Charles de Foucauld in 1904-1905

The French Army

It is important for us to realise the important role played by the Army in the life of Charles. As a youngster he had gone to a military college, had graduated as an officer, and had fought in North Africa. His character before his conversion was a rebellious one, and at one stage he was cashiered; but he rejoined later, and eventually left the Army very honourably, with many enduring friendships.

He was converted in 1886, and went to try his vocation as a Cistercian monk, but he still remembered those formative years in uniform. North Africa filled his imagination, and much of his knowledge of North Africa was the military knowledge of a colonialist; he was a child of his age, and felt that the only hope of conversion for the Arabs lay, under God, with the French.

So when his vocation became clear to him - to live the Gospel among the most abandoned peoples of the earth - it was naturally of North Africa that he thought. In order for any Frenchman to plant himself outside the big cities like Algiers, military approval was required. And because of his army contacts and reputation, Charles was perhaps the only Frenchman who could have done what he did. He was the only civilian who would not be viewed as an obstacle and a nuisance. As time passed, he became a much appreciated resource for the army. He became a sort of mascot for them, but not in the sense of an object of derision. Even the officers and men who did not share his religious belief respected his unselfishness and his devotion to duty. They saw him as “one of themselves”. The Government in Paris was deeply anti-Catholic and anti-clerical. But thousands of kilometres from Paris, on the front line of the colonial wars, many of the troops appreciated deeply the presence of an unofficial chaplain, and particularly of a man at once as tough and as caring as Charles de Foucauld. So he spent quite a lot of time with both the officers and the enlisted men; there were times when he was at hand precisely when he was needed, to give the sacraments to soldiers dying in battle. And he was more of an expert in the ways of the desert and its inhabitants than any of the military. He was really unique, and this is why at every stage the army was there to help him.