‘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.
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.
103 years ago tonight Fr Doyle was awoken to absolve some dying soldiers. This is his description of the event, sent home in one of his regular updates to his family. Two things really stick out. Firstly, his dedication to his family, and to keeping them informed and easing their fears. This would have taken some time to write, and probably not in very comfortable circumstances. He could easily have taken some much needed rest instead of writing this letter. Secondly we see his dedication to his priestly duty. He faced some danger in trying to reach the soldiers and came under significant fire as he tried to reach them, but for him that danger was of no consequence, for as he said himself: “what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench”.
‘Two men badly wounded in the firing line, Sir.’ I was fast asleep, snugly tucked up in my blankets, dreaming a pleasant dream of something ‘hot.’ One always dreams of lovely hot things at night in the trenches, sitting at a warm fire at home, or of huge piles of food and drink, but always steaming hot.
‘You will need to be quick, Father, to find them alive.’ By this time I had grasped the fact that someone was calling me, that some poor dying man needed help, that perhaps a soul was in danger. In a few seconds I had pulled on my big boots, I know I should want them in the mud and wet, jumped into my waterproof and darted down the trench.
It was just 2 a.m., bitterly cold and snowing hard. God help the poor fellows holding the tumbled in ditch which is called the Front Line, standing there wet and more than frozen, hour after hour; but more than all God help and strengthen the victims of this war, the wounded soldier with his torn and bleeding body lying out in this awful biting cold, praying for the help that seems so slow in coming.
The first part of my journey was easy enough, except that the snow made it difficult to keep one’s feet, and I began to realise that one cannot run as easily at 44 as one could at 24.
All went well till I reached a certain part of the trench, which rejoices in the attractive name of ‘Suicide Corner,’ from the fact that the Germans have a machine gun trained on it and at intervals during the night pump a shower of lead on that spot in the hope of knocking out some chance passer-by.
It was just my luck that as I came near this place I heard the ‘Rat-tat- tat’ of the beastly gun and the whiz of the passing bullets. It was not a pleasant prospect to run the gauntlet and skip through the bullets ‘made in Germany’ but what priest would hesitate for a second with two dying men at the end of the trench? I ducked my head and ‘chivvied’ down that trench. (I do not know what this word means, but I believe it implies terrific speed and breathless excitement.)
In the dark and at that distance I was quite invisible to the German gunner, but I think the Old Boy himself was turning the handle that night, but luckily for me was out of practice; the cold I expect upset his aim. Away on my left as I ran I could hear in the stillness of the night the grinding ‘Rat-tat-tat’ of the machine gun, for all the world as if a hundred German carpenters were driving nails into my coffin, while overhead ‘crack, crack, whiz, whiz’ went the bullets tearing one after another for fear they would be too late.
It was a novel experience to have a whole machine gun all to yourself, but it is a pleasure I am not particularly anxious to repeat. At the same time I do not think I was really in any great danger as judging by the sound the leaden shower was going too high.
The guns make all movement by night very unpleasant. Both sides have any number of them firing all night, from time to time at fixed points, for example cross-roads, ‘dumps,’ light railways etc., everywhere in fact where men are likely to be. Yet in spite of the fact that each fires about 10,000 rounds each night and bullets are flying about like mosquitos, it is very rare indeed that anyone is hit, weeks at a time without a casualty and scarcely never if one takes the ordinary precautions.
The first man was ‘in extremis’ when I reached him. I did all I could for him, commended his soul to the merciful God as he had only a few minutes to live, and hurried on to find the other wounded boy.
A journey along the Firing Line in the day time is not an easy matter, but in the darkness of the night it baffles description. A star shell from time to time gave me light and I made good progress, only to end in blackness and a pool or a shell hole full of mud and water.
I found the dying lad, he was not much more, so tightly jammed into a corner of the trench it was almost impossible to get him out. Both legs were smashed, one in two or three places, so his chances of life were small as there were other injuries as well. What a harrowing picture that scene would have made. A splendid young soldier, married only a month they told me, lying there pale and motionless in the mud and water with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. The stretcher bearers hard at work binding up as well as they may his broken limbs; round about a group of silent Tommies looking on and wondering when will their turn come. Peace for a moment seems to have taken possession of the battlefield; not a sound save the deep boom of some far off gun and the stifled moans of the dying boy, while as if anxious to hide the scene, nature drops her soft mantle of snow on the living and dead alike. Then while every head is bared come the solemn words of absolution, ‘Ego te absolve,’ I absolve thee from thy sins. Depart Christian soul and may the Lord Jesus Christ receive thee with a smiling and benign countenance. Amen.
