FRANCIS Gleeson was one of the thousands of Irishmen who served in the First World War. But he did not go to fight. He provided spiritual and physical comfort to the second battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. He was their chaplain, a role iconically portrayed in the painting, The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois.
“The scenes of enthusiasm are extraordinary,” he wrote on May 8, 1915, the eve of the Battle of Aubers Ridge. “I ride on my horse. Give absolution to [the] battalion during rest in [the] road...The men all sing hymns, ‘Hail Glorious St Patrick’. I go further up — near the trenches, and bid goodbye to all. So sad.”
Many of the men, recruited from Kerry, Cork, Limerick, and Clare, were killed. The roll call was described as “the saddest imaginable” by Fr Gleeson in his diary, which, along with his correspondences, is housed at the Dublin Diocesan Archives. “Some had lost brothers, others cousins, but all had lost good and faithful comrades.”
“What a day for all the Munsters,” he wrote in his diary on May 9. “We lose at least 350 men, between killed and wounded and missing. Spent all night trying to console, aid, and remove the wounded. It was ghastly to see them lying there in the cold, cheerless outhouses, on bare stretchers with no blankets to cover their freezing limbs... Hundreds lying out in cold air all night at Windy Corner. No ambulances coming. They came at last — at daylight.”
Fr Gleeson did not just provide comfort. According to the book The Irish at the Front, published during the war, the chaplain was not afraid to put himself in danger. During a bombardment of the trenches, “Fr Gleeson stuck to his post, attending to the dying Munsters... Indeed, if anyone has earned the VC, Fr Gleeson has. He is a credit to the country he hails from, and brought luck to the Munsters since he joined them.”
Gleeson’s courage was mythic during his life. In his biography, Goodbye To All That, Robert Graves, writer and WWI veteran, wrote that “Jovial Father Gleeson of the Munsters, when all the officers were killed and wounded at the first battle of Ypres, had stripped off his black badges and, taking command of the survivors, held the line”.
This seems improbable and Gleeson does not mention it in his diaries. One of 13 children, Gleeson was born on May 28, 1884, in Eastwood, Farrenderry, just outside Templemore, Co Tipperary, and he was ordained in 1910. When war started he volunteered and was appointed chaplain by the War Office in November. While romantic — he compared the Munsters to the Wild Geese — he was never jingoistic. “If... advocates of war were made to be soaked and caked and crusted with cold, wet trench mud, like these poor soldiers, and to wear those mud-weighted coats,” he wrote in December 1914, “they would not be so glib with their treatises on the art of war. These militants should be made undergo a few nights in cheerless billets [and] mud-river trenches to teach them a lesson. What is it all for at all?”
But he was committed to freeing Belgium, although he was critical of what he considered the anti-clerical policies of his allies, the French. Eventually, the daily horrors took their toll on him. In November 1915, his contract expired and he was glad to leave the front. “I am sorry to be leaving the dear old Munster lads,” he wrote, in a letter, “but I really can’t stand it any longer. I do not like the life, though I love the poor men so much. Will you please send me the papers regarding my discharge?”
After recovery, he rejoined the 2nd Munsters in France in May 1917. The correspondence he received from the families of men who were missing, wounded or killed gives some sense of his role. “He was the only one left to me, but it pleased God’s holy will,” said Mrs E Thompson, from Cork, who wrote in December 1917, to thank Gleeson for informing her of her son’s death. “Father, I will ask of you to try and seek some firm account for me and try to relieve the mind of a poor, broken-hearted mother.”
In the opening days of 1918, Fr Gleeson received a letter from a Mrs Margaret Burke, from Kerry, whose husband was missing. “Up to this, I was in great hopes of having good news, but now I am beginning to despair, for I know that if he had only half a hand he would have sent me some line long ago,” she told Fr Gleeson.
“Tis only God alone knows how I feel, for he was an exceedingly good husband. But God knows best. I will be delighted to get any further news from you.”
But not all the letters contained bad news. “I also had notification from France, stating he was taken prisoner on the 10th of the 11th at the Battle of Ypres and is unwounded...” wrote one relieved relative. “I was troubled, but he is still living and well, but the poor prisoners will not get much to eat from the Germans.”
In December 1917, Elizabeth Heaney, from Dublin, informed Fr Gleeson that her son, a veteran of Gallipoli, “was taken on the 10th just after the day the engagement took place and is in the best of health, not having received a scratch in the encounter. He is all I have in the world and the best and kindest creature God ever gave to anyone. He loved you very much and spoke about you in every letter...”
Answering and receiving these letters was upsetting for Fr Gleeson, as he confided in June 1915. “I got 12 letters today; just after reading them. What answering they will take tomorrow. I like to give these poor people all the solace I can, anyhow, but still there’s no limit to the sorrowing inquiries. The tragedy of these letters....One letter was from a broken-hearted girl... Then, the mothers! Oh!”
Father Gleeson left the Munsters in February 1918, before completing his tour with the British army in May 1919.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in Ireland, he became a chaplain with the Irish Free State army in February 1923. In August 1944, he became parish priest of St Catherine’s, Meath St, Dublin. He was made canon in May 1956 and died in June three years later. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
His passing was recorded in the Annual Report of the Old Comrades Association of the Royal Munster Fusiliers: “A canon when he died. A saint when next we all meet.”