Thoughts about Fr Willie Doyle for August 2

Photo of an Irish soldier taken by Fr Browne

We have no more reports from Fr Doyle until August 5th, and we shall take up his narrative once again on that date. What we do know about these days is that Fr Doyle and his men had a few days rest before facing the trauma of battle once again.

This might be an appropriate place to give the following excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography which includes an excerpt of a letter from Fr Browne, who served as a military chaplain with Fr Doyle:

After the death of Fr Knapp (31st July), Fr. Browne was appointed chaplain to the 2nd Irish Guards. Hence from 2nd August till his death Fr. Doyle had the four Battalions to look after, as no other priest had come to the 48th Brigade. A certain priest had indeed been appointed as Fr. Browne’s successor by Fr. Rawlinson. But by some error the order was brought to a namesake, who, on arriving at Poperinghe and discovering the mistake, absolutely refused to have anything to do with the battle. This will explain why Fr. Doyle had such hard work and why he would not allow himself any rest or relief. On 15th August, the day before Fr. Doyle s death, Fr. Browne wrote to his brother (Rev. W. F Browne, C.C.):

“Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

“No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

“I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: ‘Little Fr. Doyle (they all call him that, more in affection than anything else) deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery.’

“Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again. ‘

“I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.”

COMMENT: As far as I can tell (and I am open to correction on this), Fr Browne was the famous photographer who luckily, or providentially, escaped death on the Titanic by disembarking at Cobh, the last port of call for the famous ship. He took many of the last photographs of the ship before it sank. If they are not one and the same person, then there were two Fr F. M. Browne’s who were both Jesuit military chaplains involved in more or less the same battles – an unlikely scenario. If any readers this can confirm this I would be very grateful.

One can read more about Fr Browne here.

In any event, once again we get a glimpse at Fr Doyle’s tireless efforts to serve others, and the consequent positive effect this had on everyone around him. But let us not forget: Fr Doyle was no cartoon superhero. His capacity to serve others, and to endure suffering, was acquired, with God’s grace, through many years of hard training, denying himself even in little things.

Of such things are heroes – and saints – made.

Fr Francis Browne SJ

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