A Chaplain on the Somme

This blog post was written by Roger Ivens of Oldham Local Studies and Archives, and references a letter which was published in the Oldham Chronicle 100 years ago today, on 25 July 1916.

Godric Kean was born at Crook near Durham in 1866. He was ordained at Fribourg, Switzerland on 22 March 1896 and after serving at a number of churches in the Salford Diocese was appointed to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Oldham in 1911. In April 1915 together with a number of other priests from the Salford Diocese he was appointed chaplain to the forces, joining the 12th Durham Light Infantry at their camp at Bramshott near Bordon in Hampshire. The Battalion was transferred to France in August 1915.

The 12th Durham Light Infantry entered the Battle of the Somme battle on 3 July and was involved in the capture of Contalmasion on 10 July. On 25 July 1916 the following letter was published in the Oldham Chronicle:

We have been in the thick of the battle. It was the lot of my brigade to take an early and important part in the great offensive – and a successful one too. I was attached to a field ambulance. What a time I had! What sights I saw! How brave our men in action, how patient in suffering, how cheerful at all times. One fine young officer was brought in, a splendid fellow, one of magnificent physique. His legs were shattered by shrapnel; the both had to be taken off. He never murmured. Recovering consciousness after the operation, he smiled and thanked the doctors for what they had done for him, and the poor fellow died a few hours afterwards. Some of the wounded in the broadest of Lancashire and Yorkshire dialect would create mirth even in the operating theatre, where their wounds were being dressed, by the recital of droll incidents either in connection with what they had gone through on the field of battle or by some witty remark regarding their prospective voyage to “Blighty” land. I have seen men in most excruciating pain acting as stoically as to manifest almost an imperviousness to sufferings.

What is the cause of this? How has it come about, for surely it is something superhuman. Is it that God gives a special aid in a special case – an auxiliary help to a particular vocation? But I must not go into metaphysical speculations, for all do not bear pain with the same Spartan-like temperament, and you are a much more advanced student of human nature than I am; you are profoundly  a thinker, I not.

Well, we are pushing on; not swiftly, but surely. Every inch of ground we take is drenched with blood. As we must advance, and as against the Germans, with their scientific warfare, their organisation, their courage, and their resource, the price to be paid for our progress must be blood; that blood has flowed freely, copiously, and, alas! From the youngest, the purest, and the strongest veins of the nation’s manhood.

Hundreds of German prisoners have passed through our quarter. Many have been attended to by our ambulance. I buried one; he was brought in in a dying state. From accounts given by them, and I interrogated dozens, their forces lost heavily. We had the Prussian Guards, Wurtemburgers, and Saxons up against us. Not one seemed to regret having been taken, with the single exception of a young probation officer. Their suffering had been great. Many had been without food for four days, they said. They were at once supplied with hot tea of coffee and bread, and so great is the kindheartedness of our soldiers that they would give the prisoners even their own cigarettes. The young officer whom I referred to was expecting his commission or promotion this month. He did not attempt to conceal his disappointment and disgust at having been taken. He had spent some time in England, probably as a spy, and was occupied in some engineering work in Birmingham. He had also passed some time in France. As I sat by his side I could easily perceive that in his being taken a proud bird had been captured, and one that would like to break the bayonet bars of his British cage. “A prisoner! A prisoner!” he muttered aloud, and then with an expression of satisfaction “Well, I have done my duty.” No doubt he had – by sending gas shells t poison those whom fair fight could not overcome.

Many of our poor fellows came in suffering from gas shells. I had as many as twenty three of the Munsters (Irish Regiment) lying around in the open-air at once, all poisoned.

We are just having a few days’ respite before returning to action again, so I take occasion to write to you. In spite of all I love the army life. If I ever return to civil life it will be with reluctance. I want to see the thing through – I am, thank God, I the best of health – and all here have bright hopes. We are cheerful, even joyful. What shall we be when victory crowns our efforts?

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