A book is being launched in Dublin this evening with an interesting inclusion from a Castleisland view-point.
Irish Jesuit Chaplains in the First World War is edited by Damien Burke and is a collection of articles describing the wartime experiences of eleven of these brave men.
Catholic chaplains in the First World War served alongside the troops at ‘The Front’ both in the trenches and on the battlefields. And they were exposed to the same dangers. Thirty-two Irish Jesuits served as Chaplains, four were killed and two died from illness.
A Castleisland native, Fr. Daniel Roche,SJ was among those who saw action on foreign soil and suffered for it.
Illustrated with letters, photographs and telegrams from the Irish Jesuit Archives, this is a fascinating insight into the experiences and thoughts of men who expected to spend their lives in priestly ministry in schools, parishes, churches and universities – not on the battlefield.
Many of the Jesuit chaplains were highly decorated and recognised for their exceptional bravery by both men and commanding officers.
The book will be launched by Roisin Duffy of RTE this evening Friday, evening September 19th at 7.15pm at Belvedere College, Dublin 1.
Thanks to Cecilia West for the information on Fr. Roche and the amazing photograph of the Cricket match. Interestingly, while you’ll see an image of a 23 year old Fr. Roche in that picture, you’ll also see a very important figure in Irish photography in Fr. Frank Browne.
The following is an assessment of the life and times of Fr. Daniel Roche – yet another remarkable Castleisland native about whom little was know up to now.
Fr Daniel Roche SJ
By: Fr Thomas Morrissey SJ
A regular depiction of Daniel Roche is of a reserved and reticent man. Yet a life-long friend, who entered the Jesuits on the same day as Daniel, described him as ‘a great character’, ‘a good conversationalist, well read, and proficient in all kinds of games and sports’. To fellow novices, and those with him in the juniorate – the year or years devoted to study of the Arts – he became ‘a kind of hero’. Roche remained untouched by any such adulation. According to his friend, ‘he had no use for pretence or ostentation, and hence could not suffer fools gladly. He was a strong character’, something of a ‘he-man’ to use a word he would use of others. He made a strong impression in the army. ‘During many years after the war he used to get letters from officers and men with whom he had come in contact’.1
A native of Castleisland, County Kerry, Daniel came from a well-off family. He was born on October 22nd, 1882, one of three boys and six girls. He attended the local convent school, then the Intermediate School in Tralee, and then the Jesuit boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, County Kildare. This last school was a considerable change for a quiet country boy. He settled in well, nevertheless, and in his four years there distinguished himself in both studies and games. In his studies he appears to have done particularly well in Latin and Greek. In 1899, aged seventeen, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tullabeg, in the midlands near the town of Tullamore.2
His years of training before ordination had some unusual features. After novitiate and juniorate, his facility in the classical languages led to his being sent to teach Latin and Greek at the Jesuit school in Galway. After two years there, he was appointed to Stonyhurst College, England, to study philosophy; but after just a year there he was recalled to act as study-prefect at Clongowes, a position he occupied for five years. In 1911 he was sent to Louvain to conclude his philosophy studies. At the close of that year, he returned to Dublin to commence three years of theology at the Jesuit theologate, Milltown Park. He was ordained there in 1915. Meantime, the World War had commenced. There was an urgent demand for priests to serve with the British Expeditionary Force in France. Roche, like many other Irish Jesuits, volunteered for the position of military chaplain. In 1916 he received word of his acceptance for the post. The fact that he spoke French was to facilitate his time in France.3
The Chaplain 4
On March 7th 1916 Daniel Roche wrote to his Provincial, Fr Thomas V Nolan SJ, that he had settled down to his first job. It was a disappointing appointment. Despite the shortage of Catholic chaplains, their allocation was poorly organised for much of the war. Daniel found himself attached to the Highland Casualty Clearing Station in northern France, a clearing hospital where injured men were attended to and then passed on. The unit was ‘wholly Scotch’. There were only six Catholics. He was in the best of health, he informed the Provincial, but they were far from the firing line and he wished he had more to do. Nearly two months later, April 23rd, he reported that their unit had been busier with a large influx of wounded. This had induced him ‘to take an interest in the medical side of things’. Almost in passing, he observed – ‘I attend most of the operations’. Five days later, he rejoiced at his appointment to a new job.
