Father Page versus the Bolsheviks

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This year marks the centenary anniversary of British forces landing in Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Now, Russia is generally agreed to be interfering in liberal democracies around the globe. A Jesuit priest serving as a chaplain to the British forces helps illuminate this oft-neglected story, and reveals a bit of how the Church was adapting to those troubled times.

Artist's impression of Fr Bernard Page in early 20th century Russia surrounded by British soldiers. By Chris JohnstonA child of the empire as well as the church, Bernard Page was the son of a colonial magistrate. Born in India, he mostly grew up in Australia, earning a reputation as a scholarly sportsman before heading to Europe to join the Jesuits.

By 1919 Page was also an experienced army chaplain. During the First World War he served on the Western Front. Writing in 1915 to the Archbishop of Hobart — a family friend — Page reported celebrating Mass 'in a battered chapel just near the lines', marching 'along a road which was being shelled by high explosives', and other such snippets of war.

Page's first war is a reminder that long before the theological and ecclesial developments of his century, the lived experience of liturgy and sacrament had — for millions of Christians — come out of the churches and sanctuaries and bent to the times. Page 'heard confessions of men sitting on horses, standing sentry, walking along muddy roads in the rain at night and in the day'.

He gave Communion to big crowds of soldiers without worrying about the technical rules concerning fasting. He lived the Church of the dressing station in ways both literal and figurative, foreshadowing the unofficial motto of Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope.

In all this Page typified the bravery and dedication of innumerable wartime chaplains. Even a gruff reply to his superior, written in the field in 1917, reveals pastoral realities trumping ecclesial niceties. 'Frankly,' he wrote, 'your note has greatly pained me. It appears to me hasty, unjust and unkind: hasty because you did not obtain full knowledge of the facts; unjust because you apparently condemn me unheard; unkind because you do not give me credit for doing my best.' The age of unqualified deference — if ever it really existed — was passing away.

Page's second war was different, and differently documented. Diarised correspondence records his voyage and arrival in far northern Europe. Reaching Archangel in May 1919 — a few weeks before the Treaty of Versailles was signed — his ship received a 'quite friendly and enthusiastic' welcome by the crowds. The British glided into port with the sort of fanfare that reminded the priest of their departure from Tyne a few weeks earlier.

 

"In hindsight, however well-intentioned it might have been, the British intervention in Russia seems like an ill-conceived attempt to thwart one of history's great flood tides."

 

He mostly penned atmospherics — mists and icebreakers, sea mines, and midnight sunlight — and described shipboard activities — eating, playing cards, 'deck sports', and Mass on Sundays. Once landed, he required a pistol and constant company to avoid assassination — officers being targets, doubly so clerics. Marched into town he witnessed a ceremonial meeting of empires in front of the local Cathedral. He was feted and fed a few more times. He explored the town. Then he was sent to the front and the letter ends.

Before this he made an interesting observation about all the marching he was forced to do: 'All these elaborate parades have an object. It is to let the Bolsheviks know that a big force of smart men has landed against them, and (to use a soldier's expression) to put the wind up them a bit!'

Of course, the parading proved ineffectual in the end. Page, like the British, left Russia before the end of the following year. In that first great test of arms, communism won. No wonder the 1919 intervention is so rarely commemorated.

In hindsight, however well-intentioned it might have been, the British intervention in Russia seems like an ill-conceived attempt to thwart one of history's great flood tides. A tightly constrained military operation, on foreign soil, against an ideologically-driven and local foe, in a time of general war-weariness — it was surely an uphill battle from the start.

But whether the first shots of the Cold War or the last hurrah of Britain's 'long 19th century' or something else entirely, the anniversary should not pass entirely unnoticed. How ironic that this centenary could be the year Britain leaves Europe.

As a way-marker for international politics — like Russian meddling in elections, and various liberal democratic interventions abroad — this episode seems worth recalling in the face of a certain misplaced fondness for empire. And for those who might seek to shut the Catholic Church's windows and return to some perceived pre-Conciliar arcadia, this chaplain's story is a reminder that the winds of change were blowing them open already.

