DOWNSIDE ABBEY REMEMBRANCE
11 Nov 2019
Like most of the country, Downside Abbey was deeply affected by both world wars of the twentieth century. On the 11th November the community remembers not only those who lost their lives but those who served as military chaplains and witnessed unimaginable horrors.
During the Great War fourteen Downside monks served with the British Army as chaplains to the forces, bringing the comforts of religion to those who needed it in moments of danger. In the Second World War, fifteen members of the Downside community served, a few not for the first time. Of these monks from both conflicts, only one lost his life.
On 31st May 1940, Dom Gervase Hobson-Matthews was killed on the beach at Dunkirk whilst running an aid station for wounded men. He became a Martyr of Charity, and is buried in the military cemetery at Dunkirk. His diary is part of the Downside Abbey Archives and his last entry on that day ends …a priest has certainly to stay. These poignant words sum up the role of the military chaplain perfectly.
Dom Norbert Birt, a chaplain in the Great War serving at the military hospital at Netley, wrote to Cardinal Aidan Gasquet in Rome of his feelings of the Armistice signed in 1918.
You in far-off Rome must be feeling the relief and gratitude that almost overwhelms us here. The happenings of the last three weeks have been so stupendous, so vast, rushing one on top of the other, as to give one a feeling of being almost stunned. It all looks like a miraculous answer to prayer. All seem to feel that here, expressed in so many words by men and women whom one would hardly have expected to express themselves. Deo gratias! I don’t know when I said a Te Deum so fervently as on last Monday.
Sadly Dom Norbert was not to enjoy peace for long as he died in August 1919 from complications after an operation.
On the Home Front, monks involved in the running of the school were also deeply affected as the number of Old Gregorians killed in the War grew weekly. Dom Leander Ramsay, headmaster from 1902-1918, prayed daily in the abbey church for the safe return of as many of the ex pupils as possible. Another member of the community recalled meeting Dom Leander outside the abbey church one evening looking at the list of those Old Gregorians killed. As I passed he caught me by the arm, and, pointing to the Roll of the ‘Killed’ he said in a voice tense with emotion, ‘Look at it, look at it! My poor, poor boys. Will there be any of them left, I wonder, when this ghastly war is over.’ In total 109 Downside Old Gregorians would lose their lives in that conflict.
The nave of the abbey church was built as a war memorial to all those pupils who had died in the Great War, and Dom Leander is buried within it, one of his wishes.
On this Remembrance Day, Downside Abbey remembers the fallen and all those affected by war.