Catholic soldiers' World War I military pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Catholic soldiers' World War I military pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Tom Johnstone

Shortly after the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, the idea of a Catholic pilgrimage was mooted by the Senior Catholic Chaplain of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), Fr Felix Couturier OP, to Major-General Weston, the Deputy Adjutant General, who was a Catholic and sympathetic to the proposal.

The Force Commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, whom Weston was bound to consult, was a deeply religious man who knew his Bible well, and cared much for the Holy Land and its antiquities. He had issued army orders prohibiting wanton damage to historic buildings or the felling of ancient trees. When Jerusalem fell, Allenby walked into the city as a pilgrim, he could not have been anything but sympathetic.1

Feast of Assumption

However, because of many constraints the proposed pilgrimage was delayed. This was fortuitous, because the date eventually chosen was 15 August 1918 - Assumption Day. Although it was not known at the time, that was almost the eve of the last offensive of the war in the Middle East.

Operational necessity limited the number of pilgrims to 1500; but every unit of the EEF was allocated vacancies. Considerable logistical planning was necessary for the movement of pilgrims to and from Jerusalem in the shortest possible time, and their accommodation and food while in the Holy City. All Catholic chaplains in the Middle East attended and led their own contingents, which were quartered in camps around the ancient walled city.2

Following Mass and breakfast, the pilgrims assembled near the Jaffa Gate to be welcomed by the Military Governor. Then, guided by a Dominican lay brother, with the procession led by a sergeant-major carrying a large silver crucifix loaned by St Stephen's Church, they followed a route described by Dom Bede Camm, OSB, who was there:

'Down the steep hill from the gate into the Valley of Hinnom, and thence up the Mount of Evil Counsel on the other side, on the road to Bethlehem, as far as the eye could see, stretched the long ranks of soldier pilgrims, two deep - English, Scots, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, South Africans, British West Indians, and even some Catholics from the Indian Army.' 3

The military chaplains were interspaced down the column and led the troops in reciting the Rosary. The first destination was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the Franciscan guardians, wishing to honour the occasion, had exposed the Column of Flagellation. None present could fail to assimilate the historic significance and grandeur of the occasion.

To accommodate all the pilgrims in the church at the same time was impossible; therefore the column of troops was divided into sections. As each section entered the rotunda, the Franciscan friars burst exultantly into the Te Deum. To those present the experience was unforgettable. All knelt and a chaplain led the devotions. After prayers, the pilgrims filed out of the basilica and another section entered

When all had prayed, the procession reformed and moved along the Via Dolorosa, passing under the arch of Ecce Homo to St Stephen's Gate and going down the steep hill all could view the site of the Garden of Gethsemane. At St Anne's Church Mass was celebrated by Msgr Felsinger, the Austrian patriarchal vicar.

'It was an inspiring sight that met one's eyes The big church was packed. The general [Weston] and the officers had seats in the nave, but the choir, sanctuary, nave, aisles, were thronged with men, some sitting on the ground, others standing pressed together so closely that the priests had the greatest difficulty in getting to the altar. I shall never forget facing that great throng of bronzed men who had been through so many dangers, endured so many hardships in order to deliver Jerusalem.

'It was wonderful to hear them sing the familiar hymns during the Mass that followed. I have never heard anything like that Faith of Our Fathers shouted from fifteen hundred lusty throats, and it was even more wonderful to kneel in the hush and the stillness that fell on that great crowd when the bell rang out and the Host was raised. I don't wonder that the celebrant burst into tears and could hardly go on with the Mass. He told us afterwards that he had never been so moved in his life, and he wrote a detailed account of the pilgrimage to Rome, which (as I found later on) had delighted the Holy Father.' 4

A sandwich lunch in the grounds of St Anne's followed, then came the most impressive part of the pilgrimage, the Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. At each Station a chaplain preached as the men knelt on the cobblestones, and they sang the Stabat Mater between Stations.

After two hours of prayer, the Way ended at Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre where Fr Parisotti OSB, a British chaplain, preached the sermon. The procession terminated at St Stephen's, where the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land offered Benediction and gave a Papal Blessing which had been requested and granted by telegraph.

The following morning Requiem Mass was celebrated by the senior chaplain Fr Couturier - the Mass server was General Weston. That Mass was offered for all the dead of the war. 5

Last offensive

The pilgrims then dispersed after a strenuous twenty-four hours, and began the journey back to their units to take part in the last great offensive that was to end the war against Turkey.

The Australian and New Zealand chaplains who would have attended the pilgrimage were: Fr Thomas Mullins, MC, 2nd Light Horse Brigade (LHB), Senior Australian Chaplain, Fr Patrick Donovan, 1st LHB, Fr Bede McDonnell, 3rd LHB, Fr Patrick Killian, 4th LHB, Fr J. Duffy, NZMB, and possibly Fr Fran&cced;ois-R gis Courbon, MSC, French Spahis, 5th LHB.

At the debriefing after the pilgrimage, it was ascertained that not a single soldier had misbehaved in any way. Both the organisers and the conducting chaplains were delighted that of the 1,500 pilgrims there was not a single case of drunkenness or absenteeism. In the eyes of the military authorities it reflected well on the Catholics of the EEF.

