nN April 29 I received notice to proceed overseas and was told that my embarkation leave began on that day. 1 was only able to have one day and two nights at home when a wire recalled me. Back 1 came and went to an embarkation port in the south of England where I found myself one of thirty chaplains, six of whom were Catholic priests.
Our boat went out into the harbour and then waited for the others.
The coastline looked so peaceful that one could not imagine that there was war.
Next morning the grey coast of France showed up, wrapped in a mystic garb. We were all chaplains and medical men or other members of the R.A.M.C., so we had to wait until the other boats got rid of their troops. Our men were everywhere and it looked like a little bit of Britain.
We packed away the emergency rations of the night before and then went to the R.T.O., where we had a meal, wrote a few letters, changed our English money and drew some in advance. Later we took a train and went to the capital. There we had a few hours off.
On Wednesday evening we arrived at the G.H.Q., interviewed the Assistant Chaplain General and listened to a lecture for half an hour. It was now late so we got a hotel nearby, where we had supper, and after a sponge retired.
Mass at the Cathedral
Next morning we were up at 7 and setting out for the cathedral. I called to mind the words of my old moral professor: "A priest need never be in any church on the Continent. He can easily say: 'Ego volo celebrare Missanz?" So to the first priest I met I said : "Ego sum sacerdos, cappel!anus militaris local's, et volo celebrare Missam." That made everything easy.
After breakfast we got back to G.H.Q., and then were appointed to our posts. I got appointed to G.H.Q. troops and was to stay with a company of R.E. All the rest left early in the morning and just three were left.
In the afternoon we motored to my station. The country looked lovely. Old men and women worked laboriously inthe fields, following pairs of horses. I saw old women drive as many as three horses ploughing and harrowing. Sometimes round the bend of a road I saw a grey-haired woman lead a pair of cows with a rope on their heads.
I reached my appointed station at 630. By a good deal of talk and gesticulations we made it understood that I was the new chaplain. My predecessor was a Benedictine from the celebrated abbey of Downside. This was a beautiful valley and recognised as such by the French. It was not many miles distant from the battlefields of the Great War. It was not a large town but probably the usual kind of country town, topped by a very fine old Gothic church which could be seen for miles around. Thirty-three steps led up to it. The Curd's housc was a few yards from the steps, and my quarters were in a private house three doors away.
" How Did You Sleep?"
I found a very small officers' mess as there were only four officers present, two being on leave. They were engaged in building military huts some three miles away.
Next morning after Mass I went over to
the officers mess. I noticed that they seemed to be rather upset. A young officer turned and asked: " How did you sleep, Padre?" "Fine." I answered. " Do you know that while you slept our huts were blown up and that the Netherlands were invaded?" I then remembered waking to the noise of three aeroplanes about six.
The enemy had bombed the huts and eight were injured. I went down with another chaplain to see them. They had been moved to the C.C.S. some miles away.
The casualties of the previous day, includ ing gmbteninandtreevuetenawounddedseuGtertomatbnse, inwegreR.Abr.oFu.
base. Doctors worked quickly and . smoothly. A tab was attached to each man giving his name, unit, rank, religion and malady.
Next clay the unit 1 was with left, and I was told to remain with the next one. It was the Signallers. There were only two officers so they told me that as there was no mess I had better have my meals with the French family where I was. That was what I did.
French are so Self-Supporting
The man of the house was the secretary to the mayor of the town. He had been wounded in the Great War. A French family is probably the most self-supporting family in Europe. This family killed a rabbit and a chicken weekly, i.e., 52 rabbits and 52 chickens annually. They reared them themselves and provided front their garden sufficient vetches for the rabbits. They bought their wine and cider from the local farmer wholesale. The gardens were very well laid out. All the usual vegetables grew there.
One thing lacking—a bath. The only way to get one was to drench oneself with the hosepipe. On Whit-Sunday the Curd said his three Masses, one in a parish outside. His curate was in the army. The Chaplain in the B.E.F. can say three Masses on Sunday and can take liquid nourishment between two Masses. This is allowed by a special dispensation.
The Curd wanted " uric grande Messe sollennelle." I began to wonder where the third priest would be obtained. The Curd solved it by bringing in a non-tonsuratus ecclesiastic and dressed him as a subdeacon. He did not read the epistle, as I chanted it as well as sang the gospel. So, in the words of another chaplain, he was a glorified dummy.
Six Raids Daily
Just before the sermon the Celebrant blessed two big baskets of bread. This was distributed by a server who wore what looked like an amice and alls and generally walked with folded arms. The young children promptly ate it. I had great difficulty in preventing the children from talking. Next day I mentioned the facts to my senior chaplain. His reply was: " You will not be popular with these little lads. You should see them in this Church."
My senior chaplain had called on Saturday but I was at G.H.Q. He said he would call next day. When he carne I went with him to his place and stayed at the presbytery that night. There were about six air-raids daily. We took cover.
My senior chaplain had troops at Sunday Mass during an air-raid. He told them that under the circumstances they were not bound to Mass, but as no one stirred he gave them absolution and later gave them Holy Communion, which was the best means of preparing them.
One day when I was walking through a garden at the back of my billet I heard a woman crying. I thought that she had bad news from the front-line. T noticed that Suzanne the elder girl of the house was rather excited and rushing about with a hag. I did not have long to ponder for the Curd came along and informed me that the whole civil population were to be evacuated. That night the majority of the town left, including the mayor's secretary. The town looked like a deserted village. At the house opposite I saw the woman prepare for departure. She wrote up on her door: " Chez Arnold." Next day there was no post and no newspapers. The Cure and a few poor people still clung on to
their old home, but all May Devotions were at an end.
