Thoughts for August 10 from Fr Willie Doyle

Ecce Home: Behold the Man

 

We return today to Fr Doyle’s narrative, and get some glimpse of the horror of war, and the comfort that the presence of a priest can bring to the dying. In my opinion, today’s quote is amongst the most moving from all of Fr Doyle’s letters.

Of particular note is his reference to Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the crowd after the scourging with the words: “Ecce homo” (Behold the Man)…

These events occurred on this day in 1917.

A sad morning as casualties were heavy and many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee But never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. Thank God, Father, he said, I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium? The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased his bodily pain. I am much better now and easier, God bless you, he said, as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: Ah! Fr. Doyle, Fr. Doyle, he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put his two arms round my neck and kissed me. It was all the poor fellow could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and that he would have the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went to God. Sitting a little way off I saw a hideous bleeding object, a man with his face smashed by a shell, with one if not both eyes torn out. He raised his head as I spoke. Is that the priest? Thank God, I am all right now. I took his blood-covered hands in mine as I searched his face for some whole spot on which to anoint him. I think I know better now why Pilate said Behold the Man when he showed our Lord to the people.

In the afternoon, while going my rounds, I was forced to take shelter in the dug-out of a young officer belonging to another regiment. For nearly two hours I was a prisoner and found out he was a Catholic from Dublin, and had been married just a month. Was this a chance visit, or did God send me there to prepare him for death, for I had not long left the spot when a shell burst and killed him? I carried his body out the next day and buried him in a shell hole, and once again I blessed that protecting Hand which had shielded me from his fate.

That night we moved head quarters and aid-post to a more advanced position, a strong concrete emplacement, but a splendid target for the German gunners. For the forty- eight hours we were there they hammered us almost constantly day and night till I thought our last hour had come. There we lived with a foot, sometimes more, of water on the floor, pretty well soaked through, for it was raining hard at times. Sleep was almost impossible – fifty shells a minute made some noise and to venture out without necessity was foolishness. We were well provided with tinned food, and a spirit lamp for making hot tea, so that we were not too badly off, and rather enjoyed hearing the German shells hopping off the roof or bursting on the walls of their own strong fort.

Thoughts for August 8 from Fr Willie Doyle

Continuing our narrative today, it is hard not to be struck by the extraordinary good humour of Fr Doyle. The “cathedral” to which he refers was, of course, just another dug out or shell hole somewhere in a battlefield. His final comment about being glad not to be asked to say the rosary with bombs falling around him is classic Irish wit. It is important to remember that these letters were sent home to give comfort to his worried father. By putting such a brave face in circumstances that it is clear that he loathed, Fr Doyle once again shows us something of his virtue. It also shows that his life of penance did not deprive him of his charm one bit.

Also of note is the devotion of the other soldiers in carrying out the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead, at some risk to their own lives.

Here are the events of 8 August 1917 in Fr Doyle’s own words…

There is little to record during the next couple of days except the discovery of a new cathedral and the happiness of daily Mass. This time I was not quite so well off, as I could not kneel upright and my feet were in the water which helped to keep the fires of devotion from growing too warm.

Having carefully removed an ancient German leg, I managed to vest by sitting on the ground, a new rubric I had to introduce also at the Communion, as otherwise I could not have emptied the Chalice. I feel that when I get home again I shall be absolutely miserable because everything will be so clean and dry and comfortable. Perhaps some kind friend will pour a bucket or two of water over my bed occasionally to keep me in good spirits.

When night fell, I made my way up to a part of the Line which could not be approached in daylight, to bury an officer and some men. A couple of grimy, unwashed figures emerged from the bowels of the earth to help me, but first knelt down and asked for Absolution. They then leisurely set to work to fill in the grave. ‘Hurry up, boys’, I said, ‘I don’t want to have to bury you as well’, for the spot was a hot one. They both stopped working much to my disgust, for I was just longing to get away. ‘Be gobs, Father’, replied one, I haven’t the divil a bit of fear in me now after the holy Absolution’. ‘Nor I, chimed in the other, I am as happy as a king’. The poor Padre who had been keeping his eye on a row of crumps which were coming unpleasantly near felt anything but happy; however there was nothing for it but to stick it out as the men were in a pious mood; and he escaped at last, grateful that he was not asked to say the rosary.

