We continue the narrative from O’Rahilly’s biography which recounts the events of September 5, 1916. Please note: this excerpt reveals the true horror of war, and those who are a bit squeamish may prefer to skip the first coupler of paragraphs.
At last came the expected order to advance at once and hold the front line, the part assigned being Leuze Wood, the scene of much desperate fighting. Fr. Doyle may be left to describe the journey and the scene.
“The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts. I shall spare you gruesome details, but you can picture one s sensations as one felt the ground yield under one s foot, and one sank down through the body of some poor fellow.
“Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark, with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony, or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot of it, was littered with heads or limbs or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon, but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand praying for and forgiving one another. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart.
“We pushed on rapidly through that charnel house, for the stench was fearful, till we stumbled across a sunken road. Here the retreating Germans had evidently made a last desperate stand, but had been caught by our artillery fire. The dead lay in piles, the blue grey uniforms broken by many a khaki-clad body. I saw the ruins of what was evidently the dressing station, judging by the number of bandaged men about; but a shell had found them out even here and swept them all into the net of death.
“A halt for a few minutes gave me the opportunity I was waiting for. I hurried along from group to group, and as I did the men fell on their knees to receive absolution. A few words to give them courage, for no man knew if he would return alive. A God bless and protect you, boys, and I passed on to the next company. As I did, a soldier stepped out of the ranks, caught me by the hand, and said: I am not a Catholic, sir, but I want to thank you for that beautiful prayer. The regiments moved on to the wood, while the doctor and I took up our positions in the dressing station to wait for the wounded. This was a dug-out on the hill facing Leuze Wood, and had been in German occupation the previous afternoon.
“To give you an idea of my position. From where I stood the ground sloped down steeply into a narrow valley, while on the opposite hill lay the wood, half of which the Fusiliers were holding, the Germans occupying the rest; the distance across being so short I could easily follow the movements of our men without a glass.
“Fighting was going on all round, so that I was kept busy, but all the time my thoughts and my heart were with my poor boys in the wood opposite. They had reached it safely, but the Germans somehow had worked round the sides and temporarily cut them off. No food or water could be sent up, while ten slightly wounded men who tried to come back were shot down, one after another. To make matters worse, our own artillery began to shell them, inflicting heavy losses, and though repeated messages were sent back, continued doing so for a long time. It appears the guns had fired so much that they were becoming worn out, making the shells fall 300 yards short.
“Under these circumstances it would be madness to try and reach the wood, but my heart bled for the wounded and dying lying there alone. When dusk came I made up my mind to try and creep through the valley, more especially as the fire had slackened very much, but once again the Providence of God watched over me. As I was setting out I met a sergeant who argued the point with me. ‘You can do little good, Father’, he said, ‘down there in the wood, and will only run a great risk. Wait till night comes and then we shall be able to bring all the wounded up here. Don’t forget that, though we have plenty of officers and to spare, we have only one priest to look after us.’ The poor fellow was so much in earnest I decided to wait a little at least. It was well I did so, for shortly afterwards the Germans opened a terrific bombardment and launched a counter attack on the wood. Some of the Cornwalls, who were holding a corner of the wood, broke and ran, jumping right on top of the Fusiliers. Brave Paddy from the Green Isle stood his ground …. and drove the Germans back with cold steel.
“Meanwhile we on the opposite hill were having a most unpleasant time. A wounded man had reported that the enemy had captured the wood. Communication was broken and Headquarters had no information of what was going on. At that moment an orderly dashed in with the startling news that the Germans were in the valley, and actually climbing our hill. Jerusalem! We non-combatants might easily escape to the rear, but who would protect the wounded? They could not be abandoned. If it were day light the Red Cross would give us protection, but in the darkness of the night the enemy would not think twice about flinging a dozen bombs down the steps of the dug-out. I looked round at the bloodstained walls and shivered. A nice coward, am I not Thank God, the situation was not quite so bad as reported ; our men got the upper hand, and drove back the attack, but that half-hour of suspense will live long in my memory.”
Thanks to a reader who left a comment yesterday to remind me that yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Fr Vincent Capodanno, a military chaplain in the Vietnam War who, just like Fr Doyle, died while rushing out onto the field of battle to bring spiritual and temporal comfort to his men. I do not know much about Fr Capodanno’s spirituality or interior life, but from what I know of his life in the war, it seems almost identical to that of Fr Doyle – total selflessness and a desire to share every hardship with the soldiers in order to serve them and save their souls.
The vocation of the military chaplain is a special and unique one, and one can certainly combine a lively hatred for war with an admiration for the virtues of these chaplains, for they embody the mission of the Church – to bring the salvation of Christ to the ends of the earth, even if that means living, and dying, on a bloody battlefield.
Here is a video tribute to Fr Capodanno, whose experiences in battle so closely resemble those of Fr Doyle.