This section of the site will collect testimonies about the life and virtues of Fr Doyle. I envisage two main sections, one publishing tributes paid to him after death, another recounting favours granted through his intercession. Most of these favours will be reprinted from archival sources. However, if there are new favours, PLEASE email with details to firstname.lastname@example.org
HE NEVER KNEW FEAR: GENERAL HICKIE WRITING TO A FRIEND ON 18th NOVEMBER. 1917.
Fr. Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here. He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of that line, and appeared to know no fatigue, he never knew fear. He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge. . . . He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier, and by myself. Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous reward is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in- Chief s Despatch. . . . I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men ; and even among these, Fr. Doyle stood out.
GENERAL HICKIE IN A LETTER TO FR DOYLE’S FATHER, 15TH DECEMBER 1917
“I could not say too much about your son. He was loved and reverenced by us all; his gallantry, self-sacrifice, and devotion to duty were all so well known and recognized. I think that his was the most wonderful character that I have ever known.”
LT.-COL. H. R. STIRKE (COMMANDING THE 8th Dublins) on 13th SEPTEMBER 1917
He was one of the finest fellows I ever met, utterly fearless, always with a cheery word on his lips, and ever ready to go out and attend the wounded and dying under the heaviest fire. He was genuinely loved by everyone, and thoroughly deserved the unstinted praise he got from all ranks for his rare pluck and devotion to duty.
FROM THE DAILY EXPRESS, 22nd AUGUST 1917
The Orangemen will not forget a certain Roman Catholic chaplain who lies in a soldier s grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle field with bullets whining about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them Absolution, walking with death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with reverence and a kind of awe until a shell burst near him and he was killed. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head and went again into the storm. He had been with his boys at Ginchy and through other times of stress, and he would not desert them in their agony. They remember him as a saint. they speak his name with tears.
HE DIDN’T KNOW THE MEANING OF FEAR
One of the most moving tributes to Fr Doyle came in a letter to the “Glasgow Weekly News” from a Belfast Presbyterian soldier who wrote that:
“Father Doyle was a good deal among us. We couldn’t possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He didn’t know the meaning of fear and he didn’t know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment. If he risked his life in looking after Ulster Protestant soldiers once he did it a hundred times in the last few days. … The Ulstermen felt his loss more keenly than anybody. …
SERGEANT T. FLYNN, DUBLIN FUSILIERS, IN A LETTER WRITTEN HOME AND PUBLISHED IN THE IRISH NEWS, 20th AUGUST, 1917
We had the misfortune to lose our chaplain, Fr. Doyle, the other day. He was a real saint and would never leave his men, and it was really marvellous to see him burying dead soldiers under terrible shell fire. He did not know what fear was, and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike, idolised him. I went to Confession to him and received Holy Communion from him a day or two before he was killed, and I feel terribly sorry after him. He loved the men and spent every hour of his time looking after them, and when we were having a fairly hot time in the trenches he would bring us up boxes of cigarettes and cheer us up. The men would do anything he asked them, and I am sure we will never get another padre like him. Everybody says that he has earned the V.C. many times over, and I can vouch for it myself from what I have seen him do many a time. He was asked not to go into action with the battalion, but he would not stop behind, and I am confident that no braver or holier man ever fell in battle than he.
By the end of July 1917 Fr. Willie Doyle had found himself ministering to all four battalions of the 48th Brigade. Fr. Francis Browne, a fellow Jesuit, had been transferred to the Irish Guards and a clerical error had resulted in his being replaced by the wrong man. This priest, when he discovered the mistake, refused point blank to go to Ypres. All the while Doyle’s fame was spreading. Unlike many chaplains, he seemed to spend most of his time in the front line. He was revered by the men of the 16th, and, despite his religious beliefs, greatly respected and admired by the overwhelmingly Protestant 36th Division. Although a natural optimist, occasionally black despair showed through in his diaries. Just a few days before the Battle of Langemarck he wrote about some of the men of his Brigade whom he had seen die:
“My poor brave boys! They are lying now out on the battle-field; some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die . . . Do you wonder . . . that many a time the tears gather in my eyes, as I think of those who are gone?”
On the night of 6 August his life was spared by a typically unselfish decision to help out at a Dressing Station. A shell burst at the entrance to a blockhouse he’d been occupying and set off several boxes of Very lights which caused horrendous burns to the occupants. His diaries are full of stories of similar fortunate escapes. His very mobility providing some sort of guarantee of safety.
As the German shells found their marks during the extended front-line spell of the 16th much of his time was spent ministering to the wounded and burying the dead. He wrote on 7 August of reaching a group of smashed and bleeding bodies after one shell had done its work.
“The first thing I saw almost unnerved me; a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorous flame, smoking horribly in the darkness. He was the first victim I had seen of the new gas the Germans are using, a fresh horror in this awful war. … The poor lad recognized me, I anointed him on a little spot of unburnt flesh, not a little nervously as the place was reeking with gas, gave him a drink, which he begged for so earnestly and then hastened to the others.”
Later that night two more men were hit, Doyle cradled one of them in the darkness as he died, until a flash of gunfire revealed that the young dying soldier was his own servant. Doyle’s empathy with the men in the line is clear from his writing, he suffered for them and he suffered with them. His inability to harden himself and set aside his own natural feelings of sympathy for the plight of others must have made his own torment even more intense.
The 16th Division was devastated by Doyle’s death. His courage, apparent invulnerability, his energy and his compassion had been an inspiration for all of the many thousands who encountered him. Capt. Healy of the 8th Dublins, who remembered Doyle arriving regularly with sweets and cigarettes for the men, wrote ‘If I had gone through the thousandth part of what Fr. Doyle did, or if I had run a hundredth part of the risks he ran, I would have been dead long ago.’ Sgt. T. Flynn wrote to the “ Irish News”:
“He did not know what fear was and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike idolized him … Everybody says that he has earned the VC many times over, and I can vouch for it myself from what I have seen him do many a time.”