Later today we shall also have the first in a series of 9 special posts which examine the virtues in the life of Fr Doyle, as we mark each of the 9 remaining days before Fr Doyle’s anniversary. 

Thoughts for August 6 from Fr Willie Doyle

The events of August 6 1917 in Fr Doyle’s own words. In particular today we note Fr Doyle’s devotion to the Mass.

The following morning, though the Colonel and other officers pressed me very much to remain with them on the ground that I would be more comfortable, I felt I could do better work at the advanced dressing-station, or rather aid-post, and went and joined the doctor. It was a providential step and saved me from being the victim of an extraordinary accident. The following night a shell again rushed into the dug-out severely burning some and almost suffocating all the officers and men, fifteen in number, with poisonous fumes before they made their escape. Had I been there, I should have shared the same fate, so you can imagine what I felt as I saw all my friends carried off to hospital, possibly to suffer ill effects for life, while I by the merest chance was left behind well and strong to carry on God’s work. I am afraid you will think me ungrateful, but more than once I almost regretted my escape, so great had been the strain of these past days now happily over.

For once getting out of bed was an easy, in fact, delightful task, for I was stiff and sore from my night’s rest. My first task was to look round and see what were the possibilities for Mass. As all the dug-outs were occupied if not destroyed or flooded, I was delighted to discover a tiny ammunition store which I speedily converted into a chapel, building an altar with the boxes. The fact that it barely held myself did not signify as I had no server and had to be both priest and acolyte, and in a way I was not sorry I could not stand up, as I was able for once to offer the Holy Sacrifice on my knees.

It is strange that out here a desire I have long cherished should be gratified, viz. : to be able to celebrate alone, taking as much time as I wished without inconveniencing anyone. I read long ago in the Acts of the Martyrs of a captive priest, chained to the floor of the Coliseum, offering up the Mass on the altar of his own bare breast, but apart from that, Mass that morning must have been a strange one in the eyes of God s angels, and I trust not unacceptable to Him. Returning to the dressing-station, I refreshed the inner man in preparation for a hard day’s work. You may be curious to know what an aid-post is like. Get out of your mind all ideas of a clean hospital ward, for our first aid dressing-station is any place, as near as possible to the fighting line, which will afford a little shelter: a cellar, a coal hole, sometimes even a shell-hole. Here the wounded who have been roughly bandaged on the field are brought by the stretcher bearers to be dressed by the doctor. Our aid-post was a rough tin shed built beside a concrete dug-out which we christened the Pig Sty. You could just crawl in on hands and knees to the solitary chamber which served as a dressing room, recreation hall, sleeping apartment and anything else you cared to use it for. One could not very well sit up much less stand in our chateau, but you could stretch your legs and get a snooze if the German shells and the wounded men let you. On the floor were some wood-shavings, kept well moistened in damp weather by a steady drip from the ceiling, and which gave covert to a host of curious little creatures, all most friendly and affectionate. There was room for three but as a rule we slept six or seven officers side by side. I had the post of honour next the wall, which had the double advantage of keeping me cool and damp, and of offering a stout resistance if anyone wanted to pinch more space, not an easy task, you may well conclude.

I spent a good part of the day, when not occupied with the wounded, wandering round the battle-field with a spade to bury stray dead. Though there was not very much infantry fighting owing to the state of the ground, not for a moment during the week did the artillery duel cease, reaching at times a pitch of unimaginable intensity, I have been through some hot stuff at Loos, and the Somme was warm enough for most of us, but neither of them could compare to the fierceness of the German fire here. For example, we once counted fifty shells, big chaps too, whizzing over our little nest in sixty seconds, not counting those that burst close by. In fact you became so accustomed to it all that you ceased to bother about them, unless some battery started strafing your particular position when you began to feel a keen personal interest in every new comer. I have walked about for hours at a time getting through my work, with crumps of all sizes bursting in dozens on every side.