 

 

Nick BrodieNick Brodie is a historian and author. His recent works include The Vandemonian War (2017) and 1787: The Lost Chapters of Australia's Beginnings (2016). He appears regularly on ABC24's Matter of Fact with Stan Grant.

Topic tags: Nick Brodie, Russia, Bolsheviks, Catholic Church, Jesuits, Cold War, Communism

 

 

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Unlike others, I do have a sort of fondness for the (late) British Empire. Yes, it is outdated and we can see that imperialism was paternalistic and opportunistic. However, after the British left India we saw a functioning democracy in action. Ditto Hong Kong. Little wonder there is rioting in the streets at being stripped of this treasure. I like to think that good neighbours do not have to rely on a formal agreement to be good neighbours. The story of the Good Samaritan tells us that. Father Page: a most adaptable and original soul.
Pam | 30 July 2019


Another great Jesuit chaplain was my Uncle, Fr, Frank Gorman SJ who served in Vietnam. Like Fr Page SJ he saw his mission as being available to all soldiers and walking alongside them in the muddy conflicted Vietnam campaign. He said Mass wherever he could and his pastoral presence was important to the men there, to take to him what they were experiencing, and how to deal with what confronted them. He embodied the Jesuit principle of 'men for others'.
Rosemary Sheehan | 30 July 2019


The greatest tragedy of WWI is that on the German and especially Austrian side we’re sincere Catholic priests serving their soldiers in exactly the same way because they believed that God was on their side. It has always been thus in wars of religion. The writer does make it sound as though the British intervention in Russia was unilateral. Russia was fighting a very uncivil war against Czechs, Hungarians and Poles all of whom were fighting on the side of the White Russians and for a time the result could well have gone either way and indeed the Bolsheviks were defeated in Poland. I wonder how many historians of the period are familiar with the fact that Pope StJPII beatified the last Austrian Hungarian Emperor Karol during the 1990s. That Pope’s own father fought on the ‘other’ side.
Peter | 30 July 2019


"Now, Russia is generally agreed to be interfering in liberal democracies around the globe." "Generally agreed", huh? That's a pretty low bar compared to proof of such an allegation. Or even meaningful evidence. We remain sceptical.
Terence | 30 July 2019


Pam, I am intrigued by your fondness for the (late) British Empire. Of Irish ancestry, my family's experience of the British Empire is far from rosy. None of my forebears had much love for the Brits .They suffered terribly under the British occupation of Ireland .As a result my great, great grandfather ended up with other family members in the Clarence region (North Coast of N.S.W.) cutting cedar, having been transported from their homeland. There was no democracy in Hong Kong, less so in India before independence. The partition of India in to Hindu and Moslem states led to untold carnage on both sides. Ireland experienced a terrible civil war. Sadly many ex British colonies have had governance issues come the 'granting' of independence , for example ; Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bougainville ; the list goes on. I have very fond memories of the 'chappies' in Vietnam, whilst I was not a practising Catholic at the time, they were always there when needed, regardless of your Faith or none. Fathers Page and Gordon are representative of many of these unsung heroes, God bless them all.
Gavin A. O'Brien | 30 July 2019


The Poles had no choice but to fight the Bolsheviks - under the valiant Marshal Pilsudski. My grandfather fought in this battle. They were greatly outnumbered but defeated the Bolsheviks and gained a period of freedom. Charles de Gaulle, as a young man, fought with the Poles and this gave him ideas on how to form a resistance force - even against hopeless odds.
Alice Larkin | 30 July 2019


Norman Davies has written an excellent history on this period. https://www.amazon.com/White-Eagle-Red-Star-Polish-Soviet/dp/0712606947
Alice Larkin | 30 July 2019


Thanks Gavin for your words. I believe Australians still have an emotional tie to Britain/The Commonwealth. That the British Empire was far from perfect I do not dispute. I do maintain though that countries like India are still in the Commonwealth voluntarily and sporting ties are strong between countries once in the Empire. I understand the difficult relationship between England and Ireland in the past and would hope that both countries can continue to work together in respect and mutual support.
Pam | 31 July 2019


