Since 1899, members of the Downside monastic community have served as military chaplains to the armed forces. Fourteen of them served in the Great War 1914-1919.

Watching the film 1917 recently, it was wonderful to spot the appearance of a military chaplain at the end, in a scene in a casualty clearing station. Tending to wounded and dying men, the chaplain was briefly seen moving from soldier to soldier among the horror. Although only on screen for a few seconds, the image was enough to remind us of the experiences of the Downside monks. 

Within the archives at Downside are many letters and diaries chronicling those experiences, but one monk’s descriptions of the Somme and also April 1917 show how accurate the film’s depiction actually is. Dom Urban Butler joined as a chaplain in March 1916 and initially served with the 9th Cheshire Regiment. His views of the early days of the Somme offensive, which he spent in an advanced dressing station, are shown below:

Presently we arrived at the communication trenches; the brigade went in and I left them to go to the advanced dressing station in the chateau in the wood of Becourt (a good map of the battlefield ought to show it) some three kilometres east of Albert and just behind our front lines as it was on that famous first of July. The horrors of that place in which I have since spent so many hours will live in my mind till my last day. The heat was overpowering and I could hardly support the awful stench of blood and perspiration.

This description almost perfectly mirrored what was shown on screen, and this letter was the one which instantly sprang to mind when watching the film. In the archives are dozens of similar letters, from chaplains who also spent their time at dressing and clearing stations during the war. 

It was upon reading Dom Urban’s letter dated 24th April 1917 (around the time depicted in the film), when he was with the 4th Grenadier Guards, that reinforced how well researched the film was: 

…the village outside which we are camped is a mass of ruins as is every other in a radius of ten miles. I could not have believed that even Bosch ingenuity could work such awful destruction. There is not a house standing. This village was a residential one, full of well-built houses and massive stables. The loss must represent millions. There is not a fruit tree standing in these pathetic little gardens, except some pear and plum trees which cling to walls they did not trouble to destroy. They have hacked the bark off in malicious spite and made deep gashes in every one, thus rendering their death inevitable. The church is a heap of stones and rafters, but amidst the debris of the south aisle I discovered, more or less intact, the altar of our Lady of Lourdes.

Anyone who has seen the film will recognise the references, without wanting to ruin it for anyone who has yet to watch! The film is highly recommended, and truly brings home the horrors of war and reminds us here of what the Downside monks went through.

To purchase a copy of Monks in the Military, the Downside Abbey Press publication about Benedictine monks as military chaplains, click here. For the whole of February the title has 10% off!