The following quote from one of Fr Doyle’s letters recounts some of his war time adventures on 23 May 1917, 100 years ago today. What shines out for us on this occasion is Fr Doyle’s naturalness, his dedication to providing the sacraments to the soldiers and, as always, his calm courage – I’m not sure that many of us would sum up these events by saying “there was really little danger”…
I had been along the front line as usual to give the men a General Absolution which they are almost as anxious to receive for the comfort it will be for their friends at home, should they fall, as for themselves. I was coming down to the advanced dressing station, when I learned that a small party had ‘gone over the top’ on our right, though I had been told the raid was only from the left. When I got to the spot I found they had all gone and were lying well out in No Man’s Land. It was a case of Mahomet and the mountain once more. The poor ‘mountain’ could not come back, though they were just longing to, but the prophet could go out, could he not? So Mahomet rolled over the top of the sandbags into a friendly shell hole, and started to crawl on his hands and knees and stomach towards the German trenches. Mahomet, being only a prophet, was allowed to use bad language, of which privilege he availed himself, so report goes, to the full, for the ground was covered with bits of broken barbed wire, shell splinters, nettles, etc., etc., and the poor prophet on his penitential pilgrimage left behind him much honest sweat and not a few drops of blood.
That was a strange scene! A group of men lying on their faces, waiting for certain death to come to some of them, whispering a fervent act of contrition, and God’s priest, feeling mighty uncomfortable and wishing he were safely in bed a thousand miles away, raising his hand in Absolution over the prostrate figures. One boy, some little distance off, thinking the Absolution had not reached him, knelt bolt upright, and made an act of contrition you could have heard in Berlin, nearly giving the whole show away and drawing the enemy’s fire.
There was really little danger, as shell holes were plentiful, but not a little consolation when I buried the dead next day to think that none of them had died without Absolution. I was more afraid getting back into our own trenches; for sentries, seeing a man coming from the direction of No Man’s Land, do not bother much about asking questions and object to nocturnal visitors.