Faith of Our Fathers – Catholic chaplains on the Western Front

Front cover of 'Faith of Our Fathers - Catholic chaplains on the Western Front'When I was gathering material for an account of the experiences of the Preston priest Fr Bernard Page SJ as a chaplain on the Western Front in the First World War I was put in touch with Stephen Bellis who had completed a detailed study of the role of Catholic army chaplains as they ministered to their fellow Catholics in the trenches.

Stephen proved to be extremely generous in sharing relevant selections from the vast accumulation of source material he had gathered in the course of his studies. Those lengthy studies resulted in 2015 in a University of Liverpool PhD thesis, ‘Catholic chaplains on the Western Front 1915-1919 ­Lancashire’s pivotal role’. His thesis formed the basis of his subsequent book, Faith of Our Fathers – Catholic chaplains on the Western Front 1916-1919. [1]

The foundation of both Stephen’s thesis and his book are diaries kept by two Catholic army chaplains. Of especial interest to Lancashire readers will be the diary of Fr Fred Gillett. Fr Gillett and his twin brother, Harry, were born in Lytham and both became priests. Fr Gillett served as parish priest at St Joseph’s Church, Ansdell, until his retirement in 1953.

According to Lawrence Gregory, administrator of the always lively Catholic Lancashire Facebook page, Fr Gillett’s diaries could so easily have been lost:

The diaries are very interesting they were left at St William’s, Lee House in the Ribble Valley where Fr Gillett ended his days. When Fr John Sullivan was there in the 1990s he found then in a cupboard, and took them to Ramsbottom with him when he was moved, then about four years ago as he was preparing for retirement he contacted us at the Diocesan Archives to ask if we wanted them, nobody knew they existed.

Stephen has very kindly made available on line his previously unpublished PhD thesis, which contains much that had to be excluded from his book. It can be downloaded here: Stephen Bellis PhD thesis:

Related articles:
Preston priests go to war: Fr Bernard Page, Fr Tom Baines 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 Tootell – Fernyhalgh priest

The following extract from Faith of Our Fathers gives a flavour of Stephen’s book:

The emergence of two recently discovered diaries affords a new way of looking at Catholic chaplains’ roles, responsibilities, fears, and dilemmas. Accompanying the fighting soldiers in Picardy, Flanders, and Artois, these diarist chaplains daily recorded their first-hand experiences telling us much about life at the Front, the nature of war, their Church in action, and the post-Armistice civil state of affairs. Their narratives are supported by a plethora of original correspondence between diverse chaplains and their superior at GHQ. Paintings by a Jesuit chaplain also serving at the Front add context and consolidate their experiences.

As if by design, the two diarists occupied opposite ends of the social spectrum. Their personalities were diverse and colourful and together ought to dovetail with their counterparts in the British Army from soldier to officer. Would accommodation between clergy and the military be possible given the prevailing contemporary climate of sectarianism and secularism, not to mention class, snobbery, and racism?

In examining Catholic chaplaincy evidence at large, contexts will be drawn from history, geography, politics, roles, and general conditions. Our diarists will then be assessed on a daily basis as they encounter the Somme in 1916, then Ypres and Arras in 1917, when their physical and mental endurance will be put to the test. Nothing, however, will compare with 1918 and particularly the German Spring Offensive. Each day of the assault will show the fear, desperation, and panic of both the military and civilian populations: even one of our chaplains was arrested twice as a German spy! How would our priests in khaki cope with the prevailing madness?

These genuine accounts written as they happened are punctuated by the deaths of fellow chaplains, sometimes just a short distance away. Unreal, bizarre situations are created in the same time frame and location by simple comparison. The incongruity of war becomes exposed from the unlikely source of clergymen who experienced many of its absurdities including: false allegations of espionage and drunkenness, attendance at a soldier’s execution, a cover up of an officer’s suicide and more. With the benefits of hindsight and knowledge which they did not have, the lighter and bizarre incidents will also emerge.

