Today we continue the narrative and consider the events of September 4, 1916.
Next morning there was a short march over the brow of a hill and down into a valley still nearer to the front line. It was a great change from the trench life of the past six months, since at Loos for days one never saw a soul overground and all guns were carefully hidden But here there were scores and hundreds of cannon of all shapes and sizes, standing out boldly in the fields and “roaring as if they had swallowed a dish of uncooked shells.” Amid this infernal din and never-ending roar and crash of bursting shells, men and horses moved about as if there were no war. In this valley of death Fr. Doyle s men had their first casualties and he himself had a very narrow escape which is best described in his own words.
“I was standing about 100 yards away watching a party of my men crossing the valley, when I saw the earth under their feet open and the twenty men disappear in a cloud of smoke, while a column of stones and clay was shot a couple of hundred feet into the air. A big German shell by the merest chance had landed in the middle of the party. I rushed down the slope, getting a most unmerciful whack between the shoulders, probably from a falling stone, as it did not wound me, but it was no time to think of one’s safety. I gave them all a General Absolution, scraped the clay from the faces of a couple of buried men who were not wounded, and then anointed as many of the poor lads as I could reach. Two of them had no faces to anoint and others were ten feet under the clay, but a few were living still. By this time half a dozen volunteers had run up and were digging the buried men out. War may be horrible, but it certainly brings out the best side of a man’s character; over and over again I have seen men risking their lives to help or save a comrade, and these brave fellows knew the risk they were taking, for when a German shell falls in a certain place, you clear as quickly as you can since several more are pretty certain to land close. It was a case of duty for me, but real courage for them. We dug like demons for our lad’s lives and our own, to tell the truth, for every few minutes another iron pill from a Krupp gun would come tearing down the valley, making our very hearts leap into our mouths. More than once we were well sprinkled with clay and stones, but the cup of cold water promise was well kept, and not one of the party received a scratch. We got three buried men out alive, not much the worse for their trying experience, but so thoroughly had the shell done its work that there was not a single wounded man in the rest of the party; all had gone to a better land. As I walked back I nearly shared the fate of my boys, but somehow escaped again, and pulled out two more lads who were only buried up to the waist and uninjured. Meanwhile the regiment had been ordered back to a safer position on the hill, and we were able to breathe once more.”
The men’s resting place that night consisted of some open shell holes. “To make matters worse,” writes Fr. Doyle “we were posted fifteen yards in front of two batteries of field guns, while on our right a little further off were half a dozen huge sixty-pounders; not once during the whole night did these guns cease firing.” This proximity not only contributed an ear-splitting din but added considerably to the men’s risk owing to the occasional premature bursting of the shells. In spite of these discomforts and the torrential downpour of rain, the men slept out of sheer weariness. “I could not help thinking,” says Fr. Doyle, “of Him who often had nowhere to lay His head, and it helped me to resemble Him a little.”
Today is also the anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Fr Vincent Capodanno, a military chaplain in the Vietnam War who, just like Fr Doyle, died while rushing out onto the field of battle to bring spiritual and temporal comfort to his men. He died in 1967. I do not know much about Fr Capodanno’s spirituality or interior life, but from what I know of his life in the war, it seems almost identical to that of Fr Doyle – total selflessness and a desire to share every hardship with the soldiers in order to serve them and save their souls.
The vocation of the military chaplain is a special and unique one, and one can certainly combine a lively hatred for war with an admiration for the virtues of these chaplains, for they embody the mission of the Church – to bring the salvation of Christ to the ends of the earth, even if that means living, and dying, on a bloody battlefield.