• Kathryn Hurlock

Veterans and the Pilgrimage to Vézelay in 1946

In the summer of 1946, 14 groups of pilgrims converged on the medieval abbey of Vézelay in France. They were responding to the call of the pope for actions of peace, and came together to pray to that end. Unsurprisingly given the fact that the Second World War had only recently ended, many of them were veterans.

Though veteran pilgrimage after the First and Second World Wars is well known, most research has so far concentrated on pilgrimage to sites associated with warfare, such as battlefields or military cemeteries. Less well known are the religious pilgrimages which came in the wake of war, activities that focussed on peace and reparation, drew on the support and infrastructure and personnel of the Catholic Church, and involved religious performance, language, and symbolism.

The fourteen pilgrimage groups mostly came from France, though one travelled from England, and others from Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg. Each carried a 90lb wooden cross, sharing the load between three men in turn, stopping en route to pray in the communities they passed through, often dependent on the charity of locals for food and shelter. When then arrived at Vézelay, the cross-carriers were met by 30,000 supporters.

The decision to hold a cross-carrying pilgrimage to Vézelay, which involved walking hundreds of miles, was driven by the idea that this was a penitential pilgrimage, but also by more practical considerations. When the twelve priests who usually organised mass pilgrimages to Lourdes, for example, went to recce pilgrimage there in early summer 1946, they concluded that large-scale pilgrimages weren’t achievable because of the post-war lack of transport, accommodation, and food.

The solution was to undertake walking pilgrimages, something which began almost as soon as war ended in Europe. The first large-scale event of this kind, however, was the cross-carrying pilgrimage to Vézelay, intended as a ‘public profession of Christian faith’. It was described at various times as a ‘crusade for prayer’, perhaps unsurprising given that the Second Crusade was preached at Vézelay 800 years earlier, buts its defining feature was that this was an arduous pilgrimage. The broad aim of the pilgrimage was to promote and call for peace, but individual pilgrims had their own reasons for joining. Prisoners of War came to ‘give thanks for their deliverance’. The actions of the German veterans suggested their pilgrimage was one of reparation for their part in the war, while many of the British contingent prayed for the dead of the war as part of their devotions, stopping at war memorials and praying in French villages for their war dead.

Poster promoting the ‘Crusade of Peace’ at Vézelay

Germany had not been invited to send a contingent on the Vézelay pilgrimage, even though such an act would have been a sign of reconciliation. Despite this, German prisoners of war from the area brought their own cross, allegedly made from the burnt timber of a building bombed by their compatriots. At the culmination of the pilgrimage, the other contingents arranged their crosses inside the church at Vézelay with the German cross, which had not been afforded a place, among them. One eyewitness commented that ‘defeated Germany was girt about by all the other crosses as if sustained by them’ and that the whole thing was an ‘astonishing experience of fraternity’.

Pilgrims shelter for the night

The German Cross at Vézelay

Throughout the pilgrimage to Vézelay, the pilgrims maintained a rather military character which drew on their status as veterans, and their recent experience of war. Indeed, their veteran status was seen as a bonus for the pilgrimage, as the pilgrims were used to the deprivations of being on active service. One hopefully Scots pilgrimage, applying to join recommended himself as an ‘ex-Scots guardsman…[who had] done many a route march, but never with such a good objective’. The organisation of the pilgrimage was referred to in terms of ‘march discipline’, unsurprising perhaps because the English contingent’s leader was a veteran para-trooper, while in various newspaper reports of the pilgrimage the food carried by the pilgrims was described as their ‘iron ration’. Most poignantly, when the pilgrims reached Vézelay and held a night time vigil in silence, one pilgrim commented ‘It’s like going into action’. At Vézelay itself, the accommodation set up to provide for the pilgrims was set up like an Army encampment, complete with a command post and catering provided by German prisoners of war.

The Vézelay pilgrimage inspired similar cross-carrying pilgrimages in England in 1947 and 1948 that had a distinctly veteran identity, but as veterans increasingly returned to civilian life, the lure of recreating the camaraderie of military service in the service of the Cross diminished.

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