There are many journeys and many stopping-places in the strange pilgrimage we call life but there is no other such journey in the world as the journey up a road on the eve of battle and no stopping-place more holy than a wayside shrine (Mrs. J. Rickard)
These pages are on the subject of the Last Absolution administered to the 2nd battalion Munster Fusiliers by the Rev. F. Gleeson on 8th May 1915 at Rue du Bois. Namely a brief history of the painting followed by directions to the location of the event.
About the painting.
The painting of the Last General Absolution was the work of WW1 artist Fortunino Matania. He was noted for his extraordinary finish and detail and to achieve this he visited the Western Front on many occasions.
However he did not witness the Last Absolution ceremony. According to one informant, Monsignor John Moran, former Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain (Army) – ‘the scene was well captured on canvas by Fortunino Matania’ from a description obtained by Mrs. Rickard.
It was such a poignant scene, the officers and soldiers from all walks of life, thinking of loved ones back home, making their peace before entering battle. The ambiance of this peaceful looking scene broken only perhaps by the distant sounds of artillery from the battle-front.
The original chapel was built by the Leroy-Pottier family in 1867 and was destroyed during the ebb and flow of battle in the early part of the Great war. It would seem no photo or illustration of the original chapel has been found. The chapel was rebuilt in 1929 and once again suffered the fate of being demolished to make way for road realignment works during the 1970′s. There is general consensus among some very elderly locals of the Richebourg area, that the shrine rebuilt in 1929 was along the lines of the original structure.
Some research was commenced in 1971 to identify the actual site of the Last Absolution. Little was known outside of France other than the site was somewhere on Rue du Bois. Initially the following publications and photocopies of articles were researched, only one clue was found from Mrs. Victor Rickard’s History of The Munsters.
McCance history of the RMF published 1927.
Jervis history of the 2nd Munsters in France published 1922 reprint 1998.
War Diary summary, 2nd Bn. by Capt. T. Filgate, written up13 May 1915.
Extract from Rev. Father Gleeson’s diary for 8th May 1915.
Extract from ‘Story of The Munsters’ by Mrs. Victor Rickard 1915.
Extract from ‘Irish Sword’ – journal of Military History of Ireland.
Orange Green & Khaki’ by Tom Johnstone 1992.
Extract from history of the 1st & 2nd battalions RMF by McCance & Jervis.
17 March 1915.
St. Patrick’s Day was spent at Les Choqaux. The Battalion proceeded to Locon for church service, which was conducted by the Rev. Father Gleeson, Chaplain to the Battalion..
8 May 1915.
The Munsters marched through Rue du Bois on their way to the trenches, and halted on the side of the road about 500 yards away from them. In front of each company was a green flag with the Irish harp and the word ‘Munster’ embroidered on it. These were the gifts of Lady Gordon..
8 May 1915.
Father Gleeson, on horseback, and wearing his stole, turned and faced ‘A’ Company,
Lieut.-Colonel Rickard and Captain T. W. Filgate (the adjutant) behind him, also mounted.
Just behind them stood a broken shrine enclosing a crucifix. Father Gleeson gave a General Absolution. Company by company, the Munster’s, bareheaded, and listening devoutly, held the short but impressive service as the shades of night gathered fast..
Extract from 2nd Bn. War Diary May 1915.
May 1st – Batt. in billets at Tombe Willot.
8th – Left billets at 7.15 pm on the road. At the first halt, Fr. Gleeson gave absolution. Battalion relieved the Cold Stream guards in D3 line of trenches preparatory to assaulting German trenches. Reliefs completed without casualties at 12 midnight.. (Capt. T. W. Filgate, adjutant.)
Extract from Chaplain Rev. Father Francis Gleeson 8 May 1915.
We march out from Tombe Willot (Locon) about 900 strong, our Commanding Officer being Major Rickard and the Adjutant, Captain Filgate – two of the kindliest men I have come across. We leave about 7.00 pm. The scenes of enthusiasm are outstanding. I ride my horse. Give Absolution to Batt. during rest on road. Opposite La Couture Church between the shrine of ‘N.D. de la Bonne Mort’ and another shrine we have another rest. The men all sing hymns ‘Hail Great St. Patrick’. I go further up – near the trenches and bid good bye to all. So Sad !!. (Chaplain Gleeson).
Extract from Story of the Munsters by Mrs J. Rickard 1915.
About a mile from the market-place of Neuve Chapelle, and above Festubert and Givenchy, is the Rue du Bois, a street lying east and west, some 500 yards behind the British trenches… At the entrance to the Rue du Bois there stands a broken shrine, and within the shrine is a crucifix. About a mile from the market-place of Neuve Chapelle..