Meanwhile refugees came pouring in from Belgium. They were evidently from all sections of society. There were some very fine cars, piled up and covered with mattresses and bedclothes, prams and bicycles tied on. Many poor folk hiked it, with haversacks, portmanteaux, baskets and even sheets tied on their backs. Among all the women I did not notice a dry eye. It was the evacuation of a nation.
There was a general report that woe there would be a move. That night abou. I I Oleic was a disturbance in the town Two spies were shot. The people were in great excitement—I mean the few left. AI 2 a.m. the soldiers left, without informins me, although the officer-in-charge agreed to do so. Next morning I said Mass and made my thanksgiving.
That day I had my lunch at the local inn Afterwards 1 thought that I would go fo a walk to the next town. I did not realise s what it implied. As 1 set out I got a few stares from others. When I was a few yards outside the place a gendarme on _sm., s. -srss—Wi4114i:;:ss., a motorcycle stopped me, asked for my-esoFt.-es -• sesss'e identity card, and then told me to return. I did so. A crowd gathered. I went to the police station. I was searched. I asked for an English officer. There was none within three miles. After some time he came. He was a young second-lieutenant. He looked at my papers, placed a guard at the door. Then he left with his guard and returned in half an hour saying that the brigade major would like to see me. Meanwhile a lady of the village came along and identified nte as the Catholic chaplain to the troops. The Curd came along also and spoke about me.
I Am Identified
My difficulty was that I did not have a car, although one had been sent to me during the week but the driver could not find me. Then the senior chaplain had told me the places to visit and I took down the names. Now I discovered that I had a list of all the camps and aerodromes in the locality. The guard said to the Curd: " II a beaucoup &information.Then I left with the intelligence officer and got down to the R.A.S.C. brigade. There I had no difficulty. The brigade-major knew personally the captain who had signed my identity card. That night I collected my kit and stayed with the R.A.S.C. They gave me a great teasing about being a parachutist.
Next day we had to leave as the enemy were coming dangerously near. We ran into shell fire. One of our lorries was set on fire and a few officers and men killed. The rest of the convoy turned back and by a circuitous route -proceeded to the coast.
The journey was very slow. Roads were crammed with refugees in all manner of conveyance from shanks' snare to a caravan. The whole world seemed to be on the move. Old women pushed prams with babies in them and shed copious tears. Our doctor prescribed as well as possible for sick women. One or two had been taken on our ambulances. Poor old men and young boys took all their belongings on their backs and strode along. Some milked cows in the fields, some took their coffee and bread in a field. Some slept in a shed, on a rick of hay or on the grass in a field. The majority trudged along somehow. saw young girls asleep on the side of the dyke while thousands just passed by.
Progress was very slow. Distant firing broke the stillness of the night. Sometimes
it sounded very near as we approached a town. Another two days' travel, we got to Boulogne. There we found not peace but plenty of excitement. The bombing we had so far received in the first town I was at, was nothing to it. Here it was incessant until midnight and began again at six in the morning. We made for the shelter. Machine-guns went into action.
All day Wednesday, May 23, the Germans made several attempts to bomb the town. Only a little factory caught fire. Fighting was so intense and incessant that I was unable to say Mass. The first bomber to come over was brought down. On Wednesday evening frequent raids followed each other. Anti-aircraft batteries replied.
That evening we all marched out about eight miles along the coast. Our advance guards covered us. As we left the town intense fighting and bombing was going on. One thing I noticed in air-raids is that all the glass in the vicinity breaks. Everywhere one could hear glass smashing.
At one time our own guards fired on us by mistake but there were no casualties. After a rest of two hours we returned. Our men took up positions on the docks. It was Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi. Refugees thronged the dock-gates. Mt armed guard had to keep them back. A wounded soldier was admitted. The nearest ambulance was treating a sick mother. We got him to the next one.
At seven o'clock three bombers swooped down. The first one was brought' down. Then others came on in droves of six at a turn. They made two hundred attempts on the dock bridge. The only damage they did was about a yard's width at the outside. Anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns, Bren and even Lewis guns kept them at bay.
More bombers came and continued for three hours. One incendiary bomb exploded and burned a lorry within ten yards of me. Luckily it did not spread. Ammunition was taken out in turn by our men. More and more of it came along. One lorry was hit. The occupants escaped.
Finally about 12 o'clock the bombers seemed to have run out of stuff and we all gathered to another part of the town.
After lunch the attack took on a new intensity. Black planes came over in dozens. The French and British were even more ready now than in the morning. About 500 of our troops were in a wood to the north of the docks.
All the planes dived to wreck the docks. Machine-guns, coastal batteries and antiaircraft batteries kept up a very quick attack. Meanwhile to our delight up the river came a destroyer and the gallant Navy came into action. The noise was terrific. When the naval guns spoke the ground under us shook. One destroyer brought down three Hienkel bombers in an hour. A small French boat was sunk. No one was lost in it. If you did not open your mouth at the report of these naval guns you would get concussion.
What an End !
Meanwhile some of our men were taken in twenties and had to run down to the jetty and then on to a small boat and then on to the destroyer. After the French boat had been sunk they were not taken that way. Despite the fierce fighting they were marched right down on to the docks and on to the destroyer.
There were Irish and Welsh troops, members from a great number of units that had lost their fellows and had joined together. There were officers without men and men without their leaders. Finally the destroyers took off about 2,000. My last glimpse of Boulogne was one mass of fire being shelled from the sea.