Roche was now in the 30th Division, 21st Brigade, and was attached to the Field Ambulance. He could no longer complain of want of occupation. ‘We are moving up tomorrow for six weeks of it. So I’m in for the real thing at last’. As he was writing, the Easter Rising in Dublin was drawing to a close. He had been made uncomfortably aware of how the insurrection was viewed in the army: ‘We do not know what to make of the turn things have taken in Ireland. I sometimes hear very hot things said about us, and we have to use all the evasive qualities of the soft answer.’
Being attached to the Field Ambulance meant being active near the Front line, bringing sacramental absolution, extreme unction, and human comfort, often under fire, to wounded and dying soldiers. In May 1916 he wrote of his first experiences of the Front line:
I have been in a dug-out and up at the Front line for the past fortnight, during the bombardment and four days of the battle. We have come back a few miles last evening to rest and reform… I have seen some sights for the last few days which I shall not readily forget. It has been a very hard time but one which I would not have missed for the world. I am in splendid form or will be when I have had some sleep.
He added that his own brigade ‘did magnificently as did also our ambulance. The latter got a special message of congratulation from our general – a thing which is almost unheard of in the army!’
By August 1916, Roche had been moved from the 97th to the 96th Field Ambulance. A chaplain, who had replaced him for a few days, was laid low with a fractured leg. The circumstance led Daniel to wonder if he were lucky, a question he was to ask himself a number of times during his career as chaplain.
He welcomed opportunities for leave, even though journeys to and from England and Ireland could be ordeals. On October 2nd 1916, he commented: ‘I only succeeded in reaching my destination last night after a rough experience – three days travelling and no food whatsoever for the last 20 hours.’ As on his previous return, he was back just in time to prepare his men for a major encounter.
The troops were often billeted in villages back from the Front line. Roche found himself under additional pressure during November. He wrote to the head Catholic chaplain for the British forces in France, Fr BS Rawlinson, OSB, that the Senior Chaplain of the division, Fr O’Shaughnessy, was on leave, and Fr Naylor had been sent back sick, so that he, Roche, was the only Catholic chaplain in the division at the moment. He added that there was no other priest ‘in the four villages in the centre of our line’.5 Rawlinson’s assurance that a Fr Newcombe would join his division was not sent until January 9th 1917. Meantime, Roche was able to make arrangements that permitted him, during December, to take leave in England, where he stayed with two of his sisters. He returned in time for his Christmas duties, only to find a shell hole in the roof of his billet. The sight gave him ‘a kind of retrospective pleasure’.
During March 1917, on his return from leave, he found once again that his billet had been hit by a shell. Tongue in cheek, he informed his Provincial that he viewed the happening as ‘a providential approval of his run home’. He also announced ‘a change of attachment’. His address was now the 18th King’s Liverpool Regiment, but in the same battalion and division. He continued with more eloquence than usual:
We are now going over a desert just as bad as the Somme. There is absolutely nothing left. The villages have been laid level with the ground, the dug outs blown up, and the Enemy returns to points which give him good observation of the ground he has left so that any kind of work or transport or artillery is very difficult and hazardous.
He had participated in the Battle of the Somme, now, in March and early April 1917, it was the Battle of Arras. ‘We have taken part in the overture of the great push’, he wrote on April 17th. Now they were back some miles ‘to try to get the ruffles out of our feathers’. The bombardment was nothing as severe as in July, the advance had been quicker, and the battlefield was not such a gruesome sight afterwards. The weather, however, ‘was absolutely beastly – rain and snow and slush’, which ‘did not make for pleasant living in a hole in a sunken road and living on iron rations for a good period.’ One of the spectacles was of tanks going over and the men walking behind them as if on parade until they went over a ridge or disappeared into trenches torn up by German shells.
His next letter, on May 1st 1917, announced that they had been through a second turn in the great push. They were now well back, having finished their role ‘in the Battle of Arras, phase 1’. In the relief in being in a sleepy village, some 20 miles behind the lines, he reflected at greater length on the war and its many contrasts. One of the most striking contrasts was between ‘the sordid desolation of the line’ and seeing ‘green fields and un-ruined houses again’… ‘Instead of ordered crops and clean grass’ there was at the line ‘a great pock-marked landscape, where the only thing that shows in the torn ground are dried mud pools, scraps of torn clothing, tins, rifles thrown away, broken tools and vehicles and dead horses. The feeling that comes over me there as in the Somme is one of simple horror and one asks when and where is it all going to end and is there any human poser that can stop it.’ He added, ‘three priests have been killed so far and several wounded’.