More than once my heart has nearly jumped out of my mouth from sudden terror, but not once during all these days have I had what I could call a narrow escape, but always a strange confident feeling of trust and security in the all powerful protection of our Blessed Lord. You will see before the end that my trust was not misplaced. All the same I am not foolhardy nor do I expose myself to danger unnecessarily, the coward is too strong in me for that; but when duty calls I know I can count on the help of One Who has never failed me yet.

Thoughts for August 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

We once again resume Fr Doyle’s narrative of the events at the Battle of Passchendaele. This is his account of the events of August 5, 1917. In a particular way, we see Fr Doyle’s tenderness as he describes his tears for the fallen soldiers, as well as his confidence in God’s providence and protection. We also see his incredible sense of fun and adventure, though I for one cannot personally identify his description of hiding from shells as the “promise of an exciting time”!

All day I have been busy hearing the men’s confessions, and giving batch after batch Holy Communion. A consolation surely to see them crowding to the Sacraments, but a sad one too, because I know for many of them it is the last Absolution they will ever receive, and the next time they meet our Blessed Lord will be when they see Him face to face in Heaven.

My poor brave boys! They are lying now out on the battle-field; some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die; while perhaps in some far-off thatched cabin an anxious mother sits listening for the well-known step and voice which will never gladden her ear again. Do you wonder in spite of the joy that fills my heart that many a time the tears gather in my eyes, as I think of those who are gone?

As the men stand lined up on Parade, I go from company to company giving a General Absolution which I know is a big comfort to them, and then I shoulder my pack and make for the train which this time is to carry us part of our journey. Top end for Blighty, boys, bottom end Berlin, I tell them as they clamber in, for they like a cheery word. If you’re for Jerryland, Father, we’re with you too, shouts one big giant, which is greeted with a roar of approval and Berlin wins the day hands down.

Though we are in fighting kit, there is no small load to carry: a haversack containing little necessary things, and three days rations which consist of tinned corn beef, hard biscuits, tea and sugar, with usually some solidified methylated spirit for boiling water when a fire cannot be lighted; two full water-bottles; a couple of gas-helmets the new one weighing nine pounds, but guaranteed to keep out the smell of the Old Boy himself; then a waterproof trench coat; and in addition my Mass kit strapped on my back on the off chance that some days at least I may be able to offer the Holy Sacrifice on the spot where so many men have fallen. My orderly should carry this, but I prefer to leave him behind when we go into action, to which he does not object. On a roasting hot day, tramping along a dusty road or scrambling up and down shell-holes, the extra weight tells. But then I think of my friend the hermit, and the pack grows light and easy!

As I marched through Ypres at the head of the column, an officer ran across the road and stopped me: Are you a Catholic priest? he asked, I should like to go to Confession. There and then, by the side of the road, while the men marched by, he made his peace with God, and went away, let us hope, as happy as I felt at that moment. It was a trivial incident, but it brought home vividly to me what a priest was and the wondrous power given him by God. All the time we were pushing on steadily towards our goal across the battle-field of the previous week. Five days almost continuous rain had made the torn ground worse than any ploughed field, but none seemed to care as so far not a shot had fallen near.

We were congratulating ourselves on our good luck, when suddenly the storm burst. Away along the front trenches we saw the S.O.S. signal shoot into the air, two red and two green rockets, telling the artillery behind of an attack and calling for support. There was little need to send any signal as the enemy’s guns had opened fire with a crash, and in a moment pandemonium, in fact fifty of them were set loose. I can but describe the din by asking you to start together fifty first class thunder storms, though even then the swish and scream, the deafening crash of the shells, would be wanting.

On we hurried in the hope of reaching cover which was close at hand, when right before us the enemy started to put down a heavy barrage, literally a curtain of shells, to prevent reinforcements coming up. There was no getting through that alive and, to make matters worse, the barrage was creeping nearer and nearer, only fifty yards away, while shell fragments hummed uncomfortably close. Old shell- holes there were in abundance, but every one of them was brim full of water, and one would only float on top. Here was a fix! Yet somehow I felt that though the boat seemed in a bad way, the Master was watching even while He seemed to sleep, and help would surely come. In the darkness I stumbled across a huge shell-hole crater, recently made, with no water. Into it we rolled and lay on our faces, while the tempest howled around and angry shells hissed overhead and burst on every side. For a few moments I shivered with fear, for we were now right in the middle of the barrage and the danger was very great, but my courage came back when I remembered how easily He Who had raised the tempest saved His Apostles from it, and I never doubted He would do the same for us. Not a man was touched, though one had his rifle smashed to bits.

