William Fitzmaurice SJ
Fr William Fitzmaurice (1877-1945) was born in Lancashire and became a Jesuit in 1897 after studying at Stonyhurst. As novice and scholastic he was known for his skills as an actor, a choir master and a wicket keeper. He was made a military chaplain in 1914 and went to France in November 1915 with the Royal Irish Regiment. He kept a diary during his time at the front. Here is an extract from January 1916:
I have been here since the 9th, after a stay at the Base of six weeks. I was very much handicapped there as I was quite alone and had five hospitals to look after and anything from 10,000 to 20,000 troops to provide for as best I could. I managed to get two French priests, interpreters, to give me their services on Sunday, and so we had six Masses at different points, but even that was not enough. As this is the chief sea-base in many respects, I naturally was in very close touch with the war, closer than if I had been 50 miles nearer the lines.
During the week I got about to most of the hospitals, but could only see the most urgent cases. I couldn't possibly do it systematically alone. In one camp, a stationary hospital as a matter of fact, for certain ailments, Mass of course had to be said in the camp if at all. The Church of England man arranged to share a small marquee with me as a church tent, at the suggestion of the C.O., and so I took my portable altar up there and said Mass for the boys. I had a congregation of 50 or 60, and glad indeed they were of the opportunity. I heard any number of their Confessions, and they went to H.C.
I went up every Friday at 3 pm for Confessions, and they would troop into the tent altogether, some 20 of them, and we would have a chin-chin for about half an hour, talked war news, football, piety, anything; I gave them rosaries, etc., if wanted, and then we all knelt down together and prepared for Confession aloud: that is to say, I read the prayers and put in little bits of instructions. Then I retired to one end of the tent and they stuck together at the other end (it was only 20 feet long!) and came up one by one, and there the Grace of God was poured out, it must have been in streams.
The first Confession I heard there was the most difficult almost I have ever had. The poor fellow broke down at the very beginning, and cried like a child, but I am sure it nerved some, the " long timers," who were waiting their turns. I could have lived in that camp for the rest of the war. Nearly all —many of whom had not been to the Sacraments for decades or since childhood—became weekly Communicants. Poor fellows! in so many cases more sinned against than sinning. I have never seen such a devout congregation at Mass. Could anybody but Holy Mother Church do such things for men like this? It is not surprising that it resulted in several non-Catholics among the rest asking for instruction.
Before coming up to this camp on Sundays I said an early Mass and preached on board a prison ship—British that is—on which the men are kept instead of sending them to England for obvious reasons. Some were in for downright crime, but most only for offences which would be light outside war time, such as getting drunk (through being treated very often), falling asleep at their posts (8 months for this offence), giving a false alarm, through nerves, etc. (3 years and more for this—sometimes it is a shooting affair), pilfering and the rest. Here again I found many consolations and was very sorry for many of the poor fellow: you have no idea what a difference the Mass made to these men. Of course its associations were for many reminiscent of so much that was dearest to and had been best in them—and is now really.
Another consoling experience that I have had is the frequent recovery of bad, very bad, hospital cases immediately after the Last Sacraments. It is not at all uncommon to be called, day or night, to a case of great urgency. " Is he very bad?" you ask. " Yes, very bad, touch and go," replies the nurse. And you leave him, telling her you won’t be surprised to find him not only alive but on the mend next morning. She looks at you in silence, but when you do call again, time and again it is : “Oh he’s much better. I think he’ll pull through now. He began to get better as soon as you left last night.” But of course this is only common catholic experience. But I notice it more through having to deal with so many successively.
In April Fr Fitzmaruice writes movingly of attending a man sentenced to be shot:
In July 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty”. Under heavy fire he had assisted the medical officers in tending the wounded, and for twenty-four hours after the battalion had been withdrawn, he continued to rescue the wounded who were lying out. In June 1917, he was himself wounded by shell, but he was able to return to France after a few weeks’ convalescence in England. In the same year he received a Mention in Despatches. From March to November 1918, he was a prisoner of war first at Karlsruhe then Beeshow. In a letter home during his captivity he wrote:
“Still I cannot complain. I have lots to occupy me here: one is able to do a great deal to help in the social life of the camp, and make one’s comrades’ captivity less irksome, and there is also a fair amount of spiritual work to do.”
On being repatriated he spent the remainder of his time as chaplain on home service until his demobilisation in September 1919. In 1920 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec palme.
After the war Fr Fitzmaurice worked in the noviciate, and as a parish priest in Lancashire, Oxford and Bournemouth. He continued in ministry in parish and retreat work until his death in 1945.