A month later, on June 7th, as he and the unit were standing by to face another gruelling test, Roche commented: ‘I am feeling quite an old campaigner now, months of the Somme, twice in Arras and now… I hope it is the last push.’ He did not write again until early August. In between ‘he had a lurid time up at the line’. ‘This is far and away the worst sector I have struck. The shelling is very intense, not only in the line but also well behind. The Boche is using some of his naval guns on us with unpleasant effect.’ On August 22nd he wrote to inform the Provincial that he had met the Revd Mother at the convent where Willie Redmond was buried and that she had informed him that Fr Willie Doyle SJ had been killed. His death was instantaneous – ‘part of his neck and shoulder had been taken away by a shell’. She hoped to have his body brought back to the convent. Roche planned to return there in a few days to find out if the body had been brought back.
The next extant letter from Roche was not written till November 24th. They had been out of the line for a while, but were ‘now returning to an extremely warm section of it’. Back from leave on January 15th, 1918, he remarked that amidst sleet and snow they were coming back to a part of the country their armies had fought over at the beginning of the war.
By the time of his next communication, April 1st 1918, it was clear that they had been on retreat from the Germans. He was back at the coast:
It was rather a hot experience. Fr Woodlock (a fellow chaplain) was
nearly taken prisoner but got back through the boche. I rather think they have all his belongings as they have some of mine… We are in part of St Quentin and so had quite a run!’
Three weeks later, on April 21st 1918, he alluded to the retreat and the recent battle of St Quentin:
Though it is only a month since our last retreat, it is the longest period I have spent out here. So much has been crowded into it. I was all through the first retreat from St Quentin, and on the tail end of the other or rather others. It has been a great change after the old fashioned war… but rather trying.
On May 9th he told of the effect of the war on himself. Writing to Fr Rawlinson, the senior chaplain, he reminded him that, apart from a month after his arrival, he had been stationed with an infantry brigade.
The work has been very hard and fatiguing since the German offensive began and I have been in the battle area without a break since it began. I am feeling very fatigued and would be glad if you approved an application for a month’s leave. Besides, I want to make a retreat during it, which would scarcely be possible during a short break!
Meantime, the Allies had received a major boost with the arrival of the Americans in France. Roche was favourably impressed with some of these new troops. In an area well back from the Front line, where his unit was resting after a long experience under fire, he commented: ‘We are acting the part of guide, philosopher and friend to the Yanks. I don’t know how long it will last, but it is a very pleasant change. They are a magnificent lot of men. If they are all like those we meet, they will hustle the war along some when they get going’. Speaking of the new Allies’ offensive, he informed his Provincial, in his usual understatement:
I have been having a rather strenuous time since the beginning of the offensive. I suppose I can tell you now where I have been. We were right in front of St Quentin when the battle began and we remained in the line right back to [Marciel]. Then four days back at the coast; then up to… Baillent, which I know so well, then Kemmel, then Ridge Wood on April 29th. This has been quite a full programme.
Concluding with a further reference to the Americans, he observed that so far they had only one Catholic chaplain and, if he were not sent on another job, he would be happy to remain there with them.
Roche received the extended leave he sought. He was back in France before the end of July 1918. On August 1st he reported that the offensive continued and that he was up near the line in ‘a sector which he knew well’. On August 20th, however, he announced that he was not involved in the last push, was in fact far from it, and life had become ‘just… routine – that is to say about the most boring thing in existence’. He was evidently geared for action during these years, but remained reticent about any personal exploits and efforts under fire. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to find Fr Rawlinson, in a letter to Roche’s senior chaplain, Fr O’Shaughnessy, stating that he hoped that the latter’s recommendation regarding Roche would go through, and that he thoroughly deserved it. Rawlinson warned, however, that honours and decorations had become very much stricter lately and were well-nigh impossible now. Two days later, on October 2nd 1918, Roche informed his Provincial, almost in passing, that he might be awarded the Military Cross. Referring to battles in terms of ‘big shows’ and ‘local shows’, he observed:
I myself have been in a few of those local shows, which, for the unit in them, are just as severe as the big pushes and have had a rather rough time… I have been recommended for the Military Cross (as an individual award) but do not know if anything will come of it…
He would not be surprised, he added, ‘if nothing came of it’. Shortly after, he believed that ‘the end was in sight’. He hoped, though vainly, that there would be no more bloodshed.