Oh! surely the gentle Saviour did receive with open arms the brave lad who had laid down his life for Him, and as I turned away I felt happy in the thought that his soul was already safe in that land where ‘God will wipe away all sorrow from our eyes, for weeping and mourning shall be no more’.
I did not get my work finished till rather late tonight and as I had to turn out again shortly it was not worth while turning in. Some of my men were to make a raid on the enemy trenches in the early hours of the morning, dangerous work and heavy casualties often, so I make it a point to go round the line and give each man Absolution before he ‘goes over the top.’ It is a hard and anxious time and a big strain waiting for the word to be given and I know it is a comfort to them to see the priest come round and a cheery word bucks them up. All went well with the raid. We should have had more prisoners only a hot-blooded Irishman is a dangerous customer when he gets behind a bayonet and wants to let daylight through everybody.
I got back to my bunk at six and slept like a top till seven, not too long you will say, but if you come out here you will find all the old-fashioned ideas about food and sleep and wet clothes and the rest of it rapidly vanishing. It is wonderful what you can do with a cup of tea and one hours’ sleep in the twenty-four. (Personally I would vote for two hours, and two cups of tea with a wee bit of bread.)
Before I thank you for your letter which was doubly welcome in my exile, I want to tell you the New Year’s gift our Lord gave me. We had an awful time of storm and rain coming over here, but the first thing I saw on reaching the barrack square was a hut marked R.C. Church. I took it for granted that it was just the usual hut set apart for Sunday Mass, but on trying the door you can imagine my delight to find a small but beautifully furnished chapel with lamp burning before the altar, which made my heart leap with joy.
I felt as if all the hardships of my life had vanished, for I had found Him again who makes the hard things easy and the bitter things sweet. What did anything matter now since I could go and tell Him all about it and get help and consolation from Jesus. I really think that this month’s privation of the Blessed Sacrament has taught me the true value of the Tabernacle. But His goodness did not stop here; the other priest who had the key gave it to me without my even suggesting it, so I can go to Him at any hour of the day or night if I want to – do you think I shall? Is He not good to have put the little chapel where He did, as it might have been in any other part of the camp, miles away? I do not think there is a happier man in England than I today. I am writing this, sitting on a piece of wood – no chairs in our quarters. There are about 1,200 Catholics in our brigade now. I get a few ‘big fish’ each evening.
How little the expression ‘we were shelled for two hours’ conveys to you. People read in their papers some mornings: ‘The enemy fiercely attacked our trenches but were driven back again’ and never give a thought to the brave fellows who lie in heaps mangled and bleeding, nor to the moans of pain, nor the broken hearts in many a home. Not many at home care much, I fear, otherwise we should hear less of these brave speeches about ‘no peace at any price’ from men who will never have to fight. If only the world, Allied and German, could see and hear what we see and hear daily there would soon be a shout for ‘peace at any price’.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 1 January 1917. They are a fitting reflection for the world day of prayer for peace. Fr Doyle was tough and brave. But he also hated war, and longed for peace. He did so not out of fear or love of comfort, but because he saw the horror and pain that war meant for so many.Perhaps there are some who, motivated by their hatred of war and bloodshed, have little interest in the life and example of a heroic chaplain like Fr Doyle. These words may perhaps give cause for a second glance at Fr Doyle and his spirit, which so longed for peace.
I have celebrated Mass in some strange places and under extraordinary conditions but somehow I was more than usually impressed this morning. The men had gathered in what was once a small convent. For with all their faults, their devil-may-care recklessness, they love the Mass and regret when they cannot come. It was a poor miserable place, cold and wet, the only light being two small candles. Yet they knelt there and prayed as only our own Irish poor can pray, with a fervour and faith which would touch the heart of any unbeliever. They are as shy as children, and men of few words; but I know they are grateful when one tries to be kind to them and warmly appreciate all that is done for their soul’s interest.