From studying at the oldest Catholic school in the country – right here in Hertfordshire- to becoming a Bishop appointed personally by the pope, the Right Rev James Bellord proved his bravery in some of history’s most bloody battles – and always kept the faith…

Anyone who has watched the 2016 Second World War biopic Hacksaw Ridge will be aware of the struggles endured by men of faith when it came to doing their duty in times of conflict. Army chaplains, members of certain religions and conscientious objectors had to juggle wanting to serve their country with the burden of obeying rules of their faith which often forbade them from taking up arms or taking another’s life.

In the emotional film, directed by Mel Gibson, British actor Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss, an American pacifist and combat medic who- due to his beliefs as a Christian -refused to carry any kind of weapon onto the battlefield. After being branded a coward by his colleagues and ostracised for his pacifist views Doss is eventually vindicated. He shows immense bravery when he saves 75 soldiers at Hacksaw Ridge- a key battle in Japan- by literally carrying each man to safety, one by one with his bare hands. He had to lower them down a steep ridge with a rope – all while being fired on by enemy bullets and having grandees lobbed at him.

Not only did Doss stay true to himself he became the first Conscientious Objector to earn the esteemed Congressional Medal of Honor.

Throughout history countless army chaplains and padres have proved their bravery in the theatre of war and one of them was the Right Reverend James Bellord. Although Bellord was born in London in 1847, it was while he was living and studying here in Hertfordshire as a young man that his character and religious beliefs began to transform him into the respected man of the cloth and medal-earning military chaplain that he would become.

The years that Bellord spent in Hertfordshire studying at St Edmund’s College in Ware – the oldest Catholic school in the country- would stand him in good stead and he would go on to become an esteemed man of many titles and awards and would even reach the rank of catholic Bishop.

It seems fateful that James was sent to this of all religious schools. It had been founded in 1568 by Cardinal William Allen. The school had originally been in Douai, France, and intended as a seminary to train priests. During the French Revolution, however, it had to be transferred to England and found a home on the beautiful site of Old Hall Green hamlet in Ware in 1793.

The college was pivotal in keeping the ‘ancient faith’ alive in England at the time. Originally intended as a seminary to prepare priests to work in England, it soon also became a top boys’ school for Catholics.

The 1861 census can give us an insight into how life for James – then just 15-year-old- was while he was living with dozens of other boys at the school. Entries in the census reveal the headmaster at the time was William Weathers who was only aged 46, while Thomas MacConnell , aged 30, was the ‘Prefect Discipline’. We can only imagine how seriously he took his role as discipline master.

Bellord went on to be ordained as a priest in 1870 and by 1879 he found himself sent to serve as an army chaplain in the AngloZulu War.

The war, between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom, was notable for several particularly bloody battles, including an opening victory of the Zulus’ at the Battle of Isandlwana followed by the defence of Rorke's Drift by a small British force from attack by a large Zulu force –a battle made famous in the 1964 epic war film starring Michael Caine. The British eventually won the war, ending Zulu dominance of the region.

Great British Life: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1856-1879) who Bellord gave the last rites to Photo: wiki in the public domainLouis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1856-1879) who Bellord gave the last rites to Photo: wiki in the public domain

It was while here that Bellord had to carry out a sad duty that would bring him to the attention of the clerical hierarchy at the time. Father Bellord had to perform the last rites over the body of a very famous soldier, the Prince Imperial Louis -Napoléon – the only child of Napolean III of France and Nephew of the infamous emperor and conqueror Napolean Bonaparte.

Louis had died during a skirmish in the Anglo-Zulu war while fighting on behalf of British troops. Known to be a man who adored action and adventure, Louis wasn’t supposed to leave his camp but one morning his insisted on going out with a limited entourage. He and the few soldiers with him were ambushed by the Zulus and Louis was stabbed to death.

His body was carried to the British military camp and then to Pietermaritzburg in south Africa, where it lay in state in St Mary’s Catholic Church before being loaded onto a British warship in Durban and taken to England for an impressive funeral in Chislehurst, where the Napoleon family had settled.

While still in Africa, Father Bellord had been selected to give the last rites to Louis Napolean, who was known for being a devout catholic. It’s likely Bellord was chosen for the task due to his well known strong Catholic faith.

