Canadian Catholic chaplains meet with Bishop Michael Fallon of London, Ont., in July 1918. Fallon spent four months touring the western front. Photo courtesy Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada

The Register Archives: A glimpse of the faith, courage of Canada's WWI army chaplains

By 
  • November 9, 2018

This year, Remembrance Day takes on an extra special aura, as Nov. 11 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Close to 61,000 Canadians lost their lives in the conflict and another 172,000 were wounded. The Canadian Chaplaincy Service was a vital part of the war effort, with close to 450 clergy serving overseas. Among them were 90 Catholic priests who were never far from the front lines. The Catholic Register kept its readers informed with updates from the Chaplaincy Service. The following is the report in the Oct. 31, 1918 issue.


Information was made public today concerning the role played by the Catholic section of the Canadian Chaplain Service in the Arras-Cambrat fighting of the past month. It reveals the fact that one priest captured unaided and unarmed 47 Germans and another led a party and captured a field gun.

Three priests were wounded, two gassed, one buried, though fortunately none were killed.

It was Captain (Rev.) J.F. Nicholson of Kingston, Ont., who captured the 47 Germans. Advancing with his unit, a CMR Battalion, he walked alone, armed only with a walking stick, to a German dugout. A German officer came out and said that he and his men would surrender if their lives were spared.

This was, of course, agreed to and total of four officers and 43 men came out of the dugout. At this stage the senior Germany officer said to Capt. Nicholson, “You are unarmed.” Fr. Nicholson, who as a chaplain carried no arms, answered by putting his hand to his hip and saying, “Am I?”

At this critical moment the medical officer arrived and as he had a revolver, Fr. Nicholson told him to disarm the 47 Germans. Two Canadian runners came up, armed also with revolvers, and this slender escort conducted the prisoners to the collecting post. 

A week later, Fr. Nicholson was gassed, but he has now returned to duty.

An equally romantic episode was the capture of a field gun by some soldiers of the second Division unit led by Major (Rev.) R.C. McGillivray of Antigonish, N.S. Fr. McGillivray went over the top with his battalion and got caught with another officer and some men by gunfire.

The officer was killed and the party took refuge in a shell hole. Here they were still under fire. So McGillivray, taking command of the party, decided that they might as well die fighting. So with a blood-curdling yell, he led the men against the German gun, which was firing point blank. The Germans, hearing this yell and seeing soldiers coming, ran, and the words “Captured by the — Battalion” were at once written on the gun.

These warlike episodes did not interfere with the religious work of the chaplains. As a result of the secrecy shrouding intended operations, and the frequent moves of all units of the Canadian corps, it was impossible to make any definite plans or give instructions to chaplains for these two battles. 

This circumstance demonstrated the splendid initiative of the individual chaplains. Before going into action all chaplains worked zealously with their various units and felt their men were prepared for the trials ahead. The chaplains of the various infantry units went with their men into the attack and worked with Battalion medical officers and stretcher bearers. While their first aim was the administering of the sacraments, yet they also profited by every opportunity to minister to the wounded, and after the heavy actions they assisted in burying the dead. 

Of the 21 Catholic chaplains in the Corps, two devoted all their time to assisting burial parties, six devoted most of their time to dressing stations, 12 devoted most of their time to wounded on the battlefield and Lieut.-Col. (Rev.) F.L. French, D.S.O., the senior Catholic chaplain, kept in touch with the chaplains at the important points.

The casualties among the Catholic chaplains during the Arras-Cambrat fighting up to Oct. 2 consist of Major (Rev.) A. Madden, M.C., Vancouver, wounded (a second time this year) on Aug. 8; Major (Rev.) T. McCarthy, M.C., London, buried by a shell, but remained at duty; Captain (Rev.) J.J. Desjardins, Ottawa, gassed but remained at duty; Captain (Rev.) J.F. Nicholson, Kingston, gassed but returned to duty; Major (Rev.) M.N. Tompkins, M.C., Professor of Chemistry at Antigonish University, wounded on Oct. 1, and Captain (Rev.) J.J. O’Reilly, Kingston, wounded on Oct. 1. 

None of these casualties is considered to be dangerous.

(To explore more from The Catholic Register Archive, go to catholicregister.org/archive)

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