It has to be said of course that this could have been because the regimental chaplains, who had selected the men of their contingents, would have known very well whom to choose, and not to choose, for the pilgrimage.

However, from the account of Dom Bede, it is also clear that this was a sincere religious pilgrimage of faith, not a triumphant display of militant Christianity.

Besides, these soldiers in most cases were the survivors of campaigns in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Mesopotamia, in addition to the battles in Sinai and Palestine. They were war-weary, thankful they had survived thus far, but knowing that at least one more battle lay ahead. They had much to pray for.

Christian presence

There had been for centuries a Christian presence in the Holy Land, and in 1918 this included an Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Rt Rev Rennie MacInnis, Orthodox Patriarchs and a Latin Patriarch, Mgr Camiss, who at the time of the pilgrimage was imprisoned by the Turks in Nazareth. 6

Two of the most moving photographs taken during WWI were of Fr E. McAuliffe OBE celebrating the first Mass at Gallipoli, and Fr I.E. Bossence MC celebrating Mass near Jerico for men of 4th Light Horse Brigade. The demeanour of the soldiers kneeling on rock and sand speak volumes. Regrettably, Fr Bossence contracted malaria and was medically evacuated to Australia shortly before the pilgrimage. Doubtless he would dearly loved to have been there.

Barely a month after the historic pilgrimage, the EEF attacked on 19 September 1918. Without an effusion of blood and depending on surprise, mobility, stamina and sweat not blood, the Allies destroyed two Turkish armies.

Prince Feisal's Arab army entered Damascus on 30 September and began looting the city but General Chauvel's Light Horsemen arrived shortly afterwards and restored order.

Meanwhile, along the road to Damascus riding through the valley of Kishon, with Mount Tabor rising on the right and Mount Carmel on the left, a party of Australians could not resist making a detour to the latter. One of them ('J.M.') provided the following account:

'From the distance one sees Mount Carmel rising from the Mediterranean coast, dignified, stately - an eloquent exemplification of its great patroness, indomitable.

'Several of us immediately ran up the mountain track ambitious to be the first British visitors. Much to our surprise we found an Indian Lancer, still in full fighting order with lance and sword sheathed, shoulder mail glittering in the sun, large-turbaned head inclined upwards - saying the Rosary at the Chilean statue of Our Lady before the monastery gates. How he came there remained a mystery to us, as the nearest Indian units were some distance away.

'At the chapel gates the sole remaining lay brother custodian was loath to allow us to enter. He had been assured by the enemy that Australians were barbarians and destroyers. He was amazed at our Latin and French claims to common faith. Down came the bars and we were made joyfully welcome. Very soon we were assisting to replace vestments and furnishing strewn about by the more recent enemy occupants.

'We learned that Our Lady herself visited Mount Carmel during her life on earth, thus meeting those successors of Elias who were to become the antecedents of the present Carmelite Fathers.

'From the eastern summit one gazes across the Plain of Esdraelon towards Galilee and Nazareth, northwards to Acre, thence closer to the recently developed port of Haifa - a return to the present. Below us pass the main body of Light Horse and British infantry - destined for the final great battles of Megiddo and Damascus. Australians thus join the cavalcade of the centuries which as known history have rounded the sentinel gracefulness of Carmel and pass on into infinity. Many no doubt, also instinctively felt for the scapular they carried.' 7

Having advanced over 400 kilometres Allenby's cavalry entered Aleppo on 26 October and Turkey requested an armistice on 31 October. The battle known as Nablus-Megiddo had been an inspirational, almost miraculous, and comparatively near- bloodless victory that must surely have answered the prayers of the soldier pilgrims.

Thomas (Tom) Johnstone is a retired British Army officer. Originally from Ireland he spent most of his life in Britain and overseas and now lives in Victoria. He is the author of three major seminal historical works: Orange, Green and Khaki: The Story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War, The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Forces and The Cross of Anzac: Australian Catholic Service Chaplains.

Notes and References

1. Field-Marshal Lord Wavell, Allenby, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1940, pp. 203-204.

Allenby, in a letter home from the South African War where he had commanded an Irish cavalry regiment, described the regimental chaplain, Fr Simon Knapp OCD, (awarded DSO and MC, and killed in action in WWI) as 'quite the best specimen of army chaplain I have ever met and a delightful companion'.

Ibid, p. 93

2. Rev Bede Camm, OSB, Pilgrim Paths in Latin Lands, McDonald & Evans, London, 1923, pp. 254-264.

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Ibid

6. Ibid. This is incomprehensible considering there were surely many Catholics amongst the Austrian and German contingents serving in Palestine at this time. The names of the Turkish commanders during 1916 -1918, first Kress von Kressenstein, then Liman von Sanders, the defender of Gallipoli, speak for themselves.

7. J.M., 'Australians visit Sanctuary of Mount Carmel', The Advocate, 1 August 1945

The identity of J.M is unknown to the writer. The initials are not those of any Australian chaplain in Palestine at that time, but clearly he was a highly educated and cultured person.

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