Reginald J. J Watt.

Robert Hugh Benson: captain in God's army online

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R. H. B.

Robert Hugh Benson:
Captain in God's Army















There was much in the Hfe of Robert Hugh
Benson that is neither recorded nor hinted at in
this book. It is not, and is not meant to be, a
biography ; it is merely a book of reminiscences,
and consequently I make no apology for any

I have hardly mentioned his family relations,
always most affectionate, because I do not know
enough about them, and if that be not sufhcient
reason, because the ground has been covered
adequately and most admirably by Mr. A. C.
Benson and Father Martindale ; there is no reason
why I should attempt to do their work over again.

This book was begun with no intention of
publication, and it has been written in the strange
places and varied circumstances inseparable from
the life of an Army Chaplain.

I thank many for the encouragement they have
given me, and a few for the patience with which
they have listened to the reading of the MS.

I thank also Monsieur Lafayette for the use of
his photograph of Monsignor Benson, and two
amateur photographers for the other illustrations.

Reginald J. J. Watt.

February 2nd, 191 8.



PREFACE ' - - - vii


Chapter I

BARRACKS - ., - . - -3

Chapter II
DRILL - - - - - -19

Chapter III


Chapter IV


Chapter V

knowledge of DISTRICT - - - - 53

Chapter VI
VISIONS of conquest -. - - - 61

Chapter VII


Chapter VIII



Chapter IX page


Chapter X

TEXT-BOOKS - - - - - 103

Chapter XI


Chapter XII

THE war forgotten - - - - - - - -121


Chapter XIII

reveille - - - - - - - - - -129

Chapter XIV
an eye on the enemy - - - - - - - -138

Chapter XV

ALWAYS on the ALERT - - - - - - - -1 46


Chapter XVI
g.h.q. - . . - 161

Chapter XVII
dispatches -... - -.-. 169

Chapter XVIII
" POWWOWS "- - - - - - - - - - ^77

Chapter XIX

concentration OF FORCES - - - - - - -1 86

Chapter XX

the LAST POST .....-..- jg-j


R. H. B. - - - - - - - - Frontispiece




THE DINING-ROOM - - - ,,169

THE CHAPEL -.-_-.- )}I95


This book is a setting down of my own reminis-
cences of Monsignor Benson, reminiscences of
two years spent with him, and those the last two
years of his life, during which we lived together
in Hare Street House.

Except for occasional visitors we were alone
during that period, and I do not think it can be
doubted that they were the two fullest years he
lived. Never before had he been so much in
demand as a preacher, a novelist, or a journalist ;
never before had his engagement books been so
full ; he had become a " power " and was known
throughout the world for what he was — a promi-
nent and enthusiastic Catholic priest with a
number of well-used talents. It would be unfair
to judge him by any one of them, because it is
only in their inter-relation that we see the man
as he was. There have been greater novelists,
more eloquent preachers, and better journalists ;
but Hugh Benson was all three, and in his ver-
satility lies his bigness.

During those two years we lived the same life ;
he told me of his work, he was full of it himself
and consequently interested everyone to whom


he spoke of it. It was a big world-wide work, but
its bigness never interfered with the real and
valuable interest he took in my small parochial
affairs. I would meet him sometimes on a
Monday when he returned from his week-end
preaching expeditions, and as we went home from
the station — he in his dogcart, or, later, after the
death of his horse " Peter," in a queer little hired
conveyance known to us as the " pill-box," and
I riding alongside on my bicycle — always he asked
the same questions : " Well, how did things go
yesterday ? " " Were the congregations gopd ? "
*' Was it fine enough to have your evening service
in the garden ? " " Did your sermon go well ? "
"Anybody else under instruction?" "Has So-
and-So come up to the scratch yet ? " And
it was not until he had found out all about the
parish that he would tell of his own doings :
whether he had really "got going" in his sermons,
whether the congregations had been responsive
— there was never any question as to their size.
Then : " I suppose there are thousands of letters ?
Well, they'll have to wait 'till after tea; I must
carve some more panels this afternoon." Or:
" I'm longing to get into the garden."

We lived together, we served each other's
Masses, we had our meals together, we played
games together, we shot together ; he read his
books and articles to me as he wrote them, and
usually accused me of sleeping whilst he read.
From time to time we differed, sometimes quite


violently, always about things that did not really
matter ; we played tricks on each other.

Altogether it was, at any rate for me, a very
happy and extremely valuable time ; perhaps not
appreciated at its full value while it lasted ; and
it is because of that time, and at the instance of
many of my most valued friends whose friendship
I owe to R.H.B., and a few who owed his friend-
shf|3 to me, that I have undertaken the pleasant
task of writing this, and risked the charge of
inflicting another Benson book upon the public.

With that I will proceed to write of Robert
Hugh Benson, the memoirs of a friend.



