12 June 1917

Fr Doyle wrote about the following episode in a letter written on this day in 1917. The event happened at some point in the preceding weeks. Fr Doyle records many emotionally moving events in his letters home from the war, but I can think of few that are more poignant than this.

There were many little touching incidents during these days, one especially I shall not easily forget. When the men had left the field after the evening devotions I noticed a group of three young boys, brothers I think, still kneeling saying another rosary. They knew it was probably their last meeting on earth and they seemed to cling to one another for mutual comfort and strength and instinctively turned to the Blessed Mother to help them in their hour of need. There they knelt as if they were alone and unobserved, their hands clasped and faces turned towards Heaven, with such a look of beseeching earnestness that the ‘Mother of Mercy’ must have heard their prayer ‘Holy Mary pray for us now at the hour of our death. Amen.’

7 June 1917 – the Battle of Messines 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 man made explosions 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 104 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.

Carole Hope , the author of the superb military 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.”

Thoughts for June 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

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.

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 TreatmentBut 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.

Thoughts for June 4 from Fr Willie Doyle

I had not the heart to wake up the poor nuns, and after all when one is fast asleep, is not a hard plank just as soft as a feather bed? You see I am becoming a bit of a philosopher! The next morning, I had Mass in a field close to the camp. I wish you could have seen the men as they knelt in a hollow square round the improvised altar, brilliant sunshine overhead, and the soft green of spring about them. They looked so happy, poor lads, as I went down one line and up the other, giving them the Bread of the Strong, and I could not help thinking of another scene long ago when our Lord made the multitude sit down on the grass, and fed them miraculously with the seven loaves. Before I got to the end of my 700 Communions I felt wondrous pity for the twelve Apostles, for they must have been jolly tired also.

COMMENT: The incident described here took place in the early days of June 1917. Fr Doyle was meant to sleep in a convent (he was looking forward to what he described as “an unblushing gluttonous feast of blankets” after 16 days in the front line), but due to a mistake on the part of his orderly, he arrived late at the convent and the nuns were already asleep. Fr Doyle seems to have reached a point where everything is seen as coming from the hand of God – he was happy with the hard plank of wood, because when you’re asleep, it’s all the same really! How many of us would take this setback with such calm acceptance, especially after 16 days of intense pressure and danger at the front line? This incident reminds uf of another, even more heroic one: on one occasion, when the medical doctor was ill, and there was no dry ground to sleep on in the dig out, Fr Doyle lay face down on the damp ground and made the doctor sleep on his back….

In today’s quote we also see Fr Doyle’s simple, cheerful humanity. This quote comes from one of Fr Doyle’s letters home to his father. His humorous comment at how tired the Apostles must have been when Jesus fed the five thousand is so typical of him – these little asides must surely have brought a smile to his father’s face. His constant solicitude for his father so many miles away, when he himself thought so little of his own extreme danger, is one of Fr Doyle’s most charming characteristics.

29 May 1917

Fr Doyle wrote the following letter to his father on 29 May 1917 – 104 years ago today. In this letter he outlines what a “raiding party” is. He firstly gives a humorous example of what a raiding party could be like (using a witty example) followed by a very serious account of an actual raiding party he recently witnessed. 

In today’s excerpts we once again see Fr Doyle’s own wit as well as his love for his father in the effort he went to to write out this humorous scene:

As you might like to know how the ‘game of raiding your neighbour’ is played, a sort of novelty for your next garden party, I shall give you a few particulars. You dig two trenches about 100 yards apart and fill one with the enemy, who are well provided with hand bombs, machine guns etc. Some night when you think they won’t expect your coming, a party of your men climb over the top of their parapet and start to crawl a là Red Indian towards the foe. It is exciting work for star shells are going up every few minutes and lighting up No Man’s Land, during which time your men lie on their faces motionless, probably cursing the inventor of the said star-shells, or Very Lights, and praying for Egyptian darkness. It is part of the game that if the enemy see you, they promptly paste you with bombs (which hurt) or give you a shower bath of leaden bullets. For this reason, when the game is played at garden parties it is recommended to place husbands in one trench and wives in the other and to oppose P.P.’s or Rev. Mothers by their curates and communities; in this way accuracy of aim is wonderfully improved and the casualties delightfully high, which is a desideratum in these days, when the supper hour arrives.