The Last Absolution site was somewhere on Rue du Bois, however ‘about a mile from the market-place of Neuve Chapelle’ was incorrect as the distance was more like 3.6 miles (5.8 km.)
Extract from Irish Sword – journal of Military History Society of Ireland.
(no date on photocopy)
In September 1971 some 50 members of the Military History Society of Ireland toured the 1914-18 battlefields of France and Flanders and other areas of interest. They also made inquiries about the Last Absolution site however, the article did not mention any specific location.
It is never very easy for the military historian to relate ground to narrative of a bygone action, but we were determined to find this spot, if we found no other. Enquiries elicited “Ah, oui, Monsieur, vous devez . . .“ and Non, elle se trouve. . .“ and our French had some of the rust knocked off it as we searched. However, we happened on an estaminet—we needed it at this stage—and Jimmy Magee ferreted out a guide, who led us to our objective.
It is not only in St. Stephen’s Green that development threatens the vestiges of our past. The shrine is gone. . bulldozed into a pile of rubble to make way for a road, not a particularly good one, at that. However, the owner of the nearby cottage reverently guards the plaque from the shrine..
Extract from Orange Green & Khaki.
On the evening of 8th May, under command of Lt.-Col. V.G.H. Rickard, The 2nd Munsters once again marched towards the front. At a French wayside shrine, Rickard halted the battalion and formed a hollow square before it. On three sides were the rifle companies, and facing them on horseback were Col. Rickard, his adjutant, Capt. Filgate and the chaplain, Father Gleeson. Gun flashes added to the semi-light of a spring evening; gunfire and shell explosions reminded all of the ordeal to come. All bared their heads and the light breeze ruffled hair and caused to flutter the green company standards. Father Gleeson’s stole made a splash of soft colour. The chaplain raised his right hand and intoned general absolution and all sang the Té Deum. Then, to the barked commands of RSM Ring, the march resumed towards the sound of the guns..
Research was a stop-go effort until August 2005 when it gathered momentum after an article was posted on the Great War Forum (GWF). Sample extracts below..
GWF August 10 2005.
As a matter of interest has anyone ever established the exact location of the blessing of 2nd Munsters in the Rue De Bois, prior to their attack on Aubers Ridge, as immortalized in the painting by Fortunino Matania? (Mark Hone).
GW August 13 2005.
Hi all, ‘La rue du Bois’ is in the village of RICHEBOURG (Pas-de-Calais) few kilometers from AUBERS and it seems to me that I saw in one of the conference rooms of the town hall of this village this painting or perhaps a copy. I go there as soon as possible interested. (Michel Knockaert).
GWF 2nd January 2007.
Hi all. My investigation advances with great steps.
With the hazard of the purchase of a book devoted to the area of “the béthunois”, I discovered a heading devoted to the Chapel of Notre Dame de Seez, located at Richebourg L’Avoué.
The chapel is located at the hamlet of “l’Epinette” with Richebourg l’Avoué. The history of this chapel is related to that of the regiment of 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers ordered ” by Lt-colonel Victor RICHARD who received on Saturday evening May 8, 1915, of his chaplain the Reverend Father GLEESON, a last absolution before entering the battle of the ridge of Aubers, where he was to find death with a great number of his men.
In 1935, his widow, Lady Colonel RICHARD, offered the painting representing the scene of “the last absolution of the Munster’s”, according to the artist MATANIA, it hung inside the
Chapel Notre Dame de Seez. (French translation).
Artefacts from Chapel Notre Dame de Seez.
A number of artefacts from the Chapel Notre Dame de Seez was traced and found to be in the safe-keeping of descendants of the original family. The family hope one day to rebuilt the Chapel.
The Location of the Last Absolution site.
The subject matter attracted wide interest on the GWF resulting in numerous posts amounting to 34 web pages, as a result this subject was classified as a ‘Classic Thread’. The above are simply a sampling of some of the posts.
Eventually due to excellent detective work by Michel Knockeart of La Couture, the the actual site and interesting artifacts were discovered. Michel also added an interesting number of photos to illustrate his Forum posts and his input and personal time devoted to the subject is highly valued and acknowledged by the Royal Munster Fusiliers Association and those with an interest in the Munster Fusiliers history.
1. Orange Green & Khaki by Tom Johnstone. p436 ref.23.
2. History of the Royal Munster Fusiliers by Capt. S. McCance p126 vol.2
3. 2nd Munster in France by Lieut.-Colonel H. S. Jervis M.C. p18.