We reached Head Quarters, a strong block house made of concrete and iron rails, a master-piece of German cleverness. From time to time all during the night the enemy gunners kept firing at our shelter, having the range to a nicety. Scores exploded within a few feet of it, shaking us till our bones rattled ; a few went smash against the walls and roof, and one burst at the entrance nearly blowing us over, but doing no harm thanks to the scientific construction of the passage. I tried to get a few winks of sleep on a stool, there was no room to lie down with sixteen men in a small hut. And I came to the conclusion that so far we had not done badly and there was every promise of an exciting time.

A flooded shell hole

Thoughts for August 2 from Fr Willie Doyle

We have no more reports from Fr Doyle until August 5th, and we shall take up his narrative once again on that date. What we do know about these days is that Fr Doyle and his men had a few days rest before facing the trauma of battle once again.

This might be an appropriate place to give the following excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography which includes an excerpt of a letter from Fr Browne, who served as a military chaplain with Fr Doyle.

After the death of Fr Knapp (31st July), Fr. Browne was appointed chaplain to the 2nd Irish Guards. Hence from 2nd August till his death Fr. Doyle had the four Battalions to look after, as no other priest had come to the 48th Brigade. A certain priest had indeed been appointed as Fr. Browne’s successor by Fr. Rawlinson. But by some error the order was brought to a namesake, who, on arriving at Poperinghe and discovering the mistake, absolutely refused to have anything to do with the battle. This will explain why Fr. Doyle had such hard work and why he would not allow himself any rest or relief. On 15th August, the day before Fr. Doyle s death, Fr. Browne wrote to his brother (Rev. W. F Browne, C.C.):

“Fr. Doyle is a marvel. You may talk of heroes and saints, they are hardly in it! I went back the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having, we’ll say, a taste of the War.

“No one has been yet appointed to my place, and Fr. Doyle has done double work. So unpleasant were the conditions that the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr. Doyle had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror. Day after day he stuck it out.

“I met the Adjutant of one of my two Battalions, who previously had only known Fr. Doyle by sight. His first greeting to me was: ‘Little Fr. Doyle (they all call him that, more in affection than anything else) deserves the V.C. more than any man that ever wore it. We cannot get him away from the line while the men are there, he is with his own and he is with us. The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there. If we give him an orderly, he sends the man back, he wears no tin hat, and he is always so cheery.’

“Another officer, also a Protestant, said: ‘Fr. Doyle never rests. Night and day he is with us. He finds a dying or dead man, does all, comes back smiling, makes a little cross, and goes out to bury him, and then begins all over again. ‘

“I needn’t say, that through all this, the conditions of ground, and air and discomfort, surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.”

COMMENT: Fr Browne was the famous photographer who luckily, or providentially, escaped death on the Titanic by disembarking at Cobh, County Cork, the last port of call for the famous ship. In fact, he was invited to go to the US on the Titanic but his superior ordered him to get off the ship – obedience saves lives!

In today’s quote we once again we get a glimpse at Fr Doyle’s tireless efforts to serve others, and the consequent positive effect this had on everyone around him. But let us not forget: Fr Doyle was no cartoon superhero. His capacity to serve others, and to endure suffering, was acquired by relying on God’s grace, and through many years of denying himself, even in little things.

Of such things are heroes – and saints – made.

Thoughts for August 1 (St Alphonsus Liguori) from Fr Willie Doyle

We continue today with Fr Doyle’s narrative of events in the days leading up to his death. Today’s account is somewhat shorter than that of other days. Even if the events of this day are less dramatic than what is to come, we can still glimpse some of the suffering Fr Doyle and the men had to endure, as well as the cheerful spirit with which he accepted it.

