This is Fr Doyle’s detailed description of his work as military chaplain on Sunday 19 March 1916.
I started at seven in the morning by giving Holy Communion to the men whose Confessions I had heard the previous evening, a goodly number I am glad to say. This was followed by a number of Confessions in French for the townspeople and some French soldiers. I am quite ready to face any language at the present moment. This brought me up to nine, when my men had Mass Parade.
By chance the whole Regiment were in the village which meant of course that the Church would not hold them, so I had arranged for Mass in the open. The spot I selected was a large courtyard in front of the school whereby hangs a tale. Armed with the Mayor’s permission I approached the schoolmaster for his sanction, and I must say found him most obliging and very gracious, even helping to get things ready. It was only afterwards that I discovered that this man was a red-hot anti-clerical, anti everything that was gpod in fact, quite a bad lot, so that my request was about the same as asking the Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Belfast for permission to have Mass in his hall! He was so staggered, I suppose, by my innocent request that he could not find words to refuse. But the good folk of the town are wild with delight and immensely tickled by the idea of Mass in the porch of his school above all people ; needless to say, they have rubbed it into him well.
I had never celebrated Mass in the open before, and I think the men were as much impressed as I was. It was a glorious morning with just a sufficient spice of danger to give the necessary warlike touch to the picture by the presence of a German aeroplane scouting near at hand. I was a wee bit anxious lest a bomb might come down in the middle of the men, but I fancy our unwelcome visitor had quite enough to do, dodging the shells from our guns which kept booming all during Mass; besides I felt confident that for once our guardian angels would do their duty and protect us all till Mass was over.
When I finished breakfast, I found a big number of men waiting for Confession. I gave them Communion as well, though they were not fasting, as they were going to the trenches that evening and being in danger of death could receive the Blessed Sacrament as Viaticum. It was the last Communion for many poor fellows who, I trust, are praying for me in Heaven now.
Having polished off all who came to the Church, I made a raid on the men’s billets, and spent a few hours in stables, barns, in fact anywhere, shriving the remainder who gladly availed themselves of the chance of settling up accounts before they started for the front. The harvest, thank God, was good and consoling. Just before they marched at six in the evening, I gave the whole regiment the Catholics, at least a General Absolution. So the men went off in the best of spirits, light of heart with the joy of a good conscience. ‘ Good-bye, Father,’one shouted, ‘we are ready to meet the devil himself now’ which I trust he did.
I dined with the two transport officers who bring up the rations and ammunition to the soldiers and then mounted my horse and rode up to Headquarters at the communication trenches. I have a good old beast of a horse, quiet but with plenty of pace, who simply turns up her nose at a bursting shell with supreme contempt. All went well till suddenly six of our guns, hidden by the roadside (they seemed to me to be in the middle of the road judging by the noise) went off with a bang. This was not playing the game, and ‘Flunkibrandos’ (the horse’s name) stopped dead, or rather reversed engines and began to go astern. I tried to think of all the manoeuvre, and was devoutly wishing I had a bridle tied to her tail, for ‘Flunki’ backed and backed until she pulled up with a bump against a brick wall which the Germans had kindly spared – one of the few, it must be confessed, left in that town, when she sailed ahead again as if nothing had happened. I am bringing home a brick of that wall, for if it had not been there I certainly should be half way across Germany now.
My work done I mounted again and made for home. It was rather weird riding past the shattered houses in the dark, with the ping of a stray bullet to make you uncomfortable, while every few minutes a brilliant star- shell would burst overhead and the guns spat viciously at each other. An officer told me in the early days of the war our star-shells were a miserable failure, and when at last we got the right thing, the Germans greeted their first appearance with a great cheer; the war has its humorous as well as its tragic side. I reached my billet and tumbled in just as the clock struck midnight.