Robert Hugh Benson :
Captain in God's Army



I HAVE called tliis book Robert Hugh Benson :
Captain in God'^s Army, and the chapter headings
throughout are of a military character ; the reason
for that is that in all his work — preaching, writing,
lecturing, or whatever it may have been, Hugh
Benson was always essentially a soldier, and a
soldier of the old fire-eating, " longing-for-a-
fight " variety. The whole world was his battle-
field ; every non-Catholic either a foe to be fought
and conquered, or a neutral to be won over at once
lest the enemy got hold of him ; every indif-
ferent or " back-sliding " Catholic was a spy or
a " slacker " and a source of danger to his Army.
He was a great soldier, and no mean diplomatist.
In dealing with the enemy or with his own slack
soldiers, he could be, and was quite frequently,
stern and commanding, but as often he was
persuasive and wheedling, and it would be hard
to say in which he was most successful.

Thousands became interested in, and hundreds
converted to, Catholicism by his sermons; those



terrific onslaughts upon the Church in which he
had been brought up and to the ministry of which
he had been ordained ; but it was not so much a
hatred of Protestantism itself as a great love for
" the poor misguided Protestants " that made
his attacks so bitter ; his one idea was to " show
up " Protestantism, to let Protestants see where
and how far they were wrong. His one object
was that all Anglicans should come to realize
what he had realized, should see what he saw, and
should enjoy what he enjoyed. One of his greatest
sorrows was that he was not allowed to visit his
old community at Mirfield after his reception
into the Church. On one occasion, when a mem-
ber of that community wrote and reminded him
that he had been one of those who had most
strongly advocated a rule to prevent members
who might " secede to Rome " visiting Mirfield,
he said : " What a fool I must have been ! You
can't have any idea what splendid people they
are, their rule is ideal, and their spirit is grand.
I'd re-join them to-morrow if they would only be
sensible and come into the Church — they will
some day." He retained that affection and
esteem for Mirfield all through ; and it took a
very practical form, for whenever a cheque for
royalties on his books came in to him, he always
forwarded the amount he received for The Light
Invisible to the Bursar at Mirfield. He explained
that he published the book while a member of
the community, and it was a rule that the income


derived from members' books should go to the

But just as his fighting quaHties — hard and
clean, asking no quarter and giving none — had a
very far-reaching effect, so, too, had his quieter
ones. He could be wonderfully patient, and had
a very soothing effect on those who. were suffering
from hurt pride, who imagined they had, or in
some cases quite certainly had, been offended by
a priest, and who had decided to stay away from

church altogether " just to show him ."

They would come to Benson and open the flood-
gates of eloquence.

" Oh, Father ! You couldn't believe what I've
had to put up with. I couldn't tell you or any-
body else what Father So-and-So said to me.
Just listen to this "

And he, poor man, would listen, let them blow
off steam, and by judicious nursing get them
back into a more normal frame of mind and bring
them to a proper realization of their ov/n duties,
of the absurdity of the position they had taken
up, heal those wounded feelings, and reinstate
them as valuable soldiers once more.

And always he had before him the fact that the
whole population of the world were either soldiers
or potential soldiers in the great army of God;
and that he was an officer therein, that as such
it was his work to understand them, to be often
a stern disciplinarian, always a true friend.

Every soldier spends a very considerable part


of his military career in training, not only when
he first joins up, but even as an experienced
soldier. On Active Service there are periods
spent in what are, oddly enough, called "Rest
Billets," during which the soldier is kept fit by
Barrack Square work ; there are again those
periods when the wounded or invalided soldier,
having been fortunate, or perhaps one ought to
say unfortunate, enough to pass his Medical
Board, is kept in training to " tune him up "
before he joins his comrades " in the line " again.
To these training periods we can liken the time
spent at home by Hugh Benson.

" Home " was Hare Street House, in the little
Hertfordshire village of Hare Street on the Ware-
to-Cambridge road which goes through Barkway.
The house is about twenty miles south of Cam-
bridge, about two miles east of the nearest railway
station at Buntingford, and about nine miles due
west of the nearest market-town. Bishop Stort-
ford, on the Hertfordshire and Essex borders.

If the reader really wants to know all about the
situation of Hare Street House, he cannot do
better than read Father Benson's own book,
Oddsfish ; there he describes it in detail, omitting
hardly anything, and even introducing some of
his own improvements. The paving stones sur-
rounding the house and extending from the front
door to " the finest little gate for ten miles
round" were put there in the year 191 3, and
gave their owner the greatest joy ; some of them'



had come from the House of Commons. " Just
think of it — every one of them hallowed by the
feet of Lloyd George " (Mr. George was not so
popular then as he is now), he would say when
showing his visitors the latest improvements.