Morning brought a leaden sky, more rain, and no breakfast! Our cook with the rations had got lost during the night, so there was nothing for it but to tighten one’s belt… But He Who feeds the birds of the air did not forget us, and by mid-day we were sitting down before a steaming tin of tea, bully beef and biscuits, a banquet fit to set before an emperor after nearly twenty-four hours fast. Not for a moment during the whole of the day did the merciless rain cease. The men, soaked to the skin and beyond it, were standing up to their knees in a river of mud and water, and like ourselves were unable to get any hot food till the afternoon. Our only consolation was that our trenches were not shelled and we had no casualties. Someone must have had compassion on our plight, for when night fell a new Brigade came in to relieve us, much to our surprise and joy. Back to the camp we had left the previous night, one of the hardest marches I ever put in, but cheered at the thought of a rest. Once again we got through Ypres without a shell, though they fell before and after our passing; good luck was on our side for once.

Today is also the feast of St Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, prolific writer of esteemed spiritual works and Founder of the Redemptorists. St Alphonsus held the Jesuits in very high esteem, and declined to take over one of the Jesuit churches in Naples following the suppression of the Jesuits in the late 18th Century.

St Alphonsus played an important role in the life of Fr Doyle – if it were not for his writings Fr Doyle may not have become a Jesuit.

Here is the description from O’Rahilly’s biography. Note by the way that Clonliffe was the diocesan seminary for priests for the Dublin diocese.

In July, 1890, Willie paid a few days visit to St. Stanislaus College, Tullamore, the Novitiate of the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus, where his brother, Charlie, had entered ten months previously. One day during the visit the subject of Willie’s vocation came up for discussion. Charlie knew that Willie was going to be a priest. But was it a secular priest or a religious? “I hope soon to enter Clonliffe,” said Willie. ” Did you ever think of the religious life ? ” asked his brother. “Never!” was the emphatic reply. “I have always wanted to fill the gap left by Fred’s death, and to become a secular priest.” “But do you know anything about the religious state?” persisted the zealous novice. ” No, nothing,” said Willie; “but in any case I would never come to this hole of a place!” This led to an animated discussion concerning religious Orders in general and the Society of Jesus in particular. Willie was so far shaken as to accept a copy of St. Alphonsus Liguori’s work on the Religious State, with a promise to read it and to think over it. The sequel can be told in Willie’s own words:

“On Christmas Day I was alone in the drawing-room when Father came in and asked me if I had yet made up my mind as to my future career. I answered Yes that I intended to become a Jesuit. I remember how I played my joy and happiness into the piano after thus giving myself openly to Jesus.”

On 31st March, 1891, Willie entered the Jesuit Novitiate of Tullabeg.

For those who are interested, St Alphonsus’ book on the religious vocation can be found here:

St Alphonsus Vocation to the Religious State

Meditations and spiritual reading for each day of the year (organised according to the traditional calendar) by St Alphonsus can be found here: http://www.religiousbookshelf.com/meditations-and-readings/

St Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church

31 July 1916

My poor orderly has nearly emptied the well, of course leaving the six dead Germans behind, in his efforts to make enough tea.

COMMENT: Fr Doyle suffered many inconveniences because of his orderly in the trenches. On this occasion, he is suggesting that the orderly made tea from water in which 6 dead Germans were to be found. He may have been exaggerating a little, but perhaps not too much. As he said on another occasion:

Don’t ask me where the water came from, for I am certainly not anxious to learn. The men hold that, if you boil water, you need not bother about its source or how many dead beasties is has washed on its journey. I have had tea of the most wonderful shades of brown and black; but, barring the taste at times, I am not a whit the worse for this mysterious beverage.

And at another time:

I hear Michael, my orderly, hard at work frying onions for my dinner, what a time we are going to have … I am hoping for great things and that he won’t wash my socks again in the water with which he makes the tea. After all as the farmer says ‘pigs is pigs and war is war’ and fresh water is scarce, so hurrah for the laundry tea!

But what was most interesting about Fr Doyle was how he joyfully accepted all of these inconveniences and distasteful experiences as mortifications. Consider the following testimony from his fellow chaplain Fr Frank Browne SJ:

I rode over one morning to see Fr Doyle. I found him writing letters, which he interrupted to tell me of Murphy’s latest. Pointing to his trench boots he asked me to smell them. They were awful. Murphy, in order to prepare them for polishing, had in the orthodox way washed them, but in an unorthodox manner he had chosen a cesspool! The result was almost too much for Fr Willie. When I told him to sack Murphy on the spot, saying that it was getting a bit too much of a good joke, he laughed and said: ‘Well, he’s a decent poor fellow and he means well; and – well, perhaps I can gain something too’.

