18 March 1917

The events described in Fr Doyle’s letter below occurred on 18 March 1917 (Passion Sunday in that year). The statue Fr Doyle refers to was a specially commissioned statue of Our Lady of Victories, paid for by members of the 16th Irish Division, constructed in honour of the dead of the Division. Then statue was due to be erected in the church of Noeux-les-Mines, in the district of Loos where the Division was stationed for some time. It avoided narrowly avoided destruction, unlike the rest of the church…

On Passion Sunday, as I told you, the men arrived with the box and asked him where he wished the statue of Our Lady of Victories to be erected. As it was only a quarter of an hour before High Mass he told them to come back later and then turned into his own garden a few yards away to finish his office. The Mass servers were playing outside the church, which at that moment, was empty, the sacristan having finished his preparations had lately left, when a 15 inch shell fired from a German naval gun about the distance of Skerries from where you are crashed through the wall and exploded in the Sanctuary. As a rule shells burst on impact, but this being an armour piercing shell, came through the wall like paper and exploded inside, with results impossible to describe.

When I went into the ruin I exclaimed to Mons le Curé ‘surely you have had fifty shells in here!’ ‘No’, he answered, ‘only one. The havoc you see is the work of a single shot.’ Not a trace of the beautiful altar where I so often offered the Holy Sacrifice remains. The carved stalls, the altar rails, benches and chairs are smashed into splinters, the roof and parts of the walls are stripped of plaster. I have never seen such a scene of desolation and destruction, the explanation being that the explosion took place inside the church and the liberated gases rushed round like ten thousand mad animals, rending and tearing all they met, seeking for an exit.

The building was nearly as large as Kingstown church, but from end to end it is a perfect ruin. Pictures, organ, statues, all are gone, the door of the sacristy blown in and the vestments torn to ribbons, while not a particle of the beautiful stained glass, which filled the twenty large windows, remains now.

There is just one ray of comfort in this sad destruction, not a life was lost. Ten minutes later the church would have been crowded with civilians and soldiers; few of them, probably, would have been touched by bits of the shell, but not a soul could have been left alive by the shock. I have seen on the battlefield men, sometimes a row at a time, standing or leaning against a trench, untouched by bullet or shrapnel, simply killed by the force of an exploding shell. You can picture the result in a strong enclosed building.

Here, as in so many other places, God again showed His power in a wonderful way. Quite near the altar stood a magnificent Calvary; one arm of the Crucified is torn off, but otherwise neither the figure nor the cross is injured. Poor St John got badly smashed up and Saint Mary Magdalen has a bullet through her heart, the very thing she would have asked for, but our Blessed Lady, with the exception of a slight scratch on one hand ‘stands by the cross’ absolutely untouched, in the midst of all the havoc and ruin.

The shell you will remember fell in the sanctuary, blowing the altar to bits. After much search and digging among the debris the tabernacle was found, whole and entire; inside the ciborium,or sacred vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament, was standing upright, not even the cover having been knocked off and the Consecrated particles in perfect order, though the tabernacle must have been blown to the ceiling.

Letter 2: 5 March 1916

On the way I noticed that heavy firing was going on ahead, but it was only when I reached a bend in the road that I realized the enemy were actually shelling the very spot I had to pass. Some soldiers stopped me, saying it was dangerous to go on. At the moment I was wondering what had become of the side of a vacant house which had suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke, and I was painfully aware of the proximity of high explosive shells. 

Here was a fix! I knew my regiment was waiting in the village for Mass, and also that half of them were going to the trenches that afternoon for the first time; if I did not turn up they would lose Confession and Holy Communion, but the only way to reach them was by the shell-swept road. What really decided me was the thought that I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, and I felt that, having our Lord Himself with me, no harm could possibly come to me. I mounted the bicycle and faced the music. I don’t want you to think me very brave and courageous, for I confess I felt horribly afraid; it was my baptism of fire, and one needs to grow accustomed to the sound of bursting shells. Just then I was wishing my regiment in Jericho and every German gun at the bottom of the Red Sea or any other hot place. 

Call it a miracle if you will, but the moment I turned the corner the guns ceased firing, and not a shell fell till I was safely in the village Church. My confidence in God’s protection was not misplaced. Naturally I did not know this was going to happen, and it was anything but pleasant riding down the last stretch of road, listening for the scream of the coming shell. Have you ever had a nightmare in which you were pursued by ten mad bulls, while the faster you tried to run, the more your feet stuck in the mud? These were just my feelings as I pedalled down that blessed road which seemed to grow longer and longer the further I went. 

