By EE O'Donnell
When World War I broke out in 1914, 80,000 Irish men joined the British Army – the vast majority of them being Catholics. Chaplains were badly needed and the religious orders were asked to supply them.
Figures differ from source to source, but my understanding is that 32 Irish Jesuits volunteered to serve as chaplains during the course of the war, and 23 came home alive. In Fr Frank Browne’s case, he just about made it. He was injured five times and badly gassed once.
Francis Mary Hegarty Browne was born in Cork in 1880. He joined the Jesuits in 1898, spent three years in UCD in company with James Joyce, studied philosophy for three years in Italy and began his theological studies at Milltown Park, Dublin in 1911. During his second year there he enjoyed a voyage from Southampton to Queenstown via Cherbourg on the Titanic.
In 1915 he was ordained a priest, and the following year found him in France as chaplain to the Irish Guards. His final examinations in theology had been moved forward at the behest of the Head Catholic Chaplain to the Forces, who needed more chaplains urgently.
Fr Browne left Dublin just before the Easter Rising of 1916. He joined the First Battalion, Irish Guards and began his new job by distributing shamrocks to the troops. It was St Patrick’s Day in Flanders.
On the very next day he found himself in the thick of the action. Afterwards he wrote home to say: “I marched right through the big battle with my battalion and thank God escaped all injury, save two small cuts from shrapnel”. Next time he would not be so lucky but at least he won the Military Cross for his trouble. It was the first of his four military decorations.
Within weeks Fr Browne had earned his first “wound stripe” – sewn on to the forearm of his uniform. He had his jaw broken in two places and he had to be hospitalised to have it “wired up”. This left him with a slight dribble for the rest of his life.
In the latter half of November 1917, Fr Browne’s regiment was fully engaged on the outskirts of Cambrai, having been transported there for the fight. His men were responsible for the successful defence of Bourlon Wood which stands a little to the north-west of Cambrai itself.
He reported to the Provincial as follows: “I find I am entered as having got a Bar to my MC – for what I cannot tell you. Probably because I made a fool of myself at the Battle of Bourlon Wood and very narrowly escaped being taken prisoner”. It was in this laconic way that the chaplain acknowledged the receipt of an honour that has been conferred on relatively few people during the First Word War.
In February a short letter to the Provincial some days later began: “Just a line from the Line. We are in full swing just now. I cannot tell you how much I feel at not being able to say Mass. I cannot go out for fear of shells, plus MG [mustard gas]”. But out he went nonetheless and only a few days later Quartermaster Brennan of the Irish Guards wrote to the Provincial that the chaplain had been gassed.
After a few weeks’ recuperation behind the lines, Fr Browne was back in harness by the beginning of June. The German offensive had been beaten back and, even though there would be six more months of fighting, the Americans were beginning to tip the balance.
After the Armistice came into force in November 1918 the Irish Guards’ made a long trek from Dieppe to Cologne. It was in Germany that Fr Browne had the leisure to take up his long-interrupted photographic work, and he put together an album of photographs entitled “Our Watch on the Rhine”.
In 1919 he was presented with the Belgian Croix de Guerre (First Class) by King Albert of the Belgians. This was in recognition of his three years’ courageous service in Flanders. Fr Browne was one of only 202 recipients of this high honour.
Not to be outdone, the French Government awarded its Croix de Guerre (with Palm) to Fr Browne in March 1920.
He was one of only four people so honoured that day.
By way of conclusion, the last word goes to Fr Browne’s old Commanding Officer who went on to become Field Marshal the Earl Alexander of Tunis, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Mediterranean during World War II. He said: “Fr Browne was the bravest man I ever met.”
Edited extract and photos taken from Father Browne’s First World War by EE O’Donnell SJ, published by the Messenger Publications.