A young child marches alongside Canadian soldiers preparing to be sent off to the First World War. At right is Jesuit Rev. Major William Hingston, who was a chaplain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the war.

Catholic patriotism and the Great War

By 
  • August 3, 2014

Jesuit novices in Guelph in 1918 expected to wake early to prayers and devotions, then Mass, then breakfast. They did not expect to be woken by military police.

But at the urging of some of Guelph’s Protestant ministers one spring morning, as war raged in Europe, Captain A.C. Macaulay and his men raided the St. Stanislaus Novitiate north of the city. They were looking for Catholic shirkers — young men pretending to religious vocations to avoid military service.

Aug. 4, 1914, 100 years ago, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The declaration automatically included the entire British Empire. Few in English Canada questioned the need for Canada to defend the crown.

Mark McGowan, University of St. Michael College history professor, relates how Macaulay’s raid was met by Jesuit Rev. Major William Hingston in full uniform. Hingston had just been demobilized after serving as a chaplain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. A teenaged postulant, Marcus Doherty, offered to phone his father, Charles Doherty, Minister of Justice in the Union government of Sir Robert Borden who had written Borden’s conscription law.

Poor Macaulay. His superiors apologized to the Jesuits and censured the Guelph military police.

However farcical this incident in the last year of the Great War, it confirmed a truth that Catholics had been living with since 1914. Despite ample sacrifice in blood, despite recruiting drives led and organized by bishops, despite pro-empire and pro-war editorials in The Catholic Register and other Catholic papers, Catholics were constantly under suspicion. Who knew where the sympathies of all these new immigrants lay? The Quebecois were clearly not interested in the fate of the British Empire. As for the Irish, just look at the republican gang in Ireland trying to break up Great Britain even as the crown faced its greatest crisis in Europe.

But when the war was over this nation erected cenotaphs in every town across Canada and listed all their dead on the same plaque. Protestant and Catholic, Irish and French, aboriginal and immigrant; in death Canadians were united and suspicion erased.

There were 67,000 killed and 250,000 wounded out of the 620,000 Canadians who served in the Great War. Nearly 40 per cent either never came back or came back maimed and unfit for battle.

In Quebec, Le Devoir publisher and Quebec MNA Henri Bourassa led nationalist sentiment that saw the war as Europe’s problem and no business of Quebec or Canada. The fact Ontario had just imposed Regulation 17, limiting French and Catholic education in violation of its constitutional obligations, only fuelled Bourassa’s rhetoric against the war.

“The enemies of the French language, of French civilization in Canada, are not the Boches on the shores of the Spree; but the English-Canadian anglicizers, the Orange intriguers or Irish priests. Above all they are French Canadians weakened and degraded by the conquest and three centuries of colonial servitude. Let no mistake be made: if we let the Ontario minority be crushed, it will soon be the turn of other French groups in English Canada,” Bourassa wrote in 1915.

Those “weakened French Canadians” Bourassa denigrates were the Quebec bishops who supported Borden’s Union government right up to the point of conscription. Borden’s wartime cabinet included not a single French minister. After anti-conscription riots in March 1918, Montreal’s Archbishop Louis Joseph Napoléon Paul Bruchesi begged Borden to rethink conscription, fearing it would split the Church and drive Quebeckers into a bunker of resentment against the rest of the country.

Borden ignored Bruchesi, but the bishop might have been onto something.

The Canada we know, with its polarities between English and French, its complex politics of immigration, its constant striving for identity, its ideals and its compromises came to full flowering in the First World War. At every moment of the war, Canadians framed the struggle of the age in sacred language and sought understanding through their faith.

The idea that Canada became a nation in the mud and gore of Vimy Ridge, Easter Monday, 1917, has been a bit overplayed, McGowan told The Catholic Register as he worked on the final chapter of his forthcoming book, The Imperial Irish: Canada’s Irish Catholics Fight the Great War, 1914-1918.

“Too much is made of Canada charging up Vimy Ridge in 1917 and a nation being formed. That’s hyperbole,” he said. “There are other factors at work making this country.”

At least one iconic Canadian, whose cause for sainthood still simmers, carried the identity forged at Vimy Ridge with him the rest of his life. General George Vanier was in that muddy charge. Despite eventually losing a leg, Vanier remained a soldier the rest of his life and as Governor General in the 1960s promoted the unity and the ambition he had learned in the war.