At last I turned the corner, reached the Church, and had just begun Mass when down came the hail of shells once more. One or two must have burst very close, judging by the way the walls shook, but I felt quite happy and quite ready to be blown from the altar, for I saw a fine plump Frenchwoman just behind me; she might have been killed, but I was quite safe! 

I mention this little adventure as I think it will console you, as it has consoled me, showing that all the good prayers are not in vain, and that this is a happy omen of God’s loving protection from all dangers. I have just heard that one, at least, of the men to whom I gave Holy Communion that morning was killed the same night in the trenches.

17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 104 years ago today. Here are his sentiments on this occasion, as captured in a letter written to his father just half an hour before departure.

I set out to face to future with a certain amount of trepidation…Strange to say, I have not the smallest anxiety about the possible dangers of warfare, not so great for me, as for others, but I do dread the horrors of the battlefield which all say no words can picture. Still it is a consolation to know what a comfort the mere presence of a priest is to both officers and men alike. They are one and all going to face their duty with the joy of heart which comes with a clear conscience; many of them had not been to confession for over twenty years.

14 February 1916

We are having desperate work these days. The good God is simply pouring out His grace on these poor fellows and reconciling them before they die. It has to be quick work, no time for ‘trimmings.’ I have positively a pain in my arm giving Absolution and Communions in the morning. I was able to manage Exposition all day last Sunday, which bought in many an erring sheep. I realise that from this on my life will be a martyrdom in a way I never thought of. I have got to love my brave lads almost like my own brothers and sisters. They are so wild and reckless, and at the same time so full of faith and love of God and His Blessed Mother. Yet soon I shall have to see the majority of them blown to bits, torn and mangled out of shape. Our Brigade is leaving tomorrow for France. I am waiting till Friday night, so as to get in all the confessions I can. Do pray I may be able to say daily Mass. I shall carry everything necessary on my back, and so may manage the Holy Sacrifice in the train.

2 February 1917

Today, however, I was able to offer the Holy Sacrifice in the trenches, my chapel being a dug-out capable of holding ten or a dozen comfortably, but as my congregation numbered forty-six the vacant space was small. How they all managed to squeeze in I cannot say. There was no question of kneeling down, the men simply stood, silently and reverently round the little improvised altar of ammunition boxes; glad as one of them quaintly expressed it ‘glad to have a say in it.’ Surely Our Lord must have been glad also, for every one of the forty-six received Holy Communion and went back to their posts happy at heart and strengthened to face the hardships of these days and nights of cold.

The same afternoon, as I was coming back from my round of the Front Line trench I was caught in a rather heavy ‘strafe’ of the Germans. The point they were shelling was some little distance further on, but quite close to my way home and as splinters were flying about rather abundantly I thought it well to get under cover.

Accordingly, I crawled into a hole in which there were already six men and judging by the look on their faces no one could have been more welcome. ‘Come in Father’, one of them cried, ‘we’re safe now, anyhow.’

Poor fellows, they have such simple, strong faith and reverence for the priest that they would not mind, I think, if all the shells in Prussialand came tumbling into the trench; ‘Isn’t the priest of God with us, what more do you want?’

16 January 1917

‘Pork & Beans’ is quite a standing joke, though not a pleasant one, at the Front.

A committee of food experts, having discovered that lentil beans contain one and a half times more nourishment and flesh forming properties, than a corresponding weight of meat, promptly decided that, from time to time, Tommy should be fed on this delicious product of Mother Earth, and thereupon, I am sure, promptly sat themselves down to a roast leg of mutton, to show that if they were experts they were no means faddists.

The method of procedure is this: fill a can with a pound of small beans; on top place a piece of fat, not larger than a shilling; seal up carefully and wrap in a coloured label on which is printed (and so must be true) the startling intelligence that ‘five beans are of more value than a piece of meat.’ Then allow a pig to rub his sides against the packing case, and vóila, you have a sustaining dinner ration of ‘Pork & Beans.’

The first time you sit down to this repast you experience the most frightful temptation to vain-glory and pride as being the equals of the ancient hermits, and then you feel ‘orrible empty, so that even granting that a tin of beans is of greater value than a rib of beef, we are all ready to vote, and vote solid every time, for the old fashioned steak.

14 January 1916

I want you to know what I went through by volunteering for the Front. God made me feel with absolute certainty – I suppose to increase the merit of the offering – that I shall be killed. The struggle was hard, for I did not want to die; not indeed that i am afraid of death, but the thought that I could never again do more for God or suffer for Him in heaven made the sacrifice too bitter for words.