Fr Doyle’s natural temperament was impatient and fiery. I suspect that this was probably his dominant defect. But by the end of his life it would appear that he had mastered it. This cheerful acceptance of inconveniences would seem to suggest that he had acquired a high degree of virtue. All of his mortifications and self-denial would seem to have been entirely justified and to have achieved their desired result.

Thoughts for July 31 (St Ignatius) from Fr Willie Doyle

We continue Fr Doyle’s account of July 31, 1917 directly after he left off yesterday. Again what is most noticeable is Fr Doyle’s good humour and cheerfulness, even in the midst of this awful war.

It was 1.30 a.m. when our first halting place was reached, and as we march again at three, little time was wasted getting to sleep. It was the morning of July 31st, the Feast of St. Ignatius, a day dear to every Jesuit, but doubly so to the soldier sons of the soldier saint. Was it to be Mass or sleep? Nature said sleep, but grace won the day, and while the weary soldiers slumbered the Adorable Sacrifice was offered for them, that God would bless them in the coming fight and, if it were His Holy Will, bring them safely through it. Mass and thanksgiving over, a few precious moments of rest on the floor of the hut, and we have fallen into line once more.

As we do, the dark clouds are lit up with red and golden flashes of light, the earth quivers with the simultaneous crash of thousands of guns and in imagination we can picture the miles of our trenches spring to life as the living stream of men pours over the top: the Fourth Battle of Ypres has begun.

Men’s hearts beat faster, and nerves seem to stretch and vibrate like harp strings as we march steadily on ever nearer and nearer towards the raging fight, on past battery after battery of huge guns and howitzers belching forth shells which ten men could scarcely lift, on past the growing streams of motor ambulances, each with its sad burden of broken bodies, the first drops of that torrent of wounded which will pour along the road. I fancy not a few were wondering how long would it be till they were carried past in the same way, or was this the last march they would ever make till the final Roll Call on the Great Review Day.

We were to be held in reserve for the opening stages of the battle, so we lay all that day (the 31st) in the open fields ready to march at a moment’s notice should things go badly at the Front. Bit by bit news of the fight came trickling in. The Jocks (15th Scottish Division) in front of us, had taken the first and second objective with little opposition, and were pushing on to their final goal. All was going well, and the steady stream of prisoners showed that for once Dame Rumour was not playing false. Our spirits rose rapidly in spite of the falling rain, for word reached us that we were to return to the camp for the night as our services would not be required. Then the sun of good news began to set, and ugly rumours to float about.

Whether it was the impetuous Celtic dash that won the ground, or part of German strategy, the enemy centre gave way while the wings held firm. This trick has been played so often and so successfully one would imagine we should not have been caught napping again, but the temptation for victorious troops to rush into an opening is almost too strong to be resisted, and probably the real state of affairs on the wings was not known. The Scotties reached their objective, only to find they were the centre of a murderous fire from three sides, and having beaten off repeated counter-attacks of the demoralized enemy were obliged to retire some distance. So far the Germans had not done too badly.

It was nearly eight o’clock, and our dinner was simmering in the pot with a tempting odour, when the fatal telegram came: the battalion will move forward in support at once. I was quite prepared for this little change of plans having experienced such surprises before, and had taken the precaution of laying in a solid lunch early in the day. I did not hear a single growl from anyone, though it meant we had to set out for another march hungry and dinnerless, with the prospect of passing a second night without sleep. When I give my next nuns retreat I think I shall try the experiment of a few supperless and bedless nights on them, just to see what they would say, and compare notes with the soldiers. The only disadvantage would be that I should be inundated with applications to give similar retreats in other convents, everyone being so delighted with the experiment, especially the good Mother Bursar who would simply coin money!

On the road once more in strict fighting kit, the clothes we stood in, a rain coat, and a stout heart. A miserable night with a cold wind driving the drizzling rain into our faces and the ground underfoot being rapidly churned into a quagmire of slush and mud. I hope the Recording Angel will not be afraid of the weather and will not get as tired of counting the steps as I did: Ten thousand and one, ten thousand and two – a bit monotonous even with the memory of the old hermit to help one.

