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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Somerset

Jesuits at Gallipoli

The Gallipoli Campaign, occurred in what was then the Ottoman Empire but is now Turkey, between 25 April 1915 and 9 January 1916. The Gallipoli peninsula forms part of the bank of the Dardanelles strait, the sea route to the Russian Empire. Britain and France launched a naval attack to secure the route for their ally Russia. When this failed, a land campaign was prepared. A hundred years on were view the experience of the three British Jesuit Chaplains missioned to Gallipoli whose job it was to minister to the soldiers and seamen: Fathers Francis Devas, Edmund Legros and Henry Day.

Given the limited forces available, the difficult terrain and unfavourable weather, the British and French divisions joined the Australians in Egypt while a plan could be prepared for the assault on Gallipoli. Extracts from a letter written by Fr Devas on board a ship, included in Letters and Notices, provide an insight into the prelude of the campaign:

We had an uneventful voyage out-no mines, no submarines. The ship was so crowded I could find no other place for Mass than where some of the men slept and breakfasted … There followed a layover in Egypt during which time he was able to say Mass daily, hear confession, got his Holy Oils renewed and also was able to get to confession in Egypt: now Heaven knows when I shall see another Priest, as I am the only one with this Brigade, and there’s another Brigade with no Priest at all that I must visit when I can. After re-embarking we have been hanging around exasperatingly, but we expect to begin in earnest very soon.

On 25 April the Allies planned to land and secure the northern shore of the peninsula to ensure the capture of the Ottoman forts and artillery batteriese. However, the Ottoman defenders had good defensive positions and inflicted many casualties on the landing forces and contained the attack close to the shore. Apart from a few limited advances inland most troops stayed on or close to the beaches. A letter written by Fr Devas from the General Hospital, Dardanelles, in June 1915 gives the following account of the start of the Gallipoli campaign:

I have been at the very front of the front for just over a fortnight…I am not allowed to give any details. Chaplains attached to Regiments landed with their men under fire, -and my friend, Fr Finn, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was killed. I heard his confession shortly before we went into action: he was a lovable little man, and as good as gold. RIP… The rest of us chaplains, being attached to Brigades, landed later when the danger was less. I have been much under shell fire,…I had nothing but what I landed in; -no bother in the morning-you just got up, stretched, shook yourself and were ready for breakfast. This for a fortnight, living on biscuits, jam, bully beef and tea.

Fr Edmund Legros SJ (1861-1938) was also present for the start of the campaign, and remained for six months until he was sent to Malta in September 1915 due to ill health. His obituary reads ‘he was appointed Military Chaplain…; and finally at Gallipoli where he distinguished himself and won the Military Cross, which he received from the King at Buckingham Palace on January 24, 1917. An Edinburgh Church Magazine printed a letter from the Presbyterian Minister of the parish, at the Front, in which he publicly eulogized Fr Legros as “a man after God’s own heart”.’ [L&N, 53, 167-8]

Extracts from a letter written by Fr Legros from Gallipoli on 17 July 1915 were also included in Letters & Notices. He echoes the description by the Irish Jesuit, Fr Bergin, as posted on the Irish Jesuit Archives blog post. He describes the role of a military chaplain: to provide spiritual and pastoral support for the serving personnel, including conducting services in the field. Although chaplains wore a uniform and bore ranks they were not armed and were non-combatants.

No sound is heard of gun or rifle, nothing that reminds one of fighting except two hospital ships moored a couple of miles off the shore…One can hardly imagine at this restful time of night that death-dealing shells and shrapnel would come to disturb our men in this unit, especially as this is a sacred place, a hospital. Yet, though quiet at present, come they do day and night, whizzing and hurtling overhead, without a moment’s warning … We are a dozen RC Chaplains on the peninsula: I am at the Clearing Station, Fr Devas looks after a smaller hospital; all the wounded from the south of Achi-Baba pass though one or the other. My duty is also to see to the spiritual needs and comforts of the sick and wounded RC’s in this hospital (a tent one of course as they all are), to visit any ship that arrives or may be lying in the harbour with sick and wounded on board…

A letter written by Fr Devas in the later part of 1915 gives the following description of the role of the chaplain:

On the southern end of the Peninsula of Gallipoli, for some weeks now, Mass has been said nearly every day by the small band of Catholic Chaplains. The altars are constructed variously-of ammunition boxes, a board on trestles, a packing case, a shelf cut in the wall of a cliff. The place is sometimes picturesque, more often merely inconvenient, the men being huddled together behind some screen, so that the existence of a shell-worthy group may not be revealed to the enemy.

A landing at Suvla Bay took place on the 6 August 1915, but owing to limited objectives little ground other than the beach was seized. Thus the Ottomans occupied the Anafarta Hills and prevented the British from advancing inland, reducing the Suvla front to static trench warfare. More troops arrived at Suvla on the following days including the dismounted yeomanry of the 2ndMounted Division on 18 August. Among this last landing was Fr Henry Day SJ (1865-1951), who wrote in his memoirs about his experiences in Gallipoli. Two extracts from his memoirs follow.

I remember my first night with the Rough Riders in the support line, lying in a cubby hole, with my feet and legs stretched across the trench, and tramped on by heavily laden troops who carried picks and spades, and seemed to be continually passing…..provided me with a new and commodious ‘dug-out’-a disused machine gun emplacement, forming a bastion of the trench … The new shelter served the combined purpose of church and presbytery. Of course it had no roof-such luxuries weren’t know in the front line at Suvla-but it was well sand-bagged and spacious. On Sundays the absence of a roof was an advantage, as it enabled many who could not get inside to see and follow the service from without….All our supplies at Gallipoli were sea-borne…Consequently, consignments of food were uncertain and rations scarce. They always lacked variety…I was never greedy in my life before; nor have I since been subject to the temptation. But at Gallipoli the millstone of hunger dragged down superficial virutue, …The mornings I devoted to visiting the troops in the line, hearing confession, and giving the sacraments-the afternoons to the hospitals and camps in the rear. They were on the coast, and to get to them involved an hour’s walk across open country, every yard of which was ‘taped’ by Turkish and German gunners. [An Army Chaplain’s War Memories, pp 47-53]

Fr Day recounts among others one attempt by the Scottish brigade, to whom he was attached, to gain more ground on 17 October. After describing the successful surprise attack, he continues:

By 3 am the defences were reversed and the position consolidated. But the work was not over. Further trenches had to be dug to join the redoubt to our line, and allow of our persecuting the Turk as he had previously persecuted us. At any moment a counter attack was expected, and the work had to be carried on with feverish intensity. I did what I could by taking turns with the men, under the direction of the senior officer. Whenever I got down a few feet and began to feel safer, he always came along and started me on a new line in the open … the circumstance that stands uppermost in my memory was the endurance and goodwill of the young Scottish soldiers who worked to the point of exhaustion. To do my turn I had to wrest pick or spade from reluctant hands…I received the regimental badge, the ‘Thane of Forfar’, from the Colonel in recognition of my services. It is amongst my most valued possessions. [An Army Chaplain’s War Memories, pp 60-61]

After the failure of the August offensive, the Gallipoli campaign drifted. Public opinion was affected and although the winter brought relief from the heat it also brought storms which resulted in men suffering frostbite, drowning and freezing to death. In October 1915 Britain and France set up a second Mediterranean front at Salonika and some of the Gallipoli divisions where moved there. It was in early November 1915 that Fr Day departed with his troop for Greece. Evacuation was decided upon in early December 1915. The number of men was reduced and the departure was disguised by ruses, such as self-firing rifles. The last regiment was withdrawn on 9 January 1916.

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