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Catholic priest involved in fighting?


Joe Walsh
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In searching for something else I came across this article in a newspaper (link below):

The Royal Naval Division fought so well in the 'push on Ancre' that a wag suggests it worth a full chapter in 'The History of the War', and that the heading of it should be 'How our sailors won their spurs'. In that same push a devoted Irish Roman Catholic priest covered himself with glory. For some time it was a matrter of speculation as to how he became involved in 'the push'. The question was put to him, and he answered in the soft brogue of Galway: 'Och, shure, I just wint over the top with the bhoys of me flock. Is it not the right of a praste to be wid his flock in toimes of difficulty and danger?

http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=NZFL19170209.2.24&l=mi&e=-------50--1----0tallest+soldier--

I realise the writing is satirical in style, but all of the details which brought me to other sections in this clipping are correct. I don't think they pulled this out of thin air. I'm wondering if it were possible to identify this priest?

I'm not sure if its possible to date the clipping, but the Hon. Trench (written about later) was killed mid-Novermber 1916.

Any ideas on where to start to identify this priest?

Joe

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It was Father SAL THORNTON, who went forward with a small party of men and captured several Germans. They in turn disclosed where a battalion and HQ Staff were sheltering. After a skirmish, all were taken prisoner, Father THORNTON leading over 400 Germans into captivity.

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I wonder if it was Fr Stephen Thornton? The accent may or may not suit a former professor at St Peter's College, Glasgow, however, he did serve with the 63rd (RN) Div at Beaucourt (the Ancre) in the final stage of the battle of the Somme

from The Cross on the Sword which in turn is quoting 'Sea Chaplains' by G Taylor (1978)

“'... a certain Roman Catholic priest won the DSO at Beaucourt. To see this venerable, whitehaired old man, spectacles on the end of his nose, his legs clothed in gumboots. Stumbling through trenches waist-deep in mud to some point in the front line where the shelling was heaviest and hence all the casualties greatest, was always an example to all. His creed was that a man wants to see his priest before he is dead.'

Fr Thornton accompanied the RN Division during all its later battles. His award of the DSO was made through the recommendation of his divisional commander to HQ BEF. There, unlike in a naval flagship, it would not have been considered unusual, and Fr Thornton became the first naval chaplain to be awarded the DSO, gazetted on 31 January 1917.”

edit to add - Well done H2 - my typing gets no quicker :blush:

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Myles Dungan writing in his 'They Shall Grow Not Old' (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997) has quite a contrasting view of Thornton

“Soldiers like Jimmy O'Brian of the 10th Dublin Fusiliers could hardly be expected to be favourably disposed towards prisoners when they were getting contrary signals from chaplains. He recalled that

'there was a Fr Thornton, an Englishman and he said, “Well now boys, you're going into action tomorrow morning and if you take any prisoners your rations will be cut by half. So don't take prisoners. Kill them! If you take prisoners they've got to be fed by your rations. So you'll get half rations. The answer is – don't take prisoners.'”

10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were part of the 190th Brigade, 63rd (RN ) Div at the time of the Ancre battle, November 1916. The ref for the quote is given in the book as 'Sheedy, Kieran, RTE Archive interview.'

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Here is THORNTON's entry in Part 2 of the Distinguished Service Order - page 354:

THORNTON REV. S.A.L. (DSO LG.13.2.17) B.1871 son of late M.McNeill THORNTON, ordained 1896;

served Europ. War; Naval Chaplain's Dept; att R.Dublin Fus. ; despatches twice.

Extract L.G. 13.2.17 page 34 Part 2 DSO:

THORNTON REV. Stephen Augustus, Lawrence, Naval Chaplain's Department, attached Royal Dublin Fusiliers:

"For conspicuous gallantry and devition to duty. He displayed great courage and determination in administering to the wounded under very heavy fire."

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He seems to be a Scot rather than from Galway - I tried using the Irish 1911 Census to identify someone based on those names provided from the NA but couldn't find a priest from Galway. So I guess it must be Thornton - though I do wonder how the Galway accent could be confused with a Glasweigan one!

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Definitely a Scot. There is a thread on him somewhere

This extract from the 10th RDF War Diary for Ancre Attack on 13 November 1916 (written by H Lecky, Captain, 2nd in command on behalf of Lt Col E St G Smith) may be of interest. The 10th RDF had been in support of the RND as part of 190 Brigade

"Father Thornton had been with me up to this time, and he here left me and he went forward with a party of my men about 30 strong, who had joined us under Sgt McCormack and Sgt Priest. I had no officers left on my staff at that time, all having been killed or wounded, except 2nd Lt Cox who had gone off with the aforementioned bombing party. The patrols on my left came back to say they could not find any of our own troops towards that flank, but that Bosche snipers and MGs were enfilading the ground in that direction. Time about 9am."

From what my grandfather who was in the 10th RDF told my mother (that he had followed "the old priest") he was one of those 30 men. They appear to have advanced as far as a German bunker that had been used as a dressing station where the trench was choked with dead and dying men who had been sent there for treatment and had been abandoned. (Grandfather also mentioned having to scramble over bodies.)

I gather that the Chaplain's department gave Thornton hell for his participation

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  • 8 years later...

There is a short article in Irish Independent Tuesday 30 January 1917 about the incident. It states Rev A.L. Thornton D.S.O. of Cadzow, Scotland returned with 18 RDF and 450 German prisoners ...........Father Thornton then entered the enemy's wood, and saw the officer in charge, with the result that 450 Germans Surrendered.

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