Father Gleeson and his Alter-Boy
Capt. D. D. Sheehan, MP., writing for the Press Association, says —
I know it is sometimes said that the religious man does not make the best fighter, and fine theories are stated in support of this view. But I have my own observation of how the Catholic Irishmen can fight; and in the face of positive knowledge, psychological theories, no matter how eruditely they may be constructed, are only so much rubbish.
Let us see what happened at the Rue du Bois, close to Neuve Chapelle, on May 9th, 1915, when the 3rd Infantry Brigade, to which belonged the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, were ordered to attack the German trenches, and how we shall get some understanding of how the Irish soldier is sustained by the practice of his religion. The officer in charge of the Munsters at the time was Colonel Victor Rickard. His widow, Mrs. Victor Rickard has written a booklet entitled, The Story of the Munsters which is a splendid memorial to the devotion of the Munsters and the heroism of officers and men alike. Sergeant-Major J. T, Leahy, of Monkstown , co. Cork, also gave a most interesting account of the work of the Munsters on the occasion, and the way they carried all before them. This Sergeant-Major had been what is known in Ireland as an "altar-boy" in his youth, and he used to serve Mass for Father Francis Gleeson out at the front. Here is what this zealous and faithful non-commissioned officer had to say of the value of prayer. “Prayer,” he wrote, “more than anything else consoles me. And every fellow is the same. So the war has been the cause of making us all an army of saints.
In describing the battle, Sergeant-Major Leahy states that on the preceding day, May 8th, close to 800 men received Holy Communion from Father Gleeson, and wrote their names and home addresses in their hymn books. When evening came the regiment moved up to take its place in the trenches in the front of the Rue du Bois.
“At the entrance to the Rue du Bois” writes Mrs. Rickard, “there stands a broken shrine, and within the shrine a crucifix. When the Munsters came up the road Major Rickard halted the battalion. The men were ranged on three sides of a square, their green flags – a gift from Lady Gordan - placed before each company, Father Gleeson mounted, Colonel Rickard, and Captain Filgate, the Adjutant on their charges, were in the centre, and in that wonderful twilight Father Gleeson gave a general absolution.”
Here Sergeant-Major Leahy takes up and supports the story. "On the lonely, dark road-side," he says, "lit up now and then by flashes from our own or German flares, rose to Heaven the voices of 800 men singing that glorious hymn, ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven.’ There were no ribald jests or courage buoyed up by alcohol; none of the fanciful pictures which imagination conjures up of soldiers going to a desperate charge. No, there were brave hearts without fear, only hoping that God would bring them through, and if the end came – well it was only a little shortening of the allotted span. Every man had his rosary beads out, reciting the prayers in response to Father Gleeson, just as if at the Confraternity at home, instead of having to face death in a thousand hideous forces the following morning."
And then our sergeant-major tells us how Father Gleeson went down the ranks saying words of comfort, bidding good-bye to the officers, and "telling the men to keep up the honour of the regiment."
At dawn the German position was subjected to an intense bombardment for seven minutes to sweep the wire out of the way. Then the query came from the officers: “Are you ready, lads?” and back came the response "Yes."
Then over the parapet like one man leaped eight hundred forms, the four green company flags leading. Three hundred yards of ground had to be covered. A devastating fire was opened on our men by the Germans. Hundreds of the Munsters went down in that fatal charge, but they never wavered and they never faltered. Right onward to the German trenches they swept, the green flag still waving at their head.
The regiments at the right and the left who were to take the trenches at the same time were unable to do so. The Munsters were fighting by themselves. The position was hopeless and the order to retire had to be given.
“You were the only attacking battalion to penetrate and storm the German trenches, although under hellish fire,” said the Brigade Commander when he subsequently addressed the Munsters. "You have added another laurel to your noble deeds during the present campaign. I am proud to command such a gallant regiment."
"So the Munsters came back after their day’s work," said Mrs. Rickard: "they formed up in the Rue du Bois numbering 200 men and three officers." And she justly adds: "It seems superfluous to make further comment."
The Munsters had added "another laurel to their noble deeds," – not the last by a long way in this great war.