Thoughts for July 17 from Fr Willie Doyle

The reformation of one’s life must be the work of every day. I should take each rule and duty, think how Jesus acted, or would have done, and contrast my conduct with His.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle’s words today are direct and relevant for us all. 

The daily reformation Fr Doyle recommends must be immensely practical. We do not reform our lives in the abstract by imagining great things we would do for God in some hypothetical reality. We must reform our own lives in the practical circumstances in which we live. Fr Doyle gives us the recipe for doing this, by considering the “rule and duty” of each day. 

Fr Doyle himself had to live this daily reformation in the dreadful, gritty reality in which he lived. Here is an excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography, quoting extensively from Fr Doyle’s letters home, detailing how Fr Doyle fulfilled one of his duties – and also one of the corporal works of mercy – by burying the dead. Let us remember that holiness is in the duty of today, whatever its circumstances. It is not to be found in pleasant daydreams about some mythical day when everything goes along smoothly as we would like.

NOTE: Those who may be squeamish about death and gore may want to skip this particular quote.

It was not to be, however, for still another adventure awaited him. On returning, he found that a dead man had been brought in for burial. The cemetery, part of a field, was outside the town in the open country, so exposed to shell and rifle fire that it could not be approached by day. As soon as it was dark we carried the poor fellow out on a stretcher, just as he had fallen, and as quietly as we could began to dig the grave. It was weird. We were standing in front of the German trenches on two sides, though a fair distance away, and every now and then a star-shell went up which we felt certain would reveal our presence to the enemy. I put my ritual in the bottom of my hat and with the aid of an electric torch read the burial service, while the men screened the light with their caps, for a single flash would have turned the machine guns on us. I cannot say if we were seen or not, but all the time bullets came whizzing by, though more than likely stray ones and not aimed at us. Once I had to get the men to lie down as things were rather warm; but somehow I felt quite safe, as if the dead soldier’s guardian angel was sheltering us from all danger, till the poor dust was laid to rest. It was my first war burial though assuredly not my last. May God rest his soul and comfort those left to mourn him.” 

The burials soon became more frequent, and Fr. Doyle had many gruesome experiences. Thus a few days later two bodies fell to bits when lifted off the stretcher and he had to shovel the remains of one poor fellow into the grave, a task which taxed his endurance. On 1st April he had a further vivid experience of the horrors of war: 

“Taking a short cut across country to our lines I found myself on the first battle field of Loos, the place where the French had made their attack. For some reason or other this part of the ground has not been cleared, and it remains more or less as it was the morning after the fight. I had to pick my steps, for numbers of unexploded shells, bombs and grenades lay all round. The ground was littered with broken rifles, torn uniforms, packs, etc., just as the men had flung them aside, charging the German trenches. Almost the first thing I saw was a human head torn from the trunk, though there was no sign of the body. The soldiers had been buried on the spot they fell; that is, if you can call burial, hastily throwing a few shovelfuls of clay on the corpses: there was little time, I fancy, for digging graves, and in war time there is not much thought or sentiment for the slain. As I walked along, I wondered had they made certain each man was really dead. One poor fellow had been buried, surely, before the breath had left his body, for there was every sign of a last struggle and one arm was thrust out from its shroud of clay. A large mound caught my eye. Four pairs of feet were sticking out, one a German, judging by his boots, and three Frenchmen friend and foe are sleeping their long last sleep in peace together. They were decently covered compared with the next I saw; a handful of earth covered the wasted body, but the legs and arms and head were exposed to view. He seemed quite a young lad, with fair, almost golden, hair. An unknown soldier was all the rough wooden cross over him told me about him; but I thought of the sorrowing mother, far away, thinking of her boy who was missing, and hoping against hope that he might one day come back. Thank God, Heaven one day will reunite them both. I found a shovel near at hand, and after a couple of hours stiff work was able to cover the bodies decently, so that on earth at least they might rest in peace.”