It is believed locally that there has been a house
on the site of Hare Street House -for over 600
years. The present building was originally pro-
bably rather a large farmhouse built entirely of
timber and plaster, until some owner, more pre-
tentious than those who had gone before, enriched
it with a red-brick facade ; a lawn runs across the
front and round the south side, cut off from the
road and a neighbouring cottage by an oak paling
and a belt of beautiful lime trees. It was a real
sorrow to Father Benson when the county
authorities compelled him to cut the upper
branches of those limes that overhung the road ;
they were deemed to be dangerous in storms, and
I believe that a top branch had fallen and damaged
the telegraph wires ; but though he cut those
that bordered on the road, when someone sug-
gested that the others should be cut also to get a
more symmetrical effect he refused. " Never,
never, never, so long as the house is mine — unless
they compel me." He held very strong views
about cutting trees, and still stronger ones on
what he called " mutilating animals." When I
asked him, with reference to his Irish terrier
" Jack," " Why didn't you have his ears and tail
cut ? " he gave me the full benefit of those views.


" Why should I ? If God had intended Jack
to have an absurd little stumpy tail and floppy-
ears, they would have grown that way ; as a
matter of fact Jack's tail is long and his ears are
pointed, and that is obviously as God intended
they should be ; and it's no business of mine or
anybody else's to interfere with the Almighty's

And thus was Jack immortalized on the tapestry
in the parlour, and thus odd-looking but lovable
he went to his grave, and R.H.B. lost a dear and
devoted friend.

At the south-eastern corner of the house at the
edge of the lawn grew the yew trees under which,
in fine weather, we had all our meals.

The chapel is behind the house, but connected
with it by means of a little cloister, paved with
cobble stones, which skirts two sides of a little
grass court.

The entrance drive comes up to the house on
the north side, passing, from the main road,
through wrought iron gates, in which are fashioned
the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, the gates
themselves being surmounted by a priest's hat
with tassels. To reach the front door from the
drive you must pass through a low ivy-covered
door which opens on to the flag-stoned pavement.

Inside, the house is exactly as is described in
Oddsfish. On the left of the entrance passage is
the dining-room, and on the right the library,
vdth a French window opening on to the lawn.


The dining-room " was hung with green, with
panels of another colour upon it " ; these hang-
ings had been in his room when he was in Cam-
bridge, and had evidently annoyed some good
lady, who at once spread a report that " Father
Benson had his rooms hung with Gobelins
tapestry." As a matter of fact they are made of
canvas and only cost a few shillings. The furni-
ture was very plain, the most noteworthy thing
being the fireplace of carved oak.

" Isn't that a gorgeous fireplace ? " Father
Benson asked the first time I dined with him.

I agreed, and admired it.

" Cost just ten shillings," he said with glee, and
then went on to explain how his manservant,
Reeman, had bought the old oak out of a cottage
that was being pulled down, and among it they
had found a carved piece, and had at once set to
work to carve another like it, and had then built
up the fireplace themselves.

The library is the largest room in the house,
and was very little used. All the walls were
covered with crowded bookshelves, for he had a
great number of books of all sorts ; in the centre
stood an old oak refectory table, and there were
two writing desks, a large chesterfield, and some
chairs. In one corner was an old and very dilapi-
dated organ, bought for five shillings in a local
publichouse, which he declared he was going to
repair some day; it was eventually relegated to the
attics and its place taken by a slightly less venerable


and not quite so dilapidated harmonium, which
we were accustomed to drag out on to the lawn
for our open-air services ; the only other use it
was put to was when occasionally we would go
into the library after dinner with the avowed in-
tention of finding some new hymn tunes. What
usually happened was that R.H.B. began to play
the Ficar of Bray ; he would play for a while, then :

" W-Watt, come and sing about Pudding-
time — I love that verse."

Then I would start, and whatever guests were
present would soon join in, R.H.B. singing lustily
while he played " with different harmonies every
time," and we would go on singing The Vicar of
Bray till all were hoarse, when we would adjourn,
usually to Miss Lyall's house at the end of the
garden, for coffee.

The harmonium in turn gave place to a beauti-
ful Bechstein baby grand ; he had long wanted a
piano — " I had one once, but I had a row with
the person who gave it me, so I sent it back " —
and his baby grand gave him much joy in the
last months of his life.

In the entrance passage were hung a number of
oil paintings, prominent among them being a
very large, almost if not quite life-size, portrait of
himself in his monsignor's robes, the work of his
friend Miss Lyall just mentioned above ; there
were a number of others, among them a boy's
face by Herkomer, and also several of his own
earliest efforts.


At the end of the passage was another bargain,
a grandfather clock ; of course it did not go,
except very occasionally, and then only for a very
short time, but it had a beautiful face, and if you re-
marked its obvious faults R.H.B. would simply say :

" Well, in a house like this you ought to have
a grandfather clock."

