Thoughts for September 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

The above image was published in an Irish newspaper at the end of 1916. The priest is unidentified, but we can well imagine Fr Doyle in this situation. The picture represents a scene from 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.

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 96 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.


One thought on “Thoughts for September 3 from Fr Willie Doyle

  1. Yes, it was a common way of referring to the Irish troops. It originated as follows and I also include below my theory about the picture:

    In 1689 Brigadier Patrick Sarsfield went to Ireland with ex-King James II to plot to overthrow the protestant King William of Orange, with the help of King Loius XIV of France. This was thwarted and Sarsfield went into exile in France and the service of Louis XIV, who made him a Lieutenant-General. Some twelve thousand Irish troops, accompanied by wives and children, went with him and this event became known as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese.’ Irish regiments now formed a distinctive entity within the mainly Catholic armies of the Continent. It was not long before Sarsfield was back in action, fighting for France in Flanders. He was fatally wounded at the battle of Landen on 19 August 1693 and whilst in his death throes he apparently lamented “Would that this was for Ireland”. It was the concept of an Irish Brigade, taking inspiration from the “Wild Geese” serving in continental armies, which two hundred years later John Redmond wanted to apply to a similar force serving with the British Army in the Great War. However, whilst a distinctly southern Irish Division, the 16th, was created containing three brigades, the division’s first commander was a Protestant, Sir Lawrence Parsons, and the majority of officers were Anglo-Irish Protestants.

    I would guess the picture depicts, somewhat fancifully, one of the attacking units of the Battle of Guillemont, 47th Brigade of 16th (Irish) Division and Fr. S.T. Wrafter (known as Joe). Here is an extract from Tom Johnstone’s book Orange, Green and Khaki referring to the eve of going into battle:

    “The 47th Brigade rested at Carnoy for the night. The valley seemed to become a fairyland of twinkling lights from the campfires of units going into and coming out of the line. Father Joe Wrafter gave general absolution. As the men prayed, the noise of battle could be heard and with it occasional snatches of plaintive songs …”

Leave a Reply