Fr Browne’s War

RTE has just aired an excellent documentary about the heroic Fr Frank Browne SJ. Fr Browne spent several months with Fr Doyle, and the two of them had great esteem for each other. 

You can read about Fr Browne’s military service here.

And Fr Doyle’s relationship with Fr Browne here.

The programme can be viewed at this site (it will be available for a few weeks). The entire programme is worth watching; Fr Doyle features on and off from 29 minutes 30 seconds until 35 minutes 20 seconds. 

RTE also showed this photograph of Fr Doyle standing right beside the Servant of God Fr John Sullivan (as far as I can make out it is Fr Sullivan). Fr Doyle looks quite young, and it may well have been taken around the time when the two men were ordained together in July 1907.

Fr Doyle and Sullivan 

Fr Browne and Fr Doyle held each other in mutual esteem

RTE television in Ireland is airing an important documentary this evening about Fr Frank Browne SJ.

This documentary is important for at least two reasons. Firstly, it provides a more complete picture of Fr Browne’s life. He is of course justifiably well known for his photography. However, there was a lot more to Fr Browne than this, and tonight’s documentary will allow many people to learn of Fr Browne’s courage and love for others. 

Secondly, a documentary about Fr Browne’s war service will show us what a Christian is meant to be like. We are meant to love others and serve others, even when it is not pleasant to do so. In a context in which priests are sometimes held in low esteem because of the crimes of some, it is important to redress the balance by showing genuine, good examples of heroic love and service. It is amazing that men like Fr Fr Doyle, Fr Browne, as well as other priests, many of them Jesuits, volunteered to help the poor soldiers in this war. These priests deserve to be remembered for their generous service to others.

With this in mind, it might be opportune to highlight the high degree of respect that existed between Fr Doyle and Fr Browne, who worked together for several months in 1917.

 Fr Browne and Fr Doyle used to relieve each other at the front line while they were both with the 48th Infantry Brigade, and would hear each other’s confessions whenever they swapped over. Here is Fr Browne’s description of this arrangement:

During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days. I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away. He knew how I hated it — and I did not hate it half as much as he did. We used generally to confess each other before leaving. We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.

However, Fr Browne was appointed chaplain to the Irish Guards on August 2 1917, but due to a mix up his replacement never showed up. This meant that Fr Doyle had double the work with no rest and was the only chaplain to 4 Battalions from August 2 to his death on August 16, and that during some of the worst days of battle. Fr Doyle commented on this loss of Fr Browne’s company in these terms:

The Battalion went out to-day for three days’ rest, but I remained behind. Fr. Browne has gone back to the Irish Guards. He is a tremendous loss, not only to myself personally, but to the whole Brigade where he did magnificent work and made a host of friends. And so I was left alone.

Here is some of Fr Browne’s testimony about Fr Doyle, written on August 15 1917, just a day before Fr Doyle’s death:

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.

Fr Browne was also there for Fr Doyle’s last homily – Fr Browne said Mass and Fr Doyle preached at the Mass in late July 1917 in front of 2,500 Irish soldiers in the church at St. Omer in France. Here is Fr Browne’s account of Fr Doyle’s homily:

From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O’Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

When Fr Browne heard of Fr Doyle’s death, he wrote the following in a letter on August 20: 

All during these last months he was my greatest help, and to his saintly advice, and still more to his saintly example, I owe everything I felt and did. With him, as with others of us, his bravery was no mere physical show-off. He was afraid and felt fear deeply, how deeply few can realise. And yet the last word said of him to me by the Adjutant of the Royal Irish Rifles in answer to my question, ‘I hope you are taking care of Fr. Doyle?’, was, ‘He is as fond of the shells as ever.’ His one idea was to do God’s work with the men, to make them saints. How he worked and how he prayed for this! Fine weather and foul he was always thinking of them and what he could do for them. In the cold winter he would not use the stove I bought for our dug-out. He scoffed at the idea as making it ‘stuffy’ – and that when the thermometer was fifteen to twenty degrees below zero, the coldest ever known in living memory here.

And how he loathed it all, the life and everything it implied! And yet nobody suspected it. God’s Will was his law. And to all who remonstrated, ‘Must I not be about the Lord’s business?’ was his laughing answer in act and deed and not merely in word. May he rest in peace — it seems superfluous to pray for him.

I am told by some Jesuits (but have no documentary evidence of this), that Fr Browne retained his high esteem for Fr Doyle right to the end of his days, often telling stories about him. 

Heroic individuals like Fr Browne, Fr Doyle, and so many others, deserve our respect. 


Guest post: Fr Doyle and Fr Frank Browne

In advance of this evening’s programme on Irish television about Fr Frank Browne’s heroic service in the First World War, I have invited Carole Hope to contribute a guest post on Fr Doyle and Fr Browne’s relationship. Carole is a military historian who has written a new biography of Fr Doyle entitled Worshipper and Worshipped. This excellent book is the definitive guide to Fr Doyle’s military career, and can be bought here

Worshipper and Worshipped

Here is Carole’s post:

Fr Frank Browne was a Jesuit priest who served as a military chaplain during World War One and was awarded the Military Cross and Bar (i.e. second MC).  He was a colleague and friend of Fr Willie Doyle for nearly eight months between December 1916 and August 1917, when they both had spiritual charge of battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Fr Frank Browne is well known for his Titanic connection and unique collection of photographs he took before disembarking at Cobh.  The documentary tonight seeks to redress the balance between the fame of a few days compared to three years during which time he also photographed his surroundings on the Western Front.  The name Fr Frank Browne is fairly well known within the WW1 interest community, but invariably it is associated with his service with the Irish Guards.  His service with Royal Dublin Fusiliers, alongside Fr Doyle, is often overlooked, yet he was awarded his first Military Cross for actions with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Whilst researching my book, Worshipper and Worshipped, about Fr Willie Doyle, I looked at the War Office files for both priests held at the National Archives in Kew, south-west London.  Fr Frank Browne signed a contract for duty as temporary Chaplain to the Forces on 17th February 1916 and was appointed for duty with the Irish Guards.  Seven months later, in September, he was struck in the lower face by a piece of shell casing, which was surgically removed but he endured post-operative problems of an abscess, difficulties in opening his mouth and could only take soft foodstuffs.  His personal file notes that the wound was very severe.  His period of convalescence lasted until the middle of December 1916, when he reported for further duty and embarked at Folkestone on 19th, finding himself attached to Fr Willie Doyle’s 48th Infantry Brigade in the Messines area of Belgium south of Ypres.

Like any large organisation an army is made up of many components, of which an Infantry Brigade is one and likewise an Infantry Brigade consisted (at that time) of four smaller units i.e. battalions.  Fr Doyle already had spiritual charge of two of the battalions of 48th Infantry Brigade, whilst Fr Browne arrived to take charge of the other two.  Fr Browne’s first meeting with Fr Doyle was in a trench dug-out, when he came up with his battalions, 2nd and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who were relieving Fr Doyle’s 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 7th Royal Irish Rifles. 

The four battalions were rotated between front line trenches facing No-Man’s-Land, support trenches further back and then for periods of rest and training back further still away from the guns, where the men lived in hutted encampments and the chaplains had billets in the convent at Locre.  Fr Browne and Fr Doyle and their flock also spent two periods of time in the peaceful region of Pas de Calais, for specialist training manoeuvres, and it is during the second period that they conducted a special service for some 2,000 Royal Dublin Fusiliers in St Omer Cathedral on 15th July 1917.  This in itself is indicative of the closeness and effectiveness of their working relationship.

Between 23rd December 1916 and early August 1917 Fr Browne and Fr Doyle formed a close friendship as well as working relationship, which is clearly evident from personal letters written by both priests.  The Remembering Fr Doyle Blog has quoted from them many times, but the following quote from Fr Browne bears repeating and sums up both their personal relationship and their dedication to duty:

“During our whole time there we relieved each other in this way every eight days.  I remember how decent Fr. Willie used to be, coming up early on the relief days, before his Battalion came up, in order that I might get away.  He knew how I hated it – and I did not hate it half as much as he did.  We used generally to confess to each other before leaving.  We were very exact about waiting for each other, so that I do not think the (48th) Brigade was ever without a priest in the line.”

Fr Browne was transferred back to the Irish Guards early in August 1917, just prior to the start of another offensive during the Battle of Third Ypres.  The Irish Guards were going out of the line, having been part of the first attack of 31st July, whilst the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were to attack on 16th August.  There was no one to replace Fr Browne and he was so concerned about the foul conditions in which the Royal Dublin Fusiliers had to work in, and the fact that Fr Doyle had to cover all four battalions, that he managed to get back to Ypres to visit on 15th August 1917.  He shared the vast outpouring of grief at the news of Fr Doyle’s death on 16th August, which is recorded in several of his letters.

Fr Browne saw out the war with the Irish Guards, being wounded at least one more time, as well as being awarded another Military Cross.  I doubt if he forged a closer relationship with any other colleague than Fr Doyle.

Thoughts for July 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

"When one has put in a long day of hard work...the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant".
“When one has put in a long day of hard work…the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant”.

From the last letter of Fr Doyle to his father describing the events of July 30, 1917, 97 years ago today:

For the past week we have been moving steadily up to the Front once more to face the hardships and horrors of another big push, which report says is to be the biggest effort since the War began. The blood-stained Ypres battle field is to be the centre of the fight, with our left wing running down to the Belgian coast from which it is hoped to drive the enemy and, perhaps, force him by a turning movement to fall back very far.

The preparations are on a colossal scale, the mass of men and guns enormous. Success is certain our Generals tell us, but I cannot help wondering what are the plans of the Great Leader, and what the result will be when He has issued His orders. This much is certain: the fight will be a desperate one, for our foe is not only brave, but clever and cunning, as we have learned to our cost.

Mass in the open this morning under a drizzling rain was a trying if edifying experience. Colonel, officers and men knelt on the wet grass with the water trickling off them, while a happy if somewhat damp chaplain moved from rank to rank giving every man Holy Communion. Poor fellows: with all their faults God must love them dearly for their simple faith and love of their religion, and for the confident way in which they turn to Him for help in the hour of trial.

One of my converts, received into the Church last night, made his First Holy Communion this morning under circumstances he will not easily forget. I see in the paper that 13,000 soldiers and officers have become Catholics since the War began, but I should say this number is much below the mark. Ireland’s missionaries, the light-hearted lads who shoulder a rifle and swing along the muddy roads, have taught many a man more religion, by their silent example, than he ever dreamed of before.

Many a time one’s heart grows sick to think how few will ever see home and country again, for their pluck and daring have marked them down for the positions which only the Celtic dash can take: a post of honour, no doubt, but it means slaughter as well.

We moved off at 10 p.m., a welcome hour in one way, as it means marching in the cool of the night instead of sweating under a blazing sun. Still when one has put in a long day of hard work, and legs and body are pretty well tired out already, the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant.

Perhaps we can all learn today from the ability of the Irish soldiers to be missionaries just by their example. In a world that thinks it knows it all and no longer wants to listen to the Church, it is our example of cheerfulness and charity that will win souls. It was true of the early Christians and it remains true for us today.