Fr Tom Nangle was a gallant and highly capable chaplain who spent two years in the trenches during World War I encouraging the survivors, comforting the dying and burying the dead. Afterwards he played a vital role in collecting the bodies and creating memorials across Europe to his fellow soldiers of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment; but his own story was long lost in the cracks of history.
There were some doubts at St Patrick’s seminary in Co Carlow (where the island’s priests were trained) about whether he was ready for ordination in 1913, despite his obvious talents. But the Newfoundland Church urgently needed recruits, and when the war began the following year, he was working as a priest in the capital, St John’s. Fr Nangle immediately asked to become a chaplain, and was eventually granted his wish he forced the issue by enlisting as an ordinary soldier.
Some three months after the regiment had suffered 90 per cent casualties in half an hour in the French village of Beaumont Hamel – proportionately the highest loss of any unit on the first day of the Somme – he arrived at the front dispensing cheery confidence to Catholics and Protestants alike.
In one of his first telegrams home he wrote how all the Catholics came to Confession. The next day one man disappeared under a large shell. Another died on a German parapet, while a third was wounded in the stomach to survive for a week. On a visit to a ruined church, Fr Nangle recalled, he hopped into an unoccupied grave and listening to the music of a Maxim gun’s bullets zipping through the trees.
In addition to fulfilling his priestly duties under fire, Fr Nangle organised a hockey match on a frozen duck pond, helped to design a Christmas card and corresponded with the governor of Newfoundland. But when he returned home on leave after being wounded in the shoulder, he incurred archiepiscopal disapproval by speaking at a recruitment meeting.
Following the Armistice, he returned to parish duties for four months. Then he was appointed to the Imperial War Graves Commission and dispatched by the Newfoundland government to collect and re-bury his countrymen’s remains, a gruesome experience he found more dispiriting than performing the Last Rites. Although accompanied by a stretcher-bearer, he found it difficult to identify where actions had taken place. Many of the bodies recovered had lost their cloth identity discs and were little more than a gelatinous mass, while the stench affected the health of the diggers. What depressed him was the knowledge that he had encouraged these young men to join up as “thoughtless cannon fodder”.
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