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101 years ago today: Fr Doyle’s last homily

Fr Doyle in the pulpit during his last homily, July 1917

Fr Doyle gave his last homily 101 years ago today. Here is Alfred  O’Rahilly’s account of this last sermon, complete with valuable first hand testimony from the famous Fr Frank Browne SJ:

The 48th Brigade was at rest or rather down for a rifle shooting course near St. Omer. The 2nd and 8th Dublins were in and around the little village of St. Martin au Laert about a mile and a half from St. Omer, the 9th Dublins about a mile distant in a country camp, and the R. I. Rifles a little further away. The new Bishop of Arras, Boulogne and St. Omer, Mgr. Julien, was to make his formal entry into Arras on Saturday, 20th July, and to be present next day at the conclusion of the Novena to our Lady of Miracles. Through the instrumentality of Fr. Browne, with the ready compliance of General Hickie, it was arranged that there should be a church parade in honour of the Bishop on Sunday, 15th. About 2,500 men came down. Fr. Browne said Mass and Fr. Doyle preached. The ceremony, which was most impressive and successful, has fortunately been described in a letter of Fr. Browne, which we are allowed to reproduce:

“I arrived at the Cathedral about 11o’clock (says Fr. Browne), and was in despair to find that the Pontifical High Mass was not yet finished. Our people are so punctual and the French so regardless of time-tables that I was sure there would be confusion and delay when our 2,000 Catholics would begin to arrive. But it was not to be. Quietly and wonderfully quickly the Mass ended, and the people went out to watch the Bishop go back in procession to his house close by. I was relieved to see that neither he nor any of the priests unvested. Then Fr. Doyle and I had to try to clear away the hundred or so people who remained and the other hundred or so people who came wandering in for the last Mass which for the day was to be ours. “Make room, please, for the soldiers who are coming” I went round saying to everyone. They moved from the great aisle and got into the side-chapels, leaving the transepts and aisles free. Many refused to do this when with pious exaggeration I said, About 3,000 Irish soldiers are just coming. And lo ! they were coming. Through all the various doors they came, the 9th Dubs, marching in by the great western door, the 8th Dubs, through the beautiful southern door, through which St. Louis was the first to pass just 700 years ago, the 2nd Dubs, coming into the northern aisle and making their way up to the northern transept. Rank after rank the men poured in until the vast nave was one solid mass of khaki with the red caps of General Hickie and his staff and the Brigadiers in front. Then up the long nave at a quick clanking march came the Guard of Honour. Every button of its men, every badge, shone and shone again; their belts were scrubbed till not even the strictest inspection could reveal the slightest stain, and their fixed bayonets only wanted the sun to show how they could flash. Up they came, and with magnificent precision took their places on either side of the altar. I was just leaving the sacristy to begin Mass when I saw the Bishop’s procession arriving. He had promised to come only after the sermon, but here he was at the beginning of the ceremony, making everything complete. Of course, I saw nothing, being engaged in saying Mass, but those who did said it was a wonderful sight. The beautiful altar, standing at the crossing of the transepts and backed by the long arches of the apse and choir, was for the feast surrounded by a lofty throne bearing the statue of our Lady of Miracles. The sides were banked up high with palms; then the Guard of Honour standing rigidly in two lines on either side; lastly the Bishop in his beautiful purple robes on his throne. From the pulpit Fr. Doyle directed the singing of the hymns, and then, after the Gospel, he preached. I knew he could preach, but I had hardly expected that anyone could speak as he spoke then. First of all he referred to the Bishop’s coming, and very, very tactfully spoke of the terrible circumstances of the time. Next he went on to speak of our Lady and the Shrine to which we had come. Gradually the story was unfolded; he spoke wonderfully of the coming of the Old Irish Brigade in their wanderings over the Low Countries. It was here that he touched daringly, but ever so cleverly, on Ireland’s part in the war. Fighting for Ireland and not fighting for Ireland, or rather fighting for Ireland through another. Then he passed on to Daniel O Connell’s time as a schoolboy at St. Omer and his visit to the Shrine. It certainly was very eloquent. Everyone spoke most highly of it afterwards, the men particularly, they were delighted.

“After the sermon Mass went on. At the Sanctus I heard the subdued order, Guard of Honour, shun! There was a click as rifles and feet came to position together. Then as the Bishop came from his throne to kneel before the altar, twelve little boys in scarlet soutanes, with scarlet sashes over their lace surplices, appeared with lighted torches and knelt behind his Lordship. At the second bell came the command, Guard of Honour, slope rifles ! And then as I bent over the Host, I heard, Present arms! There was the quick click, click, click, and silence, till, as I genuflected, from the organ-gallery rang out the loud clear notes of the buglers sounding the General’s Salute.”