4. History of the Royal Munster Fusiliers by Capt. S. McCance p127 vol.2
5. War Diary 2nd Munster Fusiliers. 95/1279 – 3 Infantry Brigade: 2 Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers,
ref. National Archives, Kew. Date range: 1914 – 1918.
6. The Story of The Munsters at Etreux, Festubert, Rue du Bois and Hulloch by Mrs. victor Rickard.
7. The Irish Sword, journal of the Military History Soc. of Ireland.
8. Orange Green & Khaki by Tom Johnstone. p82 ref.23
9. The Great War Forum, 1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php
Note: Re reference note 23 from Orange Green & Khaki by Tom Johnstone.
23. Ibid. The scene was well captured on canvas by Fortunino Matania from a description obtained by Mrs Rickard. The original painting was presented to the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department (RC) by Maj. Henry Harris, author of The Irish Regiments in the First World War. Informant: Mgr John Moran, former Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain (Army).
Ownership of the Original Painting
While researching the ownership and whereabouts of the original painting, I was presented with two different versions.
I was advised by the Documentation Officer Department of Art, Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London as follows-
According to our records, the painting was destroyed by fire during the Second World War. It was one of a number of Matania First World War works that were in the hands of the Illustrated London News and other publications. Matania was an artist who produced work for use in such publications and as a result much of his original work was purchased by, or belonged to, these publications. It was whilst with them that they appear to have been destroyed during the Second World War. Our Matania collection consists of two original works, one poster, several lithographs and four reproduced prints. We have an old newspaper cutting relating to his painting of the Munster’s, but this contains only a small black and white, poor quality image of the work. (Imperial War Museum).
This differs from the statement by Mgr John Moran, former Principal Roman Catholic Chaplain (Army).
(Some years ago the author of this web page presented a high resolution colour copy to the IWM taken from his own personal copy of the painting)
Planning a visit to the Last Absolution location and other places of interest.
For those interested in visiting the site of the Last Absolution and other places associated with the 2nd battalion Munster Fusiliers, your travel will be in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France.
Wherever your departure starts from, is sensible to have a reliable map of the Nord-Pas de Calais area of France. If you have Internet access, then you can plan your trip using Google maps. Co-ordinates for the places of interest are listed for use on Google maps. Rue du Bois runs through Neuve Chapelle and visitors should aim to use the town as their start point.
Wherever your departure starts from, is sensible to have a reliable map of the Nord-Pas de Calais area of France. If you have Internet access, then you can plan your trip using Google maps. Co-ordinates for the places of interest are listed for use on Google maps. Rue du Bois runs through Neuve Chapelle and visitors should aim to use the town as their start point. Click on blue links for map and general information.
Regional map from Nueve Chapelle to La Tombe Williot. (The soldiers billeting area).
The purpose of this map is to give a perspective of the relationship of the various sites to Nueve-Chapell
Neuve-Chapelle 62840 France. – 50°35’2.87″N 2°46’52.99″E
The village of Neuve Chapelle is some 5 kilometres north of La Bassee and 20 kilometres west-south-west of Lille. Heavy fighting in March 1915 destroyed the town.
Ruelle Noirette Rue du Bois 62136 near Richebourg. - 50°34’9.95″N 2°45’42.79″E
Translates from French as ‘Cinder Track’, situated on the left as you head west along Rue du Bois approximately 2.5 km. from Nueve-Chapelle
Last Absolution Assembly Site on Rue du Bois. – 50°33’35.81″N 2°43’46.29″E
In the 1970′s a re-alignment of the road was carried out to remove a very tight turn to the left. The result is a layby area now enclosed between two stone walls and used by local authorities as a road gravel storage area. The road alignment was at the cost of demolishing a wayside chapel as mentioned in the previous introduction page.
Le Touret Miltary Cemetery – 11 Rue du Bois, 62136 Richebourg – 50°33’38.04″N 2°43’20.67″E
The military cemetery is approximately 0.5 km. west of the Last Absolution site. The entrance is on the left-hand side of the road. There are a number of names of Munster Fusiliers soldiers comemorated in this cemetery.
La Couture – Locon – Tombe Williot.
All three of the above locations are associated with the 2nd battalion Munster Fusiliers. The battalion passed through the town of La Couture on their way to the trenches near the Cinder Track (Ruelle Noirette).
At Locon the battalion celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at a church in Locon, the church name has not been identified.
Rue de la Tombe Williot was a billeting area for Allied troops, it was from here the 2nd battalion Munster Fusiliers started their journey to the trenches on the evening of 8 May 1915. The billetting area would have be requisitioned farm houses and out buildings spread around Tombe Williot.