On the ground floor was also the little parlour,
where Father Benson wrote, seated at an old oak
refectory table. It was a tiny but very charming
room, hung with applique tapestry, representing
the Quest of the Holy Grail. The ordinary
characters are depicted and in addition an Arch-
bishop, Benson himself in his monsignorial robes
and mounted on his horse Peter, and Dr. Ses-
sions also mounted on a prancing charger. I
remember remarking by way of criticism :

" If the Doctor doesn't pull his heels back,
he'll slip over that horse's tail."

" Yes," answered R.H.B. " But it's true to
life — he probably would."

On foot behind the Doctor was Mr. Gabriel
Pippet as an artist, followed by Father Benson's
manservant Reeman as an artisan, and the
gardener Turner in his customary avocation ; the
little terrier Jack was also there. Benson was very
proud of this tapestry, and justifiably so, for it
was very beautiful, and " no woman ever put a
stitch in it." It was almost entirely the work of
the Monsignor and his two friends, Dr. Sessions
and Mr. Pippet.


The doorway of the room had presented a
difficulty in the tapestry, but it was overcome by
putting a bridge over it ; and the chapel of the
Grail, with the rosy red Grail glowing under its
canopy, was over the big open fireplace.

He loved that little room, and was never so
happy as when he was in it. It used to be referred
to by all sorts of names, sitting-room, study, and
the like, but R.H.B. had one name, and only one
for it.

" I wish to goodness everybody would call the
parlour, the Parlour — it is a parlour, and that's
what I want it to be called."

At the bottom of the staircase was a door leading
out into the little back hall, and over this was the
Priest's hiding hole, designed and executed with
great care by Robert Hugh Benson himself in the
year 1913; it delighted him, and his imagination
weaved all sorts of stories round it.

" Isn't it splendid ! " he said. " We could both
get into it."

"As many as you like could get into it, but they
wouldn't stay there long," said I, looking at the
floor of the hole, which was merely the lath and
plaster of the hall ceiling. When he grasped my
meaning he closed his lips tightly, then snapped :

" I'll tell you what's the matter with you —
you've got no imagination."

In the panelling of the staircase he did some
charming work, carving the instruments of the
Passion, his family arms, various monograms, etc. ;


and as nearly all the oak was very old it looked
almost genuinely antique. I remember him
bringing me out to look at it as soon as it was quite
complete. We stood and admired it for some
minutes ; then he turned to me, with his quizzical

" I wonder how long I'll be dead before some-
body whitewashes it all — to make it look bright
and cheerful."

He had a statue ; we were always in doubt as
to its identity ; I suggested that it would look
well on the pillar half-way up the staircase. I
always referred to the statue as " Queen Bess."

" I think Queen Bess would look well there," I

" Yes " he said, " I think that's a good idea —
but if she does go up she's got to be Our Lady."

Immediately at the head of the staircase is the
haunted room. It is the smallest of the bedrooms
on the first floor and has a southerly aspect, and
is directly above the little parlour. It was rather a
pleasant Httle room, the walls being adorned for
the most part with water-colour drawings, many
of them the work of Father Benson's sister ; but
of course the most interesting thing about the
room is its ghost. There are several stories about
it, and on the whole it seemed to be a rather
nice sort of ghost to have about the place, and
in no sense of the word terrifying.

A friend of Benson's, who has attained a certain
amount of fame as a portrait artist and as a boxer,


tells how he experienced the ghost one night. It
apparently entered the room rattling the rather
loose door handle and approached the bed on
which he was lying ; it gave him the impression
of being a tall old woman, and she bent over him
and said, either " Who are you ? " or " Is that
you ? " Though he felt no fear at all, it never
entered his mind to speak. R.H.B. was once
telling this story to a number of people among
whom was a man who often stayed at Hare Street
House ; this was the first time he had heard of
the ghost, but it seemed to him to explain some-
thing that had occurred on an occasion when he
happened to be alone, with the exception of
the maids, in the house. He was in the large
bedroom over the library and next door to the
Ghost-room. About two o'clock one morning,
being unable to sleep, he sat up in bed, and was
reading and annotating a book ; he declares he
was very much awake. He distinctly heard a step
coming upstairs, and then the door handle of the
room next door rattle. He took no notice, how-
ever, until several minutes later it dawned upon
him that he was alone in a friend's house, and that
people did not usually wander about in the middle
of the night ; immediately he thought of burglars,
and jumping out of bed went into the next room and
then downstairs, but found nothing. The follow-
ing morning he asked the maids, who slept in the
attics, if either of them had been going round the
house during the night ; they both said they had


not ; so he let the matter drop, and it never
entered his mind again until he heard the Monsig-

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Online LibraryReginald J. J WattRobert Hugh Benson: captain in God's army → online text (page 1 of 11)