At the end of the Mass the Bishop in a neat little speech thanked the men for the great honour they had paid him. He was especially struck, he said, by the fact that most of them had marched a long way (some nearly ten kilometres) to attend, and he asked those of his flock who were present to learn a lesson from the grand spirit and deep faith of the Irish soldiers. The ceremony concluded by a march past, with bands playing, in front of the Episcopal Palace. The Bishop stood on the steps of his house, beaming as he replied to the eyes right of each company as it passed him.

This last sermon of Fr. Doyle will serve as a final proof if such be needed that the man, whose inner life has been portrayed in previous chapters, was no awkward recluse or unpractical pietist. He was full of lovable human qualities; especially conspicuous was his unselfish thoughtfulness which always seemed so natural, so intertwined with playful spontaneity, that one came to take it for granted. He had a wonderful influence over others and knew how to win the human heart because he had learnt the Master’s secret of drawing all to himself. He could, as we have just seen, preach persuasively when occasion demanded; but his real sermon was his own life. And from this pulpit he spoke alike to Protestants and Catholics. “For fifteen months,” writes Dr. C. Buchanan (8th Sept., 1917), ” Fr. Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, so we became fast friends, I acting as medical officer to his first Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger: for this alone his men would have loved him, but he had other sterling qualities, which we all recognised only too well. He was beloved and respected, not only by those of his own Faith, but equally by Protestants, to which denomination I belong. To illustrate this Poor Captain Eaton, before going into action last September, asked Fr. Doyle to do what was needful for him if anything happened to him, as he should feel happier if he had a friend to bury him. Capt. Eaton was one of many whom Fr. Doyle and I placed in their last resting place with a few simple prayers. For his broad-mindedness we loved him. He seldom if ever preached, but he set us a shining example of a Christian life.”

O’Rahilly makes the following remarkable point in a footnote in relation to Fr Doyle’s kindness towards this same Dr Buchanan:

Once when Dr. Buchanan was unwell and there were no blankets to lie upon in the damp dug-out, Fr. Doyle lay flat, face downwards, on the ground, and made the doctor lie upon him.

Modern photo of the Cathedral of St Omer

 

Thoughts for the Nativity of St John the Baptist from Fr Willie Doyle

 

Today the Church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist. The Church only celebrates the birth of Jesus, Mary and St John the Baptist. It is a great testament to the sanctity and importance of St John that he is in this elite group and that he has two feasts – his birthday and his beheading.  

Fr Doyle does not seem to have written about St John very much, but in one letter to his sister, a nun, written on 19th December 1916, he alludes to the similarities between the harshness of his own life and that of St. John’s. The letter is worth quoting in its totality. Two things come across very clearly in this letter – his own natural abhorrence at the nature of his life in the trenches and, secondly, his supernatural joy and acceptance of this cross.

I want to have a little chat with you. But you must promise to keep to yourself what I write to you. Did I ever tell you that my present life was just the one I dreaded most, being from a natural point of view repugnant to me in every way? So when our Blessed Lord sent me to the Front I felt angry with Him for taking me away from a sphere of work where the possibilities, at least, of doing good were so enormous, and giving me a task others could perform much better. It was only after a time that I began to understand that ‘God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts’ and the meaning of it all began to dawn on me. In the first place my life, especially here in the trenches, has become a real hermit’s one, cave and all, a mixture of solitude with a touch of the hardships of a foreign mission. The result has been that God has come into my life in a way He never did before. He has put strange thoughts into my head and given me many lights which I feel have changed my whole outlook upon life. Then I feel, oh, so strongly, that I am going through a kind of noviceship, a sort of spiritual training, for some big work He wants me to do in the future. I feel every day as if spiritual strength and power were growing in my soul. 

This thought of being trained or fitted for God’s work (if I may use the comparison with all reverence) like St. John the Baptist, has filled me with extraordinary joy and made me delight in a life which could not well be much harder. 