The road was a sight never to be forgotten. On one side marched our column in close formation, on the other galloped by an endless line of ammunition wagons, extra guns hurrying up to the Front, and motor lorries packed with stores of all kinds, while between the two flowed back the stream of empties and ambulance after ambulance filled with wounded and dying.

In silence, save for the never ceasing roar of the guns and the rumble of cart wheels, we marched on through the city of the dead, Ypres, not a little anxious, for a shower of shells might come at any minute. Ruin and desolation, desolation and ruin, is the only description I can give of a spot once the pride and glory of Belgium. The hand of war has fallen heavy on the city of Ypres; scarce a stone remains of the glorious Cathedral and equally famous Cloth Hall; the churches, a dozen of them, are piles of rubbish, gone are the convents, the hospitals and public buildings, and though many of the inhabitants are still there, their bodies lie buried in the ruins of their homes, and the smell of rotting corpses poisons the air. I have seen strange sights in the last two years, but this was the worst of all. Out again by the opposite gate of this stricken spot, which people say was not undeserving of God’s chastisement, across the moat and along the road pitted all over with half filled in shell-holes. Broken carts and dead horses, with human bodies too if one looked, lie on all sides, but one is too weary to think of anything except how many more miles must be covered.

A welcome halt at last with, perhaps, an hour or more delay. The men were already stretched by the side of the road, and I was not slow to follow their example. I often used to wonder how anyone could sleep lying in mud or water, but at that moment the place for sleep, as far as I was concerned, did not matter two straws, a thorn bush, the bed of a stream, anywhere would do to satisfy the longing for even a few moments slumber after nearly two days and nights of marching without sleep. I picked out a soft spot on the ruins of a home, lay down with a sigh of relief, and then, for all I cared, all the King’s guns and the Kaiser’s combined might roar till they were hoarse, and all the rain in the heavens might fall, as it was falling then, I was too tired and happy to bother.

I was chuckling over the disappearance of the officer in front of me into a friendly trench from which he emerged if possible a little more muddy than he was, when I felt my two legs shoot from under me, and I vanished down the sides of a shell-hole which I had not noticed. As I am not making a confession of my whole life, I shall not tell you what I said, but it was something different from the exclamation of the pious old gentleman who used to mutter Tut, tut every time he missed the golf ball.

The Head Quarters Staff found shelter in an old mine- shaft, dark, foul-smelling, and dripping water which promised soon to flood us out. Still it was some protection from the down-pour outside, and I slept like a top for some hours in a dry corner sitting on a coil of wire.

Today is the feast of St Ignatius, the spiritual father of Fr Doyle. As a true Jesuit, Fr Doyle was moulded by Ignatius’s spirituality, especially by the spiritual exercises. Those who are interested in the life and spirit of St Ignatius may wish to read the following two presentations from the great Jesuit writer Fr John Hardon:

Ignatian Spirituality Today

St Ignatius: Jesuit Saint

St Ignatius

Thoughts for July 30 from Fr Willie Doyle

Fr Doyle describes the events of July 30, 1917:

For the past week we have been moving steadily up to the Front once more to face the hardships and horrors of another big push, which report says is to be the biggest effort since the War began. The blood-stained Ypres battle field is to be the centre of the fight, with our left wing running down to the Belgian coast from which it is hoped to drive the enemy and, perhaps, force him by a turning movement to fall back very far.

The preparations are on a colossal scale, the mass of men and guns enormous. Success is certain our Generals tell us, but I cannot help wondering what are the plans of the Great Leader, and what the result will be when He has issued His orders. This much is certain: the fight will be a desperate one, for our foe is not only brave, but clever and cunning, as we have learned to our cost.

Mass in the open this morning under a drizzling rain was a trying if edifying experience. Colonel, officers and men knelt on the wet grass with the water trickling off them, while a happy if somewhat damp chaplain moved from rank to rank giving every man Holy Communion. Poor fellows: with all their faults God must love them dearly for their simple faith and love of their religion, and for the confident way in which they turn to Him for help in the hour of trial.

