French Chaplains and Abbe Daniel Bergey The Third Republic was hostile to religion and priests. Although there was a law dating from 1874, providing for the use of army chaplains , in reality very few were appointed , only 4 priests per army corps , 2 Roman Catholics, 1 protestant and 1 Jewish as well as one R.C. priest per division. All other priests of army age were called up as soldiers. As a result of this the Pope suspended the Vatican’s Canon Law forbidding priests from taking part in combat units.
Many of the priests were however allowed to serve as stretcher bearers and medical support but others were in the front line of combat troops It is estimated that 32,699 French clerics served in the armed forces during the war.
The Sunday Chronicle reported in August 1915 that priests were going beyond the provision of medical support: “There are over 20,000 (French) priests serving in the army, sharing the work of the trenches, shooting and bayoneting Germans like the best, and a remarkable proportion have been decorated for conspicuous valour.” As well as their combatant status, most considered themselves soldier priests and carried our unofficially the duties of chaplains in the Front line trenches becoming voluntary chaplains . An example of a famous soldier priest who served as a poilu but eventually became an official chaplain was the famous theologian and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.
Abbe Daniel Bergey was born 1881 in the Gironde and became a voluntary chaplain and soldier priest with the 36th Infantry Division from 1914. He was a gifted leader of men and inspiring as a priest and soldier. He was described as “a handsome man , tall and strong , overflowing with energy . He was wounded in the chest on the Chemin des Dames in 1915 but continued with the division, taking part in the assault on Californie plateau in 1917.
He was the editor of three newspapers for troops during the war, one of which a sort of French Wipers times. Le Poilu st Emillionais which became known as the Hairy St Emillions which was widely circulated during the war and is still selling well on Amazon. Unfortunately, my French does not allow me to give you a flavour of it.
He must have taken on the role of an official chaplain at some stage as he was criticised for bearing arms, which as an official chaplain was forbidden. It was reported that “He had the mania to make the shot with his comrades. Although this was strictly forbidden he had a bad habit of carrying a revolver, sometimes grenades under his cassock.“
After the war he became a member of parliament for the Gironde , and led protests against the disestablishment of church and state in the area.
He became a prominent catholic public figure in the interwar years. He Founded the league if veteran priests.
Some outspoken pieces in a newspaper “Soutanes de France “ led him to be arrested as a suspected collaborator on the liberation of France , but he was soon acquitted and released . He died in 1950.