I stumbled across the above image by accident a few weeks ago. It was published in an Irish newspaper at the end of 1916. The priest is unidentified, but could it be Fr Doyle? This thought occurred to me not just because it was an Irish military chaplain, but because of the date depicted – 2nd September 1916. Fr Doyle and his men had to suddenly march to the front one night in September 1916 alright, but it was on the evening of the 3rd and not of the 2nd. I am also not sure what “the Irish brigade” in the description at the bottom of the picture refers to; perhaps that was just a convenient way of describing the Irish troops.
In any event it matters little whether the artist back in 1916 intended this image to depict Fr Doyle (who in any event would not have been that well known). What we do know is that this was a typical scene and that it was typical of what happened on this day 94 years ago.
Before we recount the events of 3 September 1916, let us read Fr Doyle’s reflection on his experiences in the Battle of the Somme that month. Writing to his father later in September 1916, he had this to say:
“I have been through the most terrible experience of my whole life, in comparison with which all that I have witnessed or suffered since my arrival in France seems of little consequence; a time of such awful horror that I believe if the good God had not helped me powerfully by His grace I could never have endured it. To sum up all in one word, for the past week I have been living literally in hell, amid sights and scenes and dangers enough to test the courage of the bravest; but through it all my confidence and trust in our Blessed Lord s protection never wavered, for I felt that somehow, even if it needed a miracle, He would bring me safe through the furnace of tribulation. I was hit three times, on the last occasion by a piece of shell big enough to have taken off half my leg, but wonderful to relate I did not receive a wound or scratch there is some advantage, you see, in having a good thick skin! As you can imagine, I am pretty well worn out and exhausted, rather shaken by the terrific strain of those days and nights without any real sleep or repose, with nerves tingling, ever on the jump, like the rest of us; but it is all over now; we are well behind the firing line on our way at last for a good long rest, which report says will be enjoyed close to the sea.”
Now for the events of 94 years ago today from Fr O’Rahilly’s biography:
Each morning Fr. Doyle said Mass in the open and gave Holy Communion to hundreds of the men. “I wish you could have seen them kneeling there before the whole camp, recollected and prayerful a grand profession surely of the faith that is in them. More than one non-Catholic was touched by it; and it made many a one, I am sure, turn to God in the hour of need.” On the evening of Sunday, September 3, just as they were sitting down to dinner, spread on a pile of empty shell boxes, rgent orders reached the 16th Division to march in ten minutes.
“There was only time to grab a slice of bread and hack off a piece of meat before rushing to get one’s kit. As luck would have it I had had nothing to eat since the morning and was famished, but there was nothing for it but to tighten one’s belt and look happy”. There are occasions when even the world can appreciate Jesuit obedience! After a couple of hours tramp a halt was called and an order came to stock all impedimenta kits, packs, blankets, etc., by the side of the road. Fr. Doyle, it is almost needless to say, held on to his Mass things, though to his great sorrow for five days he was unable to offer the Holy Sacrifice “the biggest privation of the whole campaign.”
The night was spent without covering or blankets, sitting on the ground.
Tomorrow we shall pick up from this point, with some of Fr Doyle’s typical close shaves with death.
Let us also remember that today is the feast of St Gregory the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church.
Here is a video about him from Fr James Kubicki SJ