One of my converts, received into the Church last night, made his First Holy Communion this morning under circumstances he will not easily forget. I see in the paper that 13,000 soldiers and officers have become Catholics since the War began, but I should say this number is much below the mark. Ireland’s missionaries, the light-hearted lads who shoulder a rifle and swing along the muddy roads, have taught many a man more religion, by their silent example, than he ever dreamed of before.

Many a time one’s heart grows sick to think how few will ever see home and country again, for their pluck and daring have marked them down for the positions which only the Celtic dash can take: a post of honour, no doubt, but it means slaughter as well.

We moved off at 10 p.m., a welcome hour in one way, as it means marching in the cool of the night instead of sweating under a blazing sun. Still when one has put in a long day of hard work, and legs and body are pretty well tired out already, the prospect of a stiff march is not too pleasant.

Perhaps we can all learn today from the ability of the Irish soldiers to be missionaries just by their example. It is our example of cheerfulness and charity that will attract others. It was true of the early Christians and it remains true for us today.

Thoughts for July 29 from Fr Willie Doyle

On August 12 1917 Fr Doyle sent his last “budget” home to his father. It was a long account of his involvement in the early stages of the Battle of Passchendaele. 4 days later he was hit by a German shell while rescuing 2 wounded soldiers and was killed instantly.

His account of the battle commences on July 30 and we shall follow his account in his own words each day until the 12th (except of course for those few days on which he didn’t write).

But before we relive his experiences, it might be worthwhile to reproduce a short “parable” which he wrote out for his father in this very same letter. It is noteworthy that he took the time to write this long letter, and the time to retell this parable, with such cheerfulness and good humour in the midst of the hardship and work he had to endure. He could have taken his rest. He could have looked after himself. His father would surely understand if he wasn’t able to write long letters home. But no, he was still concerned for his father all those miles away at home. This simple act in itself is indicative of his virtue.

In Fr Doyle’s own words:

Help comes to one in strange ways, and the remembrance of a quaint old story has lightened for me the weight of a heavy pair of boots over many a mile of muddy road. The story may interest you: 

In the good old days of yore a holy hermit built him a cell in a spot a few miles from the well, so that he might have a little act of penance to offer to Almighty God each day by tramping across the hot sand and back again with his pitcher. All went gaily for a while, and if the holy man did lose many a drop of honest sweat he knew he was piling up sacks of treasure in Heaven, and his heart was light. But oh ! – that little but which spoils so many things – but though the spirit was willing, the sun was very warm, the sand most provokingly hot, the pitcher the devil and all of a weight, and the road seemingly longer each day. It is a bit too much of a good joke, thought the man of God, to tramp these miles day in and day out, with my old bones, clanking like a traction engine. Why not move the cell to the edge of the water, save time (and much bad language probably) and have cool water in abundance, and a dry hair shirt on my back? 

Away home he faced for the last time with his brimming water jar, kicking the sand about in sheer delight, for the morrow would see him on the trek, and an end to his weary trudging, when suddenly he heard a voice, an angel’s voice he knew it to be, counting slowly One, two, three, four. The hermit stopped in wonder and so did the voice, but at the next steps he took the counting began again, Five, six, seven. Falling on his knees the old man prayed that he might know the meaning of this wonder. ‘I am the angel of God, came the answer, counting up each step which long ago you offered up to my Lord and Master, so that not a single one may lose its reward. Don’t be so foolish as to throw away the immense merit you are gaining, by moving your cell to the water’s edge, for know that in the eyes of the heavenly court nothing is small which is done or borne for the love of God.’ 

That very night down came the hermit’s hut, and before morning broke he had built it again five miles further from the well. For all I know he is merrily tramping still back wards and forwards across the burning sand, very hot and tired no doubt, but happy in the thought that the recording angel is busy counting each step. 

I do not think I need point the moral. But I hope and pray that my own good angel is strong at arithmetic, and won’t get mixed when he starts his long tot.

Alfred O’Rahilly comments on the story in the following fashion:

To understand this little parable is to understand much of Fr. Doyle’s life, his desire to emulate his angel guardian’s arithmetic as well as his inveterate habit of adding to, instead of subtracting from, the hard things of life.