Here I am in a bit of a hole in the side of a ditch, so low that I cannot stand upright and have to bend my head and shoulders during Mass — I can tell you my back aches at the end. My only window is the door (without a door) through which the wind blows day and night; and a cold wind it is just now. I was offered a little stove but my ‘Novice Master’ did not want that luxury, for it never came. My home would be fairly dry if I could keep out the damp mists and persuade the drops of water not to trickle from the roof. As a rule I sleep well, though one is often roused to attend some poor fellow who has been hit. Still it is rather reversing the order of things to be glad to get up in the morning to try and get warm; and it is certainly not pleasant to be wakened from sweet dreams by a huge rat burrowing under your pillow or scampering over your face! This has actually happened to me. There is no great luxury in the matter of food, as you may well guess. Recently, owing to someone’s carelessness, or possibly because the bag was made to pay toll on the way up to the trenches, my day’s rations consisted of half a pot of jam and a piece of cheese! 

Through all this, and much in addition, the one thought ever in my mind is the goodness and love of God in choosing me to lead this life, and thus preparing me without a chance of refusal for the work He wants doing. No amount of reading or meditating could have proved to me so convincingly that a life of privation, suffering and sacrifice, accepted lovingly for the love of Jesus, is a life of great joy, and surely of great graces You see, therefore, that I have reasons in abundance for being happy, and I am truly so. Hence you ought to be glad that I have been counted worthy to suffer something for our dear Lord, the better to be prepared to do His work. Ask Him, won’t you, that I may not lose this golden opportunity, but may profit to the full by the graces He is giving me. Every loving wish from my heart for a holy and happy Christmas. Let our gift to the divine Babe be the absolute sacrifice of even our desires, so that His Will alone may be done.

Trailer for Bravery Under Fire out today!!

The trailer for the EWTN docudrama Bravery Under Fire is now available. The programme will be aired on EWTN in August and again in November. Congratulations to Campbell Miller and all others who were involved in the production of this programme which is so important in creating awareness about Fr Doyle.

Please share and spread the news, so that more people can learn about Fr Doyle’s physical and spiritual bravery under fire!

7 June 1917: The Battle of Messiness Ridge (Post 1 of 3 today)

Today we continue with Fr Doyle’s narrative on the battle for Messines Ridge with the events that occurred on June 7 1917. It was a day of devastating losses for the German side. In fact, the explosions underneath the German trenches were the most powerful in history at that time.

Fr Doyle did not glory in this loss of life. We see him today praying for the many thousands of Germans who were about to be killed, and we also see his touching care for Germans prisoners to whom he also ministered. Fr Doyle loved all, and he did not distinguish between Catholic and Protestant, or between friend and enemy. He saw all people as children of God and deserving of respect. We also see his great faith in the Eucharist as he carried the host across the battlefield on that Corpus Christi day, searching for wounded soldiers in need of help.

It wanted half an hour to zero time — the phrase used for the moment of attack. The guns had ceased firing, to give their crews a breathing space before the storm of battle broke; for a moment at least there was peace on earth and a calm which was almost more trying than the previous roar to us who knew what was coming. A prisoner told us that the enemy knew we were about to attack, but did not expect it for another couple of days. I pictured to myself our men, row upon row waiting in the darkness for the word to charge, and on the other side the Germans in their trenches and dug-outs, little thinking that seven huge mines were laid under their feet, needing only a spark to blow them into eternity. The tension of waiting was terrific, the strain almost unbearable. One felt inclined to scream out and send them warning. But all I could do was to stand on top of the trench and give them Absolution, trusting to God’s mercy to speed it so far.

Even now I can scarcely think of the scene which followed without trembling with horror. Punctually to the second at 3.10 a.m. there was a deep muffled roar; the ground in front of where I stood rose up, as if some giant had wakened from his sleep and was bursting his way through the earth’s crust, and then I saw seven huge columns of smoke and flames shoot hundreds of feet into the air, while masses of clay and stones, tons in weight, were hurled about like pebbles. I never before realized what an earthquake was like, for not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards, so that I kept on my feet with difficulty.

