|Catholic Padre, Fr Francis Gleeson administers 'The Last Absolution of the Munsters'|
2014 is the centenary anniversary of the start of the 1914-18 war, The First World War, or, as my father used to call it: "The man's war" (the Second World War with its massively increased reliance on technology and airpower was, of course, "The boy's war").
I remember well my father's description of battle scenes where the dead littered No Man's Land two or three deep and no space between them.
And I recall well his accounts of the roles played by the Catholic Military Chaplains, the Padres who accompanied their regiment into battle bestowing the Sacrament of Confession as they ran in response to cries from the troops of: "Absolution Padre!".
Absolution was administered at the trot and, hopefully, before they came within range of the German machine gunners who would mow down thousand upon thousand of infantrymen from all parts of the world; China, India, Africa, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand among many other nationalities taking part.
Catholic Chaplains were far outnumbered by their Protestant counterparts as, of course, they were largely attached to the smaller number of Catholic regiments; The Irish Guards in which my father served, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and more besides.
And, in no sense am I being partisan when I state that the Catholic Padres were more likely to go over the top with their regiment, this being due to the sacramental nature of their role.
The Protestant Padres had no Sacrament of Extreme Unction to deliver (the 'Sacrament of the Sick' would have rung rather hollow under the circumstances) and so their role was mainly pastoral in comforting the troops and in writing the dreaded letter home:-
"I regret to inform you that your son was killed in action at Mametz Woods having fought bravely against the foe..."
So, the mortality rate among the Catholic Chaplains was disproportionately high; some 34 gave their lives on the battlefield - "For the good shepherd forsakes not his flock.."
Whilst 122 Protestant Padres valiantly gave their lives also.
But, an interesting fact to come out of this appalling holocaust, is that, inspired by the bravery and dedication of the Catholic priests, over 40,000 men converted to the Catholic Faith during and immediately after the war.
That fact helps a little when you consider the futility of war, some good resulting from evil.
The push for Aubers Ridge had been postponed
See also an account of Fr Willie Doyle SJ HERE
*I cannot find a record of the number of Catholic Padres in WW1 but, given that relatively few of the regiments were Catholic, it is fair to assume that one hundred priests or less were assigned to these duties by Cardinal Bourne.