WW1 British Chaplain Encounters Suicide
Told by the Padre-‘Off Duty’
by John Ayscough
(Monsignor Bickerstaffe-Drew, Chaplain to the Forces)
BEHIND the line -far behind the line- the Norman sea-port, crouched in a rift of the white rampart of tall cliffs, was full of English soldiers. There was no French garrison, though there was a depot of Belgian troops, but the whole town was crowded with hospitals for French wounded, and, of afternoons, one met their convalescents everywhere.
The coast-line facing England was so like ours that one could not but believe in a prehistoric day when between these coasts no dividing channel lay. And the downlands, topping the white walls of chalk were like our Sussex Downs. Turning inland from the falaises to a hamlet, cowering in its twisted combe from the north-east winds, one could scarce help a sense of surprise to hear French in the mouths of the stocky, grey-eyed fisherfolk and peasants.
SOMETIMES, in the sunny, windy afternoons of those March days, the English chaplain (only here for a few weeks) would walk along the ragged strand under the high, staring, white falaises. But he liked the downs at the top of them better; the great height above the sea gave a wider outlook and made them more cheerful, and the walking was more pleasant, for down below between cliff and tide there lay no stretch of smooth sand, but a floor of rock, sharp and uneven. At the top, close to the brink of the precipice, ran a level path, often broken and interrupted for a dozen feet, where rain and frost had rotted out a bulk of chalk and hurled it down to the shore. In one place a stile, held up -and not to be so held up for long- only by the posts on its landward side, hung out over the cliff’s edge. Yet, in the direction of the town, the path still ran up to within a few inches of it. On the other side three yards of the path had gone down.
ON one of those afternoons of brisk gale and bright but chill sunshine, the English priest was walking by the strand, intending to come back by the way above, towards the hamlet we may call Port-au-Vent, consisting of a score of fishermen’s cabins, a double score of summer villas, all shut up now, and a huge hotel, now a hospital for French wounded.