Later on I examined one of the mine craters, an appalling sight, for I knew that many a brave man, torn and burnt by the explosion, lay buried there. If you expand very considerably the old Dalkey quarry near the railway and dig it twice as deep, you will have some idea of the size of one of our mine craters, twenty of which were blown along the front of our attack.

Before the debris of the mines had begun to fall to earth, the ‘wild Irish’ were over the top of the trenches and on the enemy, though it seemed certain they must be killed to a man by the falling avalanche of clay. Even a stolid English Colonel standing near was moved to enthusiasm: ‘My God!’ he said, ‘what soldiers! They fear neither man nor devil!’ Why should they? They had made their peace with God. He had given them His own Sacred Body to eat that morning, and they were going out now to face death, as only Irish Catholic lads can do, confident of victory and cheered by the thought that the reward of Heaven was theirs. Nothing could stop such a rush, and so fast was the advance that the leading files actually ran into the barrage of our own guns, and had to retire.

Meanwhile hell itself seemed to have been let loose. With the roar of the mines came the deafening crash of our guns, hundreds of them. This much I can say: never before, even in this war, have so many batteries especially of heavy pieces been concentrated on one objective, and how the Germans were able to put up the resistance they did was a marvel to everybody, for our shells fell like hail stones. In a few moments they took up the challenge, and soon things on our side became warm and lively.

In a short time the wounded began to come in, and a number of German prisoners, many of them wounded, also. I must confess my heart goes out to these unfortunate soldiers, whose sufferings have been terrific. I can’t share the general sentiment that ‘they deserve what they get and one better.’ For after all are they not children of the same loving Saviour Who said: ‘Whatever you do to one of these My least ones you do it to Me.’ I try to show them any little kindness I can, getting them a drink, taking off the boots from smashed and bleeding feet, or helping to dress their wounds, and more than once I have seen the eyes of these rough men fill with tears as I bent over them, or felt my hand squeezed in gratitude.

My men did not go over in the first wave; they were held in reserve to move up as soon as the first objective was taken, hold the position and resist any counter attack. Most of them were waiting behind a thick sand-bag wall not far from the advanced dressing station where I was, which enabled me to keep an eye upon them.

The shells were coming over thick and fast now, and at last, what I expected and feared happened. A big crump hit the wall fair and square, blew three men into the field 50 yards away, and buried five others who were in a small dug-out. For a moment I hesitated, for the horrible sight fairly knocked the ‘starch’ out of me and a couple more crumps did not help to restore my courage.

I climbed over the trench and ran across the open, as abject a coward as ever walked on two legs, till I reached the three dying men, and then the ‘perfect trust’ came back to me and I felt no fear. A few seconds sufficed to absolve and anoint my poor boys, and I jumped to my feet, only to go down on my face faster than I got up, as an express train from Berlin roared by.

The five buried men were calling for help, but the others standing around seemed paralysed with fear, all save one sergeant, whose language was worthy of the occasion and rose to a noble height of sublimity. He was working like a Trojan, tearing the sand-bags aside, and welcomed my help with a mingled blessing and curse. The others joined in with pick and shovel, digging and pulling, till the sweat streamed from our faces, and the blood from our hands, but we got three of the buried men out alive, the other two had been killed by the explosion.

Once again I had evidence of the immense confidence our men have in the priest. It was quite evident they were rapidly becoming demoralized, as the best of troops will who have to remain inactive under heavy shell fire. Little groups were running from place to place for greater shelter, and the officers seemed to have lost control. I walked along the line of men, crouching behind the sand-bag wall, and was amused to see the ripple of smiles light up the terrified lads’ faces, (so many are mere boys) as I went by. By the time I got back again the men were laughing and chatting as if all danger was miles away, for quite unintentionally, I had given them courage by walking along without my gas mask or steel helmet, both of which I had forgotten in my hurry.

When the regiment moved forward, the Doctor and I went with it. By this time the ‘impregnable’ ridge was in our hands and the enemy retreating down the far side. I spent the rest of that memorable day wandering over the battle field looking for the wounded, and had the happiness of helping many a poor chap, for shells were flying about on all sides.