Uniquely in the Christian world the Catholic Church with all its rites, was and remains, universal. This meant that soldiers from all countries including Germany were catered for, as were French and Belgian civilians, in fact anybody who sought chaplains’ services. These new sources of information also add light to the post-Armistice period in 1919 when the chaplain’s deployment diversified. Thus we can experience life in France and Germany in a novel way. Interleaved with duty and routine, one chaplain will enjoy French peasant and religious culture, American exuberance, always empathising with soldiers; the other will content himself with the officer class, Mess duties and high culture. The contrasts are marked, the spiritual offerings the same.

Stephen included the following short biography of Fr Gillett in the book:

A Portrait of Fr Fred Gillett

Born in Lytham in 1882, his identical twin brother Harry and he both went to Ushaw and were ordained by Bishop Whiteside at St. Peter’s Church, Lytham, Lancashire, in 1906. Both became CFs [chaplains to the Forces] and on their return from the Western Front worked in Liverpool before the formation of the new Lancashire Diocese in 1924. Harry was a CF for about 4 weeks, Fred 46 months. Fred died in 1969, his brother in 1958. Fred and Harry were the names used by both priests throughout their lives.

Fr Gillett was an active and sociable man. For relaxation he enjoyed sports at war as he had done at Ushaw. Football mainly, but also cricket, rugby, and athletics in general. He made his time count in France and Belgium by embracing the physical aspects of life: walking, marching, and riding a bicycle, horse, and possibly in 1919 a dilapidated motorcycle. These activities which he relished allowed him to explore the countryside and especially historical and religious places. He loved and respected the French rural peasantry for their toil, frugality, and endurance. Drawing parallels with the ‘Tommy’ he frequently showed compassion towards their mutual sufferings and torment. His circle of chaplains was wide and tended to be diocesan but not exclusively so. He reunited with alumni from Ushaw seminary: Frs. McBrearty, Pickering and Harker, either at chaplaincy meetings or by accident. His socialising before the Armistice was limited to entertainment or sports on offer and perhaps sharing an occasional meal or drink, or religious service.

There was a private side to Fr Gillett who wrote in a minimal manner about emotional or personal aspects of his life, even about his mother’s illness and death. He mentioned his twin brother Harry only when he enlisted in late 1918, and again when Harry was demobbed shortly after. When he said Mass for ‘dear father’ it was a rarity. He wrote very little about anyone else, his was a priest’s life punctuated by loneliness. On leave he mentioned Liverpool his adopted home, but little else. He liked the occasional drink or ‘clerical tea’ but such releases were few and far between and conducted in the appropriate manner, granting that he had an extended Christmas celebration in 1916 leaving his diary blank for three days.

To conclude, Fred Gillett was a solid, reliable, unassuming, affable chaplain and priest. As a man he was personable and showed great compassion for those less well off. His pragmatic qualities mark him as a man true to himself and his vocation. He was treated very indifferently by his own Catholic authorities during the war but was recognised later and made a Canon. Despite suffering a long-term illness which recurred in 1956, he returned to active priesthood after his retirement. He died on 1st February 1969. The Longridge News, a non-denominational publication summed up Fr Fred: ‘He was very human and approachable to everyone he met. His walks around the parish were prompted by halts for a chat at the various farms he was passing, and he was ready to talk to anyone at all from children to adults and from farmer to local landowner’. Fr Fred Gillett was an extraordinary, ordinary man, and his diary and subsequent study ‘in his shoes’ provided a great insight into not only the man, but the role of a chaplain on the Western Front.

[1] Stephen Bellis, Faith of Our Fathers – Catholic Chaplains on the Western Front 1916-1919 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2018).

One thought on “Faith of Our Fathers – Catholic chaplains on the Western Front

  1. Fathers Fred and Harry Gillett were my great great uncles! I live on the wrong side of the Pennines (Leeds) and came across this page after a Google search about the twins. This is amazing. Going to get the book and have downloaded the thesis.


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