A report of the event described: “It was he (Bellord) who performed the last rites over the prince imperial. The first funeral service which took place in thar savage region far away, was performed by Father Bellord. The body robed in linen and covered in the Union Jack being laid on a gun carriage by Lord Chelmsford, who was deeply affected, appeared as chief mourner.”

Great British Life: Battle of Tel-el-Kebir where Rev Bellord was shot and wounded but still administered to the sick. Photo: Getty ImagesBattle of Tel-el-Kebir where Rev Bellord was shot and wounded but still administered to the sick. Photo: Getty Images

Father Bellord also served the Boer War of 1881 and then in the Egyptian war of 1882. It was here while he was serving in the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, that again he proved his steely nature. He became seriously injured after being shot by an enemy bullet. Despite the agonising pain of his wound Bellord made sure he could still administer to the sick and wounded soldiers on the field.

He couldn’t walk so he insisted on being carried around the muddy battlefield on a stretcher to comfort the dying. He was taken from one man to another to pray and offer words of comfort and faith. For this act he was awarded yet another military medal, the Khedive’s star campaign medal.

One report of the action recalled: “He (Bellord) was wounded in the leg and was in the process of being carried to a field hospital when he heard that a dying soldier was asking for the consolation of religion. The first thought of this brave priest was to order his bearer to take him to the sport and it was only when he had discharged his spiritual functions that he consented to have his own wound attended to.”

Father Bellord was a modest man and did not like the fuss made about his bravery on the battlefield. Several times, after being asked about it, he said he would rather talk about the true heroes- the soldiers who were wounded or didn’t make it home.

In 1899, after his retirement from the army which had seen him see more than 25 years of service, Father Bellord was appointed by Pope Leo XIII himself as ‘Vicar-Apostolic of Gibraltar’ and ‘Bishop of Milevis’. Afterwards he served for a short time as Bishop of Westminster.

For a while he was also attached to military garrisons at Shoebury and Colchester where he was the forces chaplain and where, by all accounts, he was well liked and much-respected.

Although still a relatively young men in 1903 Father Bellord went to live out his retirement at Nazareth House in Southend which at the time provided care for Catholic children as well as infirm Catholic clergy and other patients.

He died, aged 59, two years later after a long battle with typhoid fever, believed to have been picked up during his years of foreign service. The frail clergyman was said to have been practically an invalid during his time at Southend and his physical suffering was said to have been “severe”.

After his death a solemn Requiem Mass ‘for the repose of the soul of the Bishop’ was sung at the Church the Sacred Heart attached to Nazareth House, The caring clergyman was interred in a brick grave in the private burying-ground at the rear of Nazareth House. The principal mourners were his brothers, his sisters and his nephews. Three of his sisters had become nuns. Wreaths were sent from the community at Nazareth House and the deceased Bishop’s family.

As the decades went on more and more examples of brave clergymen and chaplains in war, such as Father Bellord, would come to light. One of the most famous cases was known as ‘the four chaplains’. Methodist Minister George Rentz, Jewish Rabbi Alexander Goode, Dutch Reformed Minister Clark Poling and Catholic priest John Washington, for example, showed their devotion to God and mankind when they were all stuck onboard a sinking ship in 1943. The men were travelling on The Dorchester when it sank off the coast of Greenland after being torpedoed by a German submarine.

Each of the men immediately went to tend the wounded, rescue those trapped, encourage the frightened, and pray for them all. The chaplains all helped hand out life vests but there weren't enough of them. When the supply ran out, each chaplain took off his vest and gave it to another man. As the overcrowded lifeboats moved away from the sinking ship, witnesses saw the four chaplains with their arms linked, saying prayers as the Dorchester went down into the icy cold waters.

As for St Edmund’s College, the school still exists today as a boarding school and some of its former students have gone onto achieve impressive things, just like Father Bellord. Francis James Barraud, for example, was an English painter who created ‘His Master’s Voice’ – one of the most famous commercial logos in the world and used by record store HMV for many decades.

Another ex-pupil Everard Aloysius Lisle Phillipps also had a lion-hearted streak. He would be awarded the Voctoria Cross for gallantry during war while Sir Edward Richard Henry, 1st Baronet, went on to become head of the Metropolitan Police of London from 1903 to 1918 and championed the method of fingerprinting to identify criminals.