As I knew there was no chance of saying Mass next morning, I had taken the precaution of bringing several Consecrated Particles with me, so that I should not be deprived of Holy Communion. It was the Feast of Corpus Christi and I thought of the many processions of the Blessed Sacrament which were being held at that moment all over the world. Surely there never was a stranger one than mine that day, as I carried the God of Consolation in my unworthy arms over the blood-stained battle field. There was no music to welcome His coming save the scream of a passing shell; the flowers that strewed His path were the broken, bleeding bodies of those for whom He had once died; and the only Altar of Repose He could find was the heart of one who was working for Him alone, striving in a feeble way to make Him some return for all His love and goodness.

I shall make no attempt to describe the battlefield. Thank God, our casualties were extraordinarily light, but there was not a yard of ground on which a shell had not pitched, which made getting about very laborious, sliding down one crater and climbing up the next, and also increased the difficulty of finding the wounded.

Providence certainly directed my steps on two occasions at least. I came across one young soldier horribly mutilated, all his intestines hanging out, but quite conscious and able to speak to me. He lived long enough to receive the Last Sacraments, and died in peace. Later on in the evening I was going in a certain direction when something made me turn back when I saw in the distance a man being carried on a stretcher. He belonged to the artillery, and had no chance of seeing a priest for a long time, but he must have been a good lad, for Mary did not forget him ‘at the hour of his death.’

The things I remember best of that day of twenty-four hours’ work are: the sweltering heat, a devouring thirst which comes from the excitement of battle, physical weakness from want of food, and a weariness and footsoreness which I trust will pay a little at least of St. Peter’s heavy score against me.

COMMENT: I hesitate to make any further comments on Fr Doyle’s extraordinary and detailed description of these events which occurred 100 years ago today. However, some further context may be helpful.

This particular assault was a significant moment in the war. The explosions were, at that point, the most powerful in history, and they could be heard in London and even in Ireland. 1 million pounds of explosives were used – the mines took 18 months to dig and prepare. A movie called “Beneath Hill 60” has even been made about the preparation of one of the mines by Australian soldiers. The short video below gives some indication of what happened that day. The quality is not perfect – whoever uploaded it to YouTube simply recorded their TV with a video camera – but it features interviews with veterans and it is worth watching.

 

Carole Hope,the author of the superb biography of Fr Doyle entitled Worshipper and Worshipped (review here) has written the following historical background note about this battle.

Fr. Doyle’s 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers were one of the four battalions forming 48th Infantry Brigade. That brigade did not attack in the first wave, but were held in reserve in case of counter-attack, then to push forward and consolidate. Each brigade, including those in reserve, had four clear objective lines, which were colour coded on their maps as red, blue, green and black. However, there was also a final, “final” objective, the mauve line, to which, if possible, they should push out strong outposts to assist the fresh brigade coming from behind. The part of the Mauve Line which formed 8th Dubs’ objective was Sonen Farm to Leg Copse, east of Wytschaete village. The 8th Dubs had to wait until 11.30 a.m. that morning of 7th June 1917, over eight hours after the mines exploded, before orders were received from 48th Brigade HQ to advance.

At 11.55am under the scorching Mid-day sun and heat of battle, the 8th Dubs moved forward. Captain G.E. Cowley advanced on the left with his ‘B’ Company; ‘C’ Company were on the right under 2nd/Lt B.W. Hughes, whilst‘A’ Company were at centre under 2nd /Lt F.M. Kiernan (less two platoons allotted to the Trench Mortar and Machine Gun sections, for carrying ammunition.) In reserve were ‘D’ Company commanded by Captain C.F. Healy. Good progress was made despite heavy shelling from 4.2’s and 5.9’s and casualties were slight. At 2pm ‘A’ Company reached its objective on the mauve line and established a post in front. Several prisoners were captured in dug-outs, four77mm field guns and two machine guns taken. Ten minutes later ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies also reached the objective and started consolidating. At 6pm the 33rd Infantry Brigade followed up and passed through on to their position.

