any further service open to him as a priest; and last May he was ordered to go with the Russian Relief Force to Archangel. On the French front he had been continually in or near the trenches, and had several narrow escapes from shell ﬁre. He was favourably mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches. Though born in India, Father Page passed some ﬁfteen of his earliest years in Tasmania, and at school in Kew College, Victoria, facts that will add to the interest of our readers in his letter :—
Tuesday, 13th May (outside Tyne)—I sent you a last letter yesterday but we did not leave after all, and I should have written more at length only was absolutely busy from 9 am. till 5.30. My job was trying to put 200 officers into their cabins. It was a game: Everyone thought he was senior to someone else, and should have a better cabin than his neighbours None was allowed ashore after 3 p.m., but as I had been confined to the orderly room till 5.30 struggling valiantly to mollify irate majors and pacify indignant captains, the Colonel suggested I should go ashore and have dinner, and then go to a “show” at the local music hall, which I did with a couple of others. We were supposed to start early next morning but did not: We sat down on the mud and could not leave till to-day at 1 pm. (13th hour of the 13th day of the month!) We had a most wonderful passage down the Tyne. Every one of the thousands of steam whistles blew blasts of farewell, and ships dipped their flags. Thousands of people rushed to the water’s edge to cheer, and as we passed the shipbuilding yards, all work people “downed tools” and simply rushed to cheer; it was a most wholehearted spontaneous send-off. When we got to the sea, we cast anchor for the night, as the skipper did not want to go through the minefields in the dark. As soon as we had anchored we went through a long and very tedious boat drill. Every man-jack on board was served with a life belt and posted to a boat, and someone was put in command of each boat. Mine is 11a, and if the ship should be badly mined, I shall not have a wonderful chance of getting off as the other three boats have to be launched, before mine can be touched. Then I am with the Colonel, Adjutant and Captain of the ship, so I suppose we have to do the “I’ll-stick-to-the-ship-lads” act, and see everybody off, then watch the ship go down. Personally, I think you get a much better view of a ship going down from one of the boats a little way off! The weather is perfectly splendid.
Wednesday, May 14th—We really started to-day at 3 p.m. going due north along the English and Scotch coasts past Scapa where the Grand Fleet lay during all the war. The weather continues wonderfully quiet though misty, and if it stays like this, it will be perfectly delightful. I eat like a ravenous hyena at every meal, and it is very jolly at meals. On the first day, I went into the second sitting and took a seat, but was not allowed to stay there: a steward came and pulled me out saying I was to form one of a party at the Captain’s table I found I was with a special party of six, including the two colonels, two staff officers, the adjutant and myself, and at every meal we have been nearly ill from laughing so much while eating. Almost all the 200 officers are exceptionally nice fellows; the exceptions are so few that they don’t count. There were two boat alarms to-day—the first meant to be false. In the afternoon, there was a second when they sighted two drifting mines just ahead. The skipper told me he thought it would be ten years before the North Sea would again be free of mines.
Thursday, 15th (Lat. 58.60, N. Long. 2.35)—This is my present address. though I did not know it until I saw the noticeboard. I quite believe it is correct. The weather is still perfectly lovely. The barber was very much annoyed this morning, for he brought large supplies of what he says is a perfectly priceless seasick remedy on board, and everyone refuses to get ill so it does not sell.
There are many sports on board got up by the men and so far, it is a perfect pleasure trip. Many people spend much money in order to get such a journey whilst we are being paid to make it!
Friday—Just as yesterday—and more deck sports.
Saturday—Again, as yesterday, varied by another false boat alarm. This time, the skipper chose the middle of tea to have his little joke.
Sunday—I said Mass in the saloon this morning. Last night we played bridge till late, and afterwards I strolled round the deck and had the extraordinary experience of being able to read quite easily without any artificial light at a quarter of an hour before midnight.
Monday—If the night before last was light, last night was more so, and two or three of us actually played deck quoits in broad daylight at one in the morning. I was talking to the captain on the bridge, and he told me that some time ago a crew of Lascars were up here during their great fast of Ramazan, when they would not eat till the sun set. But as the sun refused to set, only going down as far as the horizon, and then up again, quite a number of them died of starvation. It was a good deal more rolly to-day, and the barber did quite a good trade in Mothersill’s seasick cure. There were vacant chairs at table. However, I weathered it all right.
Tuesday—We got to Murmansk this morning at about 5 a.m., but no one is yet allowed on shore, and we are likely to be kept here a week, as the ice is not yet broken on the way to Archangelsk. I believe passes are to be given us to land, but no one will be allowed to go unless he carries a loaded revolver, as the inhabitants are almost all Bolsheviks who have unpleasant habits with regard to stray unarmed officers. I will wind up now as I hear there is the chance of a mail today. The next may be two days later or not for two weeks. I’ll write and post letters whenever I can.
Another interesting letter will be printed in next month’s issue.