And becoming more serious Fr Doyle recounts the following episode:

Having reached a certain distance the raiders wait for the artillery barrage to open. That is a sight never to be forgotten. At a fixed moment every gun opens fire simultaneously with a crash that shakes the Heavens and for five minutes the enemy’s trench, from end to end, is a line of fire lit up by the hundreds of bursting shells. Then the barrage lifts like a curtain to the second trench, to keep back reinforcements, while the attackers dash through the cut barbed wire, over into the trench, sometimes to meet a stout opposition in spite of the awful shelling, sometimes only finding the bleeding remains of what was once a brave man. Dug-outs are bombed if their occupants won’t come out, papers and maps secured, prisoners captured if possible, to be questioned later for information, which seems to be freely and foolishly given, and then the raiders, carrying their own dead and wounded get back as quickly as they can to their own lines, for by this time the enemy artillery have opened fire and things are warm and lively.

Thoughts for May 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

One German prisoner, badly wounded in the leg, was brought in. He knew only a few words of English, but spoke French fluently. I try to do all I can for the unfortunate prisoners, as sometimes not much sympathy is shown them, and they have evidently been drilled into believing that we promptly roast and eat them alive. I gave him a drink, made him as comfortable as possible, and then seeing a rosary in his pocket, asked him was he a Catholic. ‘I am a Catholic priest,’ I said, ‘and you need not have any fear’.

‘Ah’, he replied, ‘you are a true priest’. He gave me his home address in Germany, and asked me to write to his parents. ‘Poor father and mother will be uneasy,’ he said, as his eyes filled with tears. ‘O my God, how I am suffering, but I offer it all up to You’. I hope to get a letter through by means of the Swiss Red Cross, which will be a comfort to his anxious parents, who seem good pious souls.

COMMENT: This incident occurred on this day in 1917. It demonstrates Fr Doyle’s kindness to everyone he met, even to one who was probably firing shells at him just a few days previously. There are many other recorded instances of Fr Doyle’s kindness to German prisoners. He fed them, tended to their wounds, found them something to eat or drink.

In this way he reflected his Master who told us to love our enemies and that whatever we do for others should be considered as done to Christ also.

22 May 1917

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s Confessions, shortly before he opened fire and a couple of well- directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder whether the Sacraments were ever administered under stranger circumstances. Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow, recently joined who has not ‘knelt to the priest’, as the men quaintly say, for many a day, trying to make his confession. I make short work of that for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near and I want to give him absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while outside, the ground rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells – big chaps some of them – I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house. 

As soon as I got the chance I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God no one was killed, or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we should breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I heard the scream of another shell…It was then I realised my good fortune. There were two ways to my dug-out and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way and it was well I did for the shell pitched in the other trench and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by, but instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head, but otherwise not injuring him. I found another string of men awaiting my return for Confession and Holy Communion, in fact quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s ‘H.E.’ or High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of H.E. I shall require when giving my next retreat. 

22 May 1916

You will be sorry to hear that I have lost the good nuns and my little Chapel. I call it ‘mine’ as it was associated with so many stirring events in my life at the front. I was on my way there the famous Sunday morning when the shells miraculously stopped falling on the road I had to pass. I was going to the same little chapel when the bombardment and gas attack of 27 April began, and several times I have said Mass at the Altar, which is now in fragments. A few mornings ago a big shell hit the chapel, burst inside, and literally blew it to bits, not a brick being left standing on another. It was the most complete bit of destructive work I have ever seen. I remember the poor nuns telling me that they had become so accustomed to the shelling they did not bother taking shelter in the cellar. For some reason or other (God’s providence over them no doubt) they had gone down to the lower regions this morning and so escaped without a scratch. I am very sorry to leave them, for we had become fast friends and more than once they had bound up my wounds, internal ones be it noted, pouring in rolls and coffee, hot and strong. I think I never met four pluckier women – three times they were sent away by the military authorities and as often came back. I should not be a bit surprised to find them one morning camped once more on the ruins of the convent.

28 April: Aftermath of the Hulloch gas attack

 

We continue today with an excerpt from the original letter detailing some of the work Fr Doyle had to undertake towards the end of April, 1916. After these stressful days were ended, Fr Doyle was given a few days rest, and he was able to remove and change his clothes for the first time in over two weeks! Such was his exhaustion from serving the soldiers that he slept for 13 hours straight on his first night of rest!

On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.