Thoughts for August 7 from Fr Willie Doyle

A German gas attack seen from the air
A German gas attack seen from the air

Today’s account, from 7 August 1917, gives us some small insight into the horrors of the war, especially when it involved the use of poisoned gas. Of note also is the way in which Fr Doyle accepts spending extra days at the front to cover for a priest who never showed up to relieve him. He doesn’t grumble or complain, and in fact is glad he stayed in order to help those who died.

No Mass this morning, thanks, I suppose, to the kindly attention of the evil one. I reached my chapel of the previous morning only to find that a big 9.5 inch shell had landed on the top of it during the day; went away feeling very grateful I had not been inside at the time, but had to abandon all thought of Mass as no shelter could be found from the heavy rain.

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.

Another chaplain was appointed, but for reasons best known to himself he did not take over his battalion and let them go into the fight alone. There was nothing for it but to remain on and do his work, and glad I was I did so, for many a man went down that night, the majority of whom I was able to anoint.

Word reached me about mid-night that a party of men had been caught by shell fire nearly a mile away. I dashed off in the darkness, this time hugging my helmet as the enemy was firing gas shells. A moment’s pause to absolve a couple of dying men, and then I reached the group of smashed and bleeding bodies, most of them still breathing. The first thing I saw almost unnerved me; a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorus flame, smoking horribly in the darkness. He was the first victim I had seen of the new gas the Germans are using, a fresh horror in this awful war. The poor lad recognized me, I anointed him on a little spot of unburnt flesh, not a little nervously, as the place was reeking with gas, gave him a drink which he begged for so earnestly, and then hastened to the others.

Back again to the aid-post for stretchers and help to carry in the wounded, while all the time the shells are coming down like hail. Good God! how can any human thing live in this? As I hurry back I hear that two men have been hit twenty yards away. I am with them in a moment, splashing through mud and water. A quick absolution and the last rites of the Church. A flash from a gun shows me that the poor boy in my arms is my own servant, or rather one who took the place of my orderly while he was away, a wonderfully good and pious lad.

By the time we reached the first party, all were dead, most of them with charred hands and faces. One man with a pulverized leg was still living. I saw him off to hospital made as comfortable as could be, but I could not help thinking of his torture as the stretcher jolted over the rough ground and up and down the shell holes.

Little rest that night, for the Germans simply pelted us with gas shells of every description, which, however, thanks to our new helmets, did no harm.

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