The ‘storm of war’ is apt epithet for conflict. Mankind dominates the planet and his science and ingenuity can raise great structures, transform landscapes and traverse the skies and oceans. Yet against the most extreme forces of nature all this means nothing. So it is with warfare on a global scale for once it has been unleashed, its tidal wave envelopes not only armies and territories, but everything and everyone in it’s path. Civilian populations are always those who suffer most and no way of life is spared or immune. This book—containing two different but complementary accounts—concerns the gentle ladies of the Church who were caught up in the brutality of the First World War and who were diverted from their lives of prayer by its suffering. The first account concerns the Irish nuns of the Royal Benedictine Abbey at Ypres—a city which, as all who know anything of the history of the Great War realise, was enveloped in the earliest weeks of war and remained a place of peril and destruction. The nuns endured great privations in order to stay in their historic home and be able to offer relief to all those in need. Theirs is a moving story of faith and determination and is an essential chapter in the history of the First World War. The second text here, by a nun of the Convent of the Daughters of Mary, Willebroeck, near Antwerp—which was also the home of a boarding school for young girls—is another vital first hand account telling of the terrible months of 1914 as the German army swept through Belgium.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The sound of hostilities came ever nearer and nearer. Dreadful rumours were current of an important battle about to be fought in the proximity of Ypres. What made things worse was the great number of spies that infested the neighbourhood. Daily they were arrested, but yet others managed to replace them. Four soldiers and one civilian kept a vigilant watch on the town, examining everyone who seemed the least suspicious, as much as the prisoners themselves.
Roulers, Warneton, Dixmude, and countless other towns and villages had succumbed; and at last, to our great grief, news reached us that the Germans were in Bruges, and had taken possession of the Episcopal palace—and our much-loved bishop, where was he? Alas! we were doomed not to hear, for all communication was cut off, and for the future we only knew what was happening in and around Ypres. And was it not enough? The windows already shook with the heavy firing. The roar of the guns in the distance scarcely stopped a moment. From the garret windows, we could already see the smoke of the battle on the horizon; and to think that, at every moment, hundreds of souls were appearing before the judgment-seat of God! Were they prepared? Terrifying problem!
As everywhere else, the German numbers far exceeded those of the Allies. It consequently came to pass that the latter were forced to retreat. It was thus that on Wednesday, October, 21, we received the alarming news that the town would probably be bombarded in the evening. We had already prepared our parcels in case we should be obliged to fly and now we were advised to live in our cellars, which were pronounced quite safe against any danger of shells or bombs. But our dear Lady Abbess, how should we get her down to the cellar, when it was only with great difficulty that she could move from one room to another? If we were suddenly forced to leave, what then would she do? We could only leave the matter in God’s hands. We carried down a carpet, bed, armchair, and other things, to try to make matters as comfortable as possible for her—then our own bedding and provisions.
The precious treasures and antiquities had already been placed in security, and we now hastened to collect the remaining books and statues, which we hoped to save from the invaders. We had also been advised to pile up sand and earth against the cellar windows to deaden the force of the shells should they come in our direction. But if this were the case, they would first encounter the provision of pétrole in the garden—and then we should all be burnt alive. To prepare for this alarming contingency, Dame Teresa and Dame Bernard, armed with spades, proceeded to the far end of the garden, where they dug an immense hole, at the same time carrying the earth to block the entrances to the different cellars. After a whole day’s hard labour, they succeeded in finishing their excavation and in tilting the huge barrel, which they could neither roll nor drag—it being both too full and too heavy—to the place prepared. Their labour, however, proved all in vain; for Edmund, displeased at the barrel’s disappearance, then highly amused at the brilliant enterprise, declared he could not draw the pétrole unless put back in its old position.
The reported fortunate arrival of a large number of Indian troops (they said 400,000, though 40,000 would be nearer the mark) had a reassuring effect: but we still remained in suspense, for if the Allies came by thousands, the Germans had a million men in the neighbourhood. The Allies and Germans also sustained frightful losses. The ambulance cars continually brought in the unfortunate victims from the battlefield, till at last the town was full to overflowing. One Sunday morning, a French officer and military doctor came to visit the convent to see if it would not be possible to place their wounded with us. We willingly offered our services, and Mother Prioress showing them the class-rooms, it was decided that the whole wing facing the ramparts, including the classrooms, children’s dormitory and refectory, the library, noviceship and work-room, should be emptied and placed at their disposal. The great drawback was the lack of bedding; for already, before the arrival of the Germans in the town, we had given all we could possibly spare for the Belgian wounded, who had at that time been transported to Ypres.
The two gentlemen took their leave, very pleased with their visit, the officer—who seemed to all appearances a fervent Catholic—promising to send round word in the afternoon, when all should be decided. Despite the fact that it was Sunday, we listened (after having obtained permission) to the proverb, ‘Many hands make light work,’ and soon the rooms in question were emptied of all that would not serve for the soldiers, and were ready for their use. What was our disappointment, in the afternoon, to hear that the French officer, thanking us profusely for our offer, had found another place, which was more suitable, as being nearer the site of the engagement. We had always shown our goodwill, and were only too pleased to help in any little way the brave soldiers, who daily, nay hourly, watered with their blood Belgium’s unfortunate soil.
This was not the last we heard of the officer; for we soon had a visit from a French deacon, who was serving as infirmarian at the ambulance, begging for bandages for the wounded soldiers. All our recreations and free moments were spent in ‘rolling’ bandages, for which were sacrificed sheets and veils, and in fact anything that could serve for the purpose—to all of which we of course added dozens of badges of the Sacred Heart. The deacon was overjoyed and returned several times ‘to beg,’ giving us news of the fighting. One day he brought a little souvenir, by way of thanks for our help. It consisted of a prayer-book found on a German wounded prisoner, who had died. The prayers were really beautiful, being taken mostly from passages of the Psalms, adapted for the time of war; while the soiled leaves showed that the book had been well read.
One afternoon, about this time, the sister who acted as portress announced the visit of an ‘English Catholic priest,’ serving as army chaplain. Mother Prioress went immediately round to the parlour to receive the reverend visitor, who stated that he had been charged by a well-known English lord, should he ever pass by Ypres, to come to our convent, to see the ‘English flag’ which one of his ancestors had sent to the abbey. Mother Prioress assured him that the only flag in the convent was the famous one captured by the Irish Brigade in the service of France at the Battle of Ramillies. She added that she would be happy to give him a photograph of the flag. He said he would be enchanted, promising to call the next day to fetch it. Accordingly, the following day he returned, accompanied by two officers. Dame Josephine, together with Dame Teresa and Dame Patrick, were sent to entertain them.