“My church was a bit of a trench, the altar a pile of sandbags. Though we had to stand deep in mud, not knowing the moment a sudden call to arms would come, many a fervent prayer went up to Heaven that morning.”
When my grandfather was very old, I loved to listen to his stories from the First World War. At 19 years of age, my Protestant grandfather left his home town of Ballydehob in West Cork to volunteer as a British soldier with around fifteen of his companions. Only a few survived the war. He was sent to France to fight the German Army. He became a dispatch rider taking orders and reports from the Headquarters to the front-line and back again. When I asked my parents, did you ever about what happened to Gramps on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, they looked at me and shook their heads. The same thing happened about other war stories that my grandfather shared with me. I am not sure that anybody else ever heard them.
So when I read To Raise the Fallen, a collection of the letters of Fr Willie Doyle, the Jesuit priest who had volunteered to be a unarmed Catholic chaplain among the soldiers of the British Army, I felt very moved. Here was an honest man, living among flying bullets and bursting shells, yet bravely serving the wounded and the dying on the battlefield. He knew the sins of the men but he still loved them with all his heart. His love was stronger than his fear so he could survive in a world of chaos and mayhem. He was blown up by a shell in the end and his body was never recovered.
In Cambodia, I have once witnessed bravery like this, in the life of the trade union leader Mr Chea Vichea who was assassinated in January 2004. Despite many warnings of danger and many offers of well-paid political jobs, Mr Vichea campaigned only for justice for garment factory workers. His voice could move mountains.
I attended his funeral procession which stretched for many kilometres along both sides of Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh. Most of the mourners were factory workers from all the garment factories around Phnom Penh. It was the biggest procession that Phnom Penh had seen since Charles De Gaulle visited Cambodia in 1966.