6 June 1917

Today we have a small excerpt from one of Fr Doyle’s letters which describes his preparations for the Battle of Messines. It was a truly devastating engagement. We shall read Fr Doyle’s description of the events tomorrow, though in preparation you may be interested in reading a description of the attack here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Messines

For today, we will focus on Fr Doyle’s spiritual preparations.  Here is Fr Doyle’s description of this night in 1917, which also happened to be the night before the feast of Corpus Christi:

On Wednesday night, June 6th we moved off, so as to be in position for the attack at 3.10 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Feast of Corpus Christ! I got to the little temporary chapel at the rear of our trenches soon after twelve, and tried to get a few moments’ sleep before beginning Mass at one, a hopeless task, you may imagine, as the guns had gone raging mad. I could not help thinking would this be my last Mass, though I really never had any doubt the good God would continue to protect me in the future as He had done in the past, and I was quite content to leave myself in His hands, since He knows what is best for us all.

Alfred O’Rahilly describes the rest of the preparation in these words:

It was 11.50 when Fr. Browne and Fr. Doyle reached the little sandbag chapel which they had used when holding the line. There they lay down for an hour’s rest on two stretchers borrowed from the huge pile waiting nearby for the morrow’s bloody work. Leaving their servant lying fast asleep through sheer exhaustion, the two chaplains got up at 1 a.m. and prepared the altar. Fr. Doyle said Mass first and was served by Fr Browne, who, not having yet made his Last Vows, renewed his Vows at the Mass, as he always did at home on Corpus Christi. It was surely a weird and solemn Renovation. While Fr. Browne unvested after his own Mass and packed up the things, Fr. Doyle and his servant (now awake) prepared breakfast. At 2.30 the two chaplains put on their battle kit and made for their respective aid posts. Up near the front line, along the hedgerows, the battalions of the 48th Brigade were massed in support position. Their task was not to attack, but to follow up and consolidate and, should need arise, to help the leading brigades. “As I walked up to my post at the advanced dressing station,” says Fr. Doyle, “I prayed for that peace of a perfect trust which seems to be so pleasing to our Lord.”

5 June 1917

I have not told them at home, and do not want them to know but we have had a terrible time for the last three weeks, constant and increasing shelling, with many wonderful escapes. We are on the eve of a tremendous battle and the danger will be very great. Sometimes I think God wishes the actual sacrifice of my life — the offering of it was made long ago. But if so, that almost useless life will be given most joyfully. I feel wonderful peace and confidence in leaving myself absolutely in God’s Hands. Only I know it would not be right, I would like never to take shelter from bursting shells; and up to a few days ago, till ordered by the Colonel, I never wore a steel helmet. I want to give myself absolutely to Him to do with me just as He pleases, to strike or kill me, as He wishes, trying to go along bravely and truthfully, looking up into His loving Face, for surely He knows best. On the other hand I have the conviction, growing stronger every day, that nothing serious will befall me; a wound would be joy, ‘to shed one’s blood for Jesus,’ when I would gladly empty my veins for Him. Otherwise why would He impress so strongly on my mind that this ‘novitiate’ out here is only the preparation for my real life’s work? Why does He put so many schemes and plans into my mind? Why has He mapped out several little books, one of which will do great good, I believe, because every word will be His? Then the possibilities of the Holy Childhood have gripped me, and His little perishing souls, 10,000 a day, seem ever to be pleading for a sight of Jesus! Yet I have laid even the desire to do these things at His Feet, and I strive might and main to have no will but His, for this pleases Him most. I am very calm and trustful in face of the awful storm so soon to burst. But could it be otherwise, when He is ever with me and when I know that should I fall, it will only be into His Arms of love?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this letter on 5 June 1917. It is not immediately clear who he wrote to, but it matches the style he used when writing to his sister who was a nun with the Sisters of Mercy. The difference in style between these types of letters and those more humorous and comforting ones that he wrote to his father is noticeable.

Fr Doyle was completely abandoned to God’s will, accepting even death if He should wish it. Yet his own assessment of his future was mistaken – at this stage he felt that he would survive the war, but in reality he had only two and a half months left until he fell into those “arms of love”.

Fr Doyle’s death robbed us of those “several little books” that he had mapped out, although we do have one of them – his famous booklet Scruples and their Treatment. But on the other hand, if he had survived the war he would almost certainly have destroyed his private notes and diaries. It is these precious writings that allow us to see this master spiritual tactician at work in his own life. We are all the richer for that.