There have been histories of the period from the 'The Great Conspriracy Against Russia' 1946 by Sayers and Kahn to the recent 'Churchill's Abandoned Prisoners ofWar' subtitled 'The British Soldiers Decieved in the Russian Civil War' by Rupert Wieloch. All show that the aim was to maintain the British Empire and the illegal wars waged against usurpers like the Soviets who threatened their power.
Reg Wilding | 31 July 2019


I share some characteristics of Father Page's, including being born in India a Son of the Empire. Gavin O'Brien is correct, the British legacy in what used to be the Empire is a very mixed one. In Northern Ireland they are still coming to terms with the Ascendancy and the Plantation of Ulster, the latter including what would nowadays be called genocide in East Ulster. Being married to someone with deep Russian roots, I think I can confidently say, whatever courage shown by British forces in North Russia, including the winning of two VCs by soldiers of the Royal Fusiliers, Russians, having fought off the Teutonic Knights; the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth; Napoleon and Hitler; are not keen on invasion, any invasion, for whatever altruistic purposes. Father Page's being a Catholic would go up like a lead balloon in Russia, one of whose spiritually and culturally defining moments was the defeat of the Teutonic Knights, who were trying to Catholicise Russia, by the most revered Orthodox warrior saint, Alexander Nevsky. Looking back on history can be deceptive, particularly to those outside a certain tradition.
Edward Fido | 31 July 2019


Apropos the Brits' treatment of others considered to be inferior to themselves don't forget that it did not apply only to those from other lands. It applied to their own for some 116 years in the name of God following the Reformation during which time they beheaded Catholic priests and any Catholic who didn't renounce his faith. The immortal bard and recusant, Billy Shakespeare, kept his head only because Good Queen Bess liked his plays and poetry! Such persecution on the basis of being Catholic permeated Australia and England until well into the 1950s-60s, expressed in discrimination in the universities, national cricket team selections and employment for instance.
john frawley | 01 August 2019


The Baltic countries remain grateful for the Western intervention of 1919. It's unlikely they would have secured independence between the Wars and since 1991 without it. When Field Marshal Alexander faced communism in north-east Italy in 1945, his experience with communists in eastern Latvia in 1919 came in handy.
James Franklin | 03 August 2019


Most interesting, Nick. I have much sympathy for Father Page’s predicament. Just imagine any Christian having to take sides in a war which should never have occurred!.(see below, IB1) For, like all caught up in such violence, the human consequences were overwhelming, c.f., Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. Like my uncle, he would have faced the human costs in the front’s casualty clearing stations where priests served. Amplified by the industrial might of warring Imperial powers over four years, the deaths, long-term disabilities and shortened lives were simply enormous - insane mutual destruction. See Professor Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ - some 50% deaths being Russian. Even if British, French and American revolutions were about justice, those powers opposed Russia’s since its ideas might ‘catch on’. And, as Churchill recorded, opportunistically, in 1917 Britain and France agreed to ‘share’ Russia’s resources. Impoverished Russians had suffered greatly, yet they opposed others’ designs on Caucasia’s oil and coal. Moreover, the fighters of both sides desperately needed to stop. But that left the Russians perpetually on guard and, no surprise, with a bristleingly ‘monolithic’ siege mentality. (see ‘Web Page, (IB1):?http://www.anu.edu.au/emeritus/members/Ian_Buckley.html
Ian.Buckley | 03 August 2019


When the British forces were withdrawn from Siberia the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon observed: "So ends a highly discreditable enterprise". They should never have been there in the first place. Vietnam? Iraq? - and hundreds of other atrocities.
John Nicholson | 05 August 2019


John Frawley re-raises the important question: was Shakespeare what was called 'a Church Papist'?'. There were many people in Tudor and Stuart times who outwardly conformed to the Church of England but who remained firmly Catholic in belief and who were often given the Last Rites by a priest. Conforming to the Church of England became a necessity to hold most offices of state or in the military. Hence many Catholics became what were called 'Occasional Conformists'. Being a Catholic and harbouring a priest could be life threatening. Back to Shakespeare, there is a signature in the visitor's book at the Venerable English College in Rome which could be his. The signature is not 'William Shakespeare'. Many English visitors at that time went under aliases for their own protection. Whether Shakespeare was Catholic or not has not been definitively proved but the jury is very definitely still out on this one.
Edward Fido | 10 August 2019


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