Homily of Fr Oliver Skelly, Parish Priest of Coole, Co. Westmeath

on 23 August 2016 at Mass for the 102nd anniversary of the death of Lieutenant Maurice James Dease, V. C. 

No more war!  Never again war!  If you wish to be brothers, drop your weapons.

On Saturday 22 August 1914 the Fourth Royal Fusiliers of the British Expeditionary Force, Maurice Dease among them, arrived at Nimy just outside the Belgian town of Mons and were ordered to guard two of the eighteen bridges over the Conde-Mons Canal – a railway bridge and a road-swing bridge.  On the morning of Sunday 23 August, the battle against German forces began.  Lieutenant Dease was in charge of two guns on the embankment of the railway bridge and as he saw soldiers die one after another, he took the decision to man the guns himself.  As he ran to the gun on the left-hand side, he was shot in the leg. He refused to have his wound dressed and, on finding that the gun was damaged beyond repair, he crawled across the railway line to help the gunner on the other machine gun, one Private Sidney Godley.  He was wounded again, but continued to feed the ammunition to the gunner.  After a short while, Private Godley  was wounded and Maurice took his place at the gun and kept firing until he was shot a third, a fourth and finally a fifth time.

For his bravery Maurice Dease was posthumously awarded the first Victoria Cross of the First World War.   His citation reads:

“Though two or three times badly wounded, he continued to control the fire of his machine gun at Mons on 23 August 1914 until all his men were shot.  He died of his wounds”.

Maurice had been popular with his school mates at Stonyhurst where he had been in charge of the aviary. He was loved by his colleagues in the army, kind and thoughtful to his men.  A deeply religious, though not “piotius” man, his diary records that the night before he went into battle Maurice sought out the chaplain, went to confession and received Holy Communion, before experiencing what Saint Paul calls

That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him”. 

Maurice Dease was one of many men from this island who gave their lives in what was to have been the war to end wars.  One hundred years ago the Battle of the Somme was raging and in that battle at least 3,500 men from here never returned to greet their loved ones again.

On All Saints Day, 1 November 1914, the newly elected Pope Benedict XV made an emotional appeal to the leaders of nations:

 On every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men. The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven? Yet, while with numberless troops the furious battle is engaged, the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress.

He went on to plead:

We implore those in whose hands are placed the fortunes of nations to hearken to Our voice. Surely there are other ways and means whereby violated rights can be rectified. Let them be tried honestly and with good will, and let arms meanwhile be laid aside. It is impelled with love of them and of all mankind, without any personal interest whatever, that We utter these words. Let them not allow these words of a friend and of a father to be uttered in vain.

By then the war was entering its fourth month – the generals were in charge, the politicians were impotent.  It was not until 1917 that, appalled by the number of slaughtered horses, the authorities ordered the use of the internal combustion engine to propel more sophisticated military hardware to kill even more enemy soldiers.  In 1914, as today, the Pope’s pleas were ignored.

Declaration of war is an admission of the failure of politics and diplomacy.  We are living with the consequences of the Great War which was, among other things, a Saxe Coburg Gotha family dispute – Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II and King George V were all first cousins – and resulted in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire which had been in existence for over six hundred years. We need to ask the question, “Have subsequent generations honoured or betrayed the legacy of Maurice Dease and his fallen comrades?”  There are no longer any veterans of the First World War alive today.  For years, even decades, nearly all the survivors went to their graves without mentioning the war to their children and grandchildren, so dreadful and horrific were their experiences in the trenches.  It is only in recent times, when various history projects have unearthed letters and diaries, that details of the horrors of the war have been exposed.  Today, thanks to saturation coverage on all kinds of media, we are exposed to the horrors of war visited not merely on soldiers, but on innocent civilians including children and even newborn babies – horrors visited by ever more technologically sophisticated weapons manufactured by the greed of the lucrative arms industry.

We do well to honour the war dead as we are doing today, but what are we leaving to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren? At the recent World Youth Day held in Krakow, Pope Francis challenged the next generation to build bridges of respect and love, not walls of self-comfort, boredom and hate.  On the Feast of Saint Francis, 4 October 1965, just over twenty years after the end of the Second World War, Blessed Paul VI addressed the United Nations Organisation in New York, the first Pope in history to do so.  His plea would no doubt be echoed by Maurice Dease and all who have experienced the carnage of war:

No more war!  Never again war!  If you wish to be brothers, drop your weapons.