Every dead man I now see strikes me with pity, and I am so sick of war these days that I miss even the excitement which one would expect in being a witness and partaker in such historical events. I have been very glad that all my time out here I have been with the infantry in the line and I shall cntinue it to the end, although I was tempted to apply for another job during the winter.
His time with the infantry in the line came to an abrupt end. On October 12th he was gassed and after two days was sent to 14 General Hospital, BEF, at Boulogne. From there on October 16th, an English Jesuit chaplain, William Brand, wrote to the Irish Provincial:
Fr Roche was brought to this hospital two days ago. He was gassed… and though his condition is not serious, he is suffering a good deal from the eyes and throat. As he cannot at present use his eyes, he has asked me to write to your Reverence for him.
Fr Brand believed that Roche would be removed to England in a day or two as patients were not kept in the present hospital longer than necessary. He thought that he would not be fit for work ‘for a couple of months at least’. Three days later, Roche managed a brief note: ‘I am leaving for England this morning – where I don’t know. You see I have at least got my eyes open, but everything is very blurred. Shall write and destination when I know.’
The following day, October 20th, Roche managed to write in large letters that he had been sent to Stratham Hall, No. 7 Hospital, Exeter. It could well be 2-3 months before he could be well again. ‘I am still pretty blind’, he explained, ‘not being able to see anything a few yards away, not able to read a line. My throat too has been affected and my voice has partly gone. They do not think there will be any permanent effects.’ He was finding it all rather tedious. ‘I had a good dose and am now having a boring time. I shall try my best to get out of here as soon as possible.’
He was visited by a fellow Irish Jesuit, William Gwynn, who reported to the Provincial on October 26th that he found Roche keen ‘to go back again for the finish’. After a spell recuperating at Mungret College, Limerick, Roche did return to the ranks, but probably not before the end of the fighting on November 11th 1918. 6 Despite his doubts about receiving military honours, he was decorated with the Military Cross for gallantry in action under fire and his devotion to his men.
The After Life
On his discharge, Dan Roche returned to Ireland. In September 1919 he entered on his tertianship – a year of prayer and spiritual study – in the familiar surroundings of Tullabeg. At the end of that year he was appointed to Crescent College Limerick as teacher and games master. After three years he was sent to Clongowes Wood College. He spent just a year there. In the wake of years of intense activity and emotion among men in harrowing and dangerous situations, the task of teaching young boys must have been less than attractive. He was appointed to more congenial work. For the next nine years, 1924-1933, he was a member of the Jesuit Mission Staff – a group of Jesuits who travelled the country giving parish missions and directing retreats. Like many who took part in the Great War, Daniel Roche was loath to talk about his military experiences. All the more so in the intensely nationalistic Ireland to which he returned, where service in the British army was not appreciated. By contrast, according to a posthumous account in the Irish Province News, he would, when in talkative mood, regale his listeners with stories about his experiences up and down the country during his years on the Mission Staff.
In 1933 he returned to the Crescent to work in the adjoining Sacred Heart Church. He spent the remaining 28 years of his life in quiet dedication to the work of the church. He became noted for his commitment to hearing confessions and for his practical commonsense in directing those who came to him. In community life he was said to be pleasant and good humoured, and an omnivorous reader. He made little public mark. He continued working quietly to the end of his life. The obituary, in the above publication, disclosed that ‘he heard confessions for several hours on the three days before his death. In fact, he was in the confessional until 9.00pm on the night before his heart attack’.7 A colleague commented that an appropriate motto for Daniel Roche’s entire life was – ‘Give and do not count the cost’. He was 79 years at his death on November 13th 1961.
Fr. Daniel Roche SJ M.C.(n.22 October. 1882, Castleisland, County Kerry +13 November 1961, Limerick) served with the in 1917 with the 96th (C.P.) Field Ambulance, B.E.F., France; 1918 & 1919: 18 K.L.R., B.E.F., France.
1 Irish Province News, Vol. X, NO. 9. January 1962, pp. 328-30.
2 Irish Jesuit Archives (hereafter cited as IJA), IJA/CHP1/52.
3 IJA/CHP1/52 – Biographical information 1930.
4 All letters, apart from the Rawlinson papers, are in IJA/CHP1/53.
5 Correspondence between Roche-Rawlinson, November 15th 1916, Rawlinson Papers,
N.78, Downside Abbey Archives, courtesy of Mr. Stephen Bellis.
6 The Clongownian, June 1919, p. 288.
7 Irish Province News, 1962, p. 330.