13 January 1917: Fr Doyle gives the last rites to dying soldiers

100 years ago tonight Fr Doyle was awoken to absolve some dying soldiers. This is his description of the event, sent home in one of his regular updates to his family. Two things really stick out. Firstly, his dedication to his family, and to keeping them informed and easing their fears. This would have taken some time to write, and probably not in very comfortable circumstances. He could easily have taken some much needed rest instead of writing this letter. Secondly we see his dedication to his priestly duty. He faced some danger in trying to reach the soldiers and came under significant fire as he tried to reach them, but for him that danger was of no consequence, for as he said himself: “what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench”.

‘Two men badly wounded in the firing line, Sir.’ I was fast asleep, snugly tucked up in my blankets, dreaming a pleasant dream of something ‘hot.’ One always dreams of lovely hot things at night in the trenches, sitting at a warm fire at home, or of huge piles of food and drink, but always steaming hot.

‘You will need to be quick, Father, to find them alive.’ By this time I had grasped the fact that someone was calling me, that some poor dying man needed help, that perhaps a soul was in danger. In a few seconds I had pulled on my big boots, I know I should want them in the mud and wet, jumped into my waterproof and darted down the trench.

It was just 2 a.m., bitterly cold and snowing hard. God help the poor fellows holding the tumbled in ditch which is called the Front Line, standing there wet and more than frozen, hour after hour; but more than all God help and strengthen the victims of this war, the wounded soldier with his torn and bleeding body lying out in this awful biting cold, praying for the help that seems so slow in coming.

The first part of my journey was easy enough, except that the snow made it difficult to keep one’s feet, and I began to realise that one cannot run as easily at 44 as one could at 24.

All went well till I reached a certain part of the trench, which rejoices in the attractive name of ‘Suicide Corner,’ from the fact that the Germans have a machine gun trained on it and at intervals during the night pump a shower of lead on that spot in the hope of knocking out some chance passer-by.

It was just my luck that as I came near this place I heard the ‘Rat-tat- tat’ of the beastly gun and the whiz of the passing bullets. It was not a pleasant prospect to run the gauntlet and skip through the bullets ‘made in Germany’ but what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench? I ducked my head and ‘chivvied’ down that trench. (I do not know what this word means, but I believe it implies terrific speed and breathless excitement.)

In the dark and at that distance I was quite invisible to the German gunner, but I think the Old Boy himself was turning the handle that night, but luckily for me was out of practice; the cold I expect upset his aim. Away on my left as I ran I could hear in the stillness of the night the grinding ‘Rat-tat-tat’ of the machine gun, for all the world as if a hundred German carpenters were driving nails into my coffin, while overhead ‘crack, crack, whiz, whiz’ went the bullets tearing one after another for fear they would be too late.

It was a novel experience to have a whole machine gun all to yourself, but it is a pleasure I am not particularly anxious to repeat. At the same time I do not think I was really in any great danger as judging by the sound the leaden shower was going too high.

The guns make all movement by night very unpleasant. Both sides have any number of them firing all night, from time to time at fixed points, for example cross-roads, ‘dumps,’ light railways etc., everywhere in fact where men are likely to be. Yet in spite of the fact that each fires about 10,000 rounds each night and bullets are flying about like mosquitos, it is very rare indeed that anyone is hit, weeks at a time without a casualty and scarcely never if one takes the ordinary precautions.

The first man was ‘in extremis’ when I reached him. I did all I could for him, commended his soul to the merciful God as he had only a few minutes to live, and hurried on to find the other wounded boy.

A journey along the Firing Line in the day time is not an easy matter, but in the darkness of the night it baffles description. A star shell from time to time gave me light and I made good progress, only to end in blackness and a pool or a shell hole full of mud and water.

I found the dying lad, he was not much more, so tightly jammed into a corner of the trench it was almost impossible to get him out. Both legs were smashed, one in two or three places, so his chances of life were small as there were other injuries as well. What a harrowing picture that scene would have made. A splendid young soldier, married only a month they told me, lying there pale and motionless in the mud and water with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. The stretcher bearers hard at work binding up as well as they may his broken limbs; round about a group of silent Tommies looking on and wondering when will their turn come. Peace for a moment seems to have taken possession of the battlefield; not a sound save the deep boom of some far off gun and the stifled moans of the dying boy, while as if anxious to hide the scene, nature drops her soft mantle of snow on the living and dead alike. Then while every head is bared come the solemn words of absolution, ‘Ego te absolve,’ I absolve thee from thy sins. Depart Christian soul and may the Lord Jesus Christ receive thee with a smiling and benign countenance. Amen.

Oh! surely the gentle Saviour did receive with open arms the brave lad who had laid down his life for Him, and as I turned away I felt happy in the thought that his soul was already safe in that land where ‘God will wipe away all sorrow from our eyes, for weeping and mourning shall be no more’.

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