Despite all the Irish and Scottish Catholics filling up the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Protestant Canada was never impressed by Catholic patriotism. They thought of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a Catholic entity. They doubted Pope Benedict XV’s neutrality and thought he was really trying to help the Catholic monarch, Franz Joseph. They read about the Irish uprising in their newspapers and suspected Irish Canadians were really all republicans who could not be trusted to defend the British monarchy. They called Quebeckers, who were not lured off their farms and away from their large families by recruiting drives, “shirkers.”

By the end of voluntary enlistment in 1917 there were more than 51,000 Roman Catholics in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 14 per cent of the recruits. But that didn’t matter to some Protestants. The Sentinel, official organ of the Loyal Orange Lodges in North America and the 1916 equivalent of today’s talk-radio, thought Catholics were inherently disloyal.

“Another great surprise in store (during this war) was the indifference and apathy of the Roman Catholic part of the population of the British Empire,” wrote publisher Norman Murray. “The situation of the Catholic portion of Ireland and in Quebec is almost identical, with little to the good in favour of Catholic Ireland in the matter of recruiting to the British Army… While the Canadian hierarchy is said to have advised its people to do their part like their fellow countrymen by enlisting in the imperial army this advice seems to have no effect whatever… It has been suggested that the Church is playing a double game and that, while it openly proclaims its loyalty, it is secretly working the other way through the confessional and otherwise.”

Catholic Register editor the Very Reverend Alfred E. Burke from the beginning of the war used this newspaper to trumpet the loyalty and martial spirit of the Irish on both sides of the Atlantic.

“The Irish are natural-born soldiery,” he wrote in September 1914. “And take to the military life as a duck takes to water, so we may be sure that the Irish regiments in the British army will continue to keep up the proud record which they have already gained for themselves on the gory fields of Belgium and France.”

By 1917 Burke was warning politicians that they cannot conduct “vile and indefensible anti- Catholic propaganda” without paying for it at the ballot box.

The doubts about Pope Benedict’s neutrality drove Toronto Archbishop Neil McNeil to distraction. Finally in 1918 he published The Pope and the War to lay out the case. The pamphlet found an audience beyond Catholic circles, was reprinted several times and praised by the editors of The Globe.

“The Pope is necessarily neutral in this war,” McNeil wrote. “He is in justice obliged to be impartial ... If the Pope publicly condemned either group of belligerents at the outbreak of war or at any stage of it, he would thereby place many millions of Catholics in the agonizing necessity of choosing between their Church and their Country, and he would favour one section of the Church at the expense of another. The war would go on in any case.”

The papacy was very self-aware, understanding the limits of its diplomatic role, according to Robert Ventresca, King’s College scholar of Vatican diplomatic history at Western University.

The Vatican drew up two major peace plans in 1915 and 1918 and both were rebuffed. The Vatican was kept out of final peace negotiations in Paris on the insistence of Italy, which had never resolved its 1870 dispute with the Vatican over control of Rome.

“They have very limited influence,” said Ventresca. “They have some influence but it’s very limited and conditional.”

Rather than pronounce upon who is right and who is wrong of the parties, the Vatican turned its diplomatic resources to humanitarian work. Vatican diplomats gathered intelligence about prisoners of war and civilian refugees. It negotiated with the powers for prisoner exchanges and organized refugee relief.

This was a new role for the papacy and led eventually to the founding of the worldwide Caritas network.

Benedict’s humanitarian work increased Catholic pride and commitment. By the end of the war, Canadian Catholics were looking for ways to re-inject humanity into what had been the most inhumane war in human history. Ottawa’s Fr. John J. O’Gorman headed up the Catholic Army Huts program, an ecumenical effort sponsored by the Knights of Columbus which provided recreation centres at army camps throughout Europe so that all soldiers — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish — had a place to be the young men they were when they weren’t cogs in the killing machine at the front.

There is no one story of the war. There are stories of courage, mercy, hope, incompetence, brutality, insanity, intrigue and politics. There was innocence at the beginning, disillusion at the end. But all the stories are human.

“Fred Webster’s story is the saddest one,” said McGowan. “He was a graduate of St. Mike’s and he lives in Toronto and he tries to volunteer. But he has a bad heart and they won’t let him. After repeated tauntings from women on the street — you know, ‘Why aren’t you at the front’ — he goes back. And now they’re desperate for volunteers. So he does volunteer late in the war. He goes to Niagara for basic training and one of the things they have to do is swim in Lake Ontario with weights. He has a heart attack and drowns.”

More in this category: « Newfoundland remembers WWI

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