A hero dies: The 95th anniversary of Fr Doyle’s death

Fr William Doyle SJ
3 March 1873 – 16 August 1917

My Martyrdom for Mary’s Sake.

Darling Mother Mary, in preparation for the glorious martyrdom which I feel assured thou art going to obtain for me, I, thy most unworthy child, on this the first day of thy month, solemnly commence my life of slow martyrdom by earnest hard work and constant self-denial. With my blood I promise thee to keep this resolution, do thou, sweet Mother, assist me and obtain for me the one favour I wish and long for: To die a Jesuit Martyr.

May 1st, 1893.

May God’s will, not mine, be done! Amen.

Fr Doyle kept his part of the bargain – the remaining 24 years of his life were literally a slow martyrdom of “earnest hard work and constant self-denial”. As might be expected, Mary kept her part of the bargain, and won for him the grace of martyrdom on August 16, 1917: 95 years ago today.

This is O’Rahilly’s brief account of Fr Doyle’s death:

Fr. Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attending to the many wounded. Soon after 3 p.m. he made his way back to the Regimental Aid Post which was in charge of a Corporal Raitt, the doctor having gone back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here word came in that an officer of the Dublins had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr. Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private Mclnespie, and a Lieutenant Grant. Some twenty minutes later, at about a quarter to four, Mclnespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: “Fr. Doyle has been killed!” Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then, half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line. Three officers came up at this moment, and Mclnespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantaneously, and hurling Mclnespie violently to the ground. Later in the day some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a Private Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberg Redoubt and covered the bodies with sods and stones.

The book The Cross on the Sword: Catholic Chaplains in the Armed Forces claims that another military chaplain by the name of Fr Fitzmaurice heard Fr Doyle’s confession 15 minutes before his death. If this is true, then Fr Doyle himself had the great grace of confession just moments before death – this is a great gift to one who lost his own life while bringing this sacrament to others.

Of course, Fr Doyle’s body was never found, so we have no physical remains or monuments to him. In this regard, one of the later editions of O’Rahilly’s biography quotes the words of St Ignatius of Antioch which are very fitting:

St Ignatius of Antioch

Entice the wild beasts to become my tomb and leave no trace of my body so that in falling asleep I may be a burden to no one. Then shall I be really a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world will not even see my body.

St Patrick wrote in a similar vein:

St Patrick

I beg of God whom I love to grant me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I be without burial itself, or my corpse be most miserably divided, limb by limb, amongst dogs and fierce beasts, or the birds of the air devour it. I think it most certain that if this happens to me, I shall have gained my soul with my body.

And so it was with Fr Doyle.

How does one sum up someone who lived such a varied and remarkable life as Fr Doyle on this, his anniversary? Perhaps only the words of Christ Himself would do him justice:

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

Thank you Fr Willie for this love that you showed to the wounded soldiers in the Great War and for the inspiring example of your virtues throughout your life.


A song mentioning Fr Doyle

3 thoughts on “A hero dies: The 95th anniversary of Fr Doyle’s death

  1. The Official History states that the Irishmen that day:

    “… had to cross a mile of open ground, chequered with pillboxes and strongpoints. The two divisions selected to lead, the 16th (South Irish) and the 36th (Ulster), were hardly in a fit state for such a task. They had taken over the line only on the 4th August; but, whilst in corps reserve, at least half of their infantry had been continuously employed in the forward area as carrying parties and other duties since the last week in July; they had lived and worked throughout the most trying fortnight in the quagmire of the Hanebeek and Steenbeek valleys, overlooked by German machine-gunners and artillery observers on the opposite spurs, and subjected to a shelling almost as intense as that on the II Corps sector. Casualties and sickness had consequently reduced the battle-strength of the two divisions by one-third, some of the battalions, indeed, being down to half their establishment. The loss of efficiency had been cumulative, and, owing to the need for frequent inter-battalion reliefs, all units had been equally affected.”

    Indeed, Willie Doyle’s battalion of 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers was so badly depleted that it could not operate as a discrete attacking unit. Some men were allocated to other battalions of 48th Infantry Brigade and the remainder came under the command of Major Cowley, including Fr. Doyle. The Official History continues …

    “The waves of assaulting troops were so thin that, in the words of one participant, the operation looked more like a raid than a major operation. Although resistance was met at once from the German strongpoints, two to eight hundred yards ahead, the leading companies, torn and raked by bullets from front and flanks, continued on up the bare shell-pitted slope…. The 48th [Infantry Brigade] was badly cut up by machine guns in Potsdam, Vampir and Borry Farms. Mopping-up parties were so scarce and strung out that the Germans were able to bring out machine guns from these shelters and fire into the backs of the leading men. Even so, observers saw isolated parties arrive within a hundred yards of the German Third Line, their objective.”

    Whilst Major Cowley and his team had edged to the left towards Vampir Farm, 2nd Lieutenants Marlow and Green moved right towards Potsdam, under fire from both sides of the railway line, leaving behind the gun pits housing the Dressing Station, now in charge of Corporal Raitt. The right half worked up the railway, but their movements could not be traced accurately because, although they had few casualties amongst the men, all officers (who had the compasses, maps, watches etc.) died. The War Diary records:

    “2/Lts Marlow and Green & Fr Doyle (chaplain) were killed in a dug-out in front of the Black Line near the railway.”

  2. Father Willie who thought himselve a coward..apeared to be Jesus great hero..in Father Doyle we recognize only Love..love that hurts him..love that killed him..he climbed the Calvariemountain called Frezerberg to bring only Love..in Father Willie Doyle we see Jesus…thank you God for Father Doyle

Leave a Reply