16 January 1917

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

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

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

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

14 January 1916

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

13 January 1917: Fr Doyle give the last rites to dying soldiers

104 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’.

9 January 1917

Continuing from yesterday’s post about 8 January 1917…

Our visitor from the sky was back again today repeating his old trick, with the same success, this time against one of our captive balloons. It was a thrilling sight to see the huge bag of fire gas burst into fire as the bullets hit it, and more thrilling still to watch the two unfortunate occupants of the car jump for their lives, fall like stones through the air, more rapidly each second till, with an intense gasp of relief, we saw the parachute open and both men land unhurt in safety.

8 January 1917

Our airmen, very justly, have earned a big reputation for their skill and daring, but the ‘Allyman’ can still give them points in cuteness. The word ‘Allyman’ is probably new to you, but is the word used by our Irish boys for the enemy. They picked it up in France and it is simply a corruption of Les Allemands, the Germans.

Time after time I have seen our air squadrons sailing up and down, looking in vain for some Boche to devour and then the moment they went back to the rear for lunch out came the cautious Hun, took all the photos he wanted, noted positions of guns etc. and returned safely to his lines in peace, without a nasty air fight, in which he generally comes off second best.

This afternoon I saw a very clever bit of work. One of our planes was going along on its usual beat when literally, like a bolt from the blue, a German airman shot down on him from the sky. He had crept up at such a height that even our vigilant observers had not noticed him, then fixing his bearings by means of a powerful telescope he dived straight for our man before the latter realised what was taking place. There was a loud rattle of machine gun fire and the enemy was off as fast as he had come. I saw a thick column of black smoke rising from our aeroplane – a bullet had struck the petrol tank and the next instant it burst into flames.

Wherever the pilot was he was certainly a brave, cool fellow. To dive at once for safety would have meant destruction, for the rush of the wind would have carried the flames to the wings of the machine, and so with the petrol tank blazing fiercely behind him, he brought his plane slowly to the ground and saved his own and his observer’s life, though he was badly burnt in doing so.

4 January 1917

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.)

4 January 1916

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.

28 December 1916

Fr Doyle wrote the following in his diary on this day in 1916:

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.

St Stephen’s Day 1916

The following two excerpts from a letter written by Fr Doyle recount two incidents that happened on St Stephen’s Day, 1916. They give us a further insight into the harshness life in wartime, as well as Fr Doyle’s own cheerfulness in the face of the horrors of war. May we never have to face these trials in our own day, and if we do, may we face them with the strength and calm that Fr Doyle obtained through his intense life of prayer.

On St. Stephen’s Day the men were engaged in a football match, when the Germans saw them, sent over a lovely shot at long range, which carried away the goal post — the umpire gave a ‘foul’ — and bursting in the middle of the men, killed three and wounded seven. The wounded were bandaged up and hurried off to hospital, the dead carried away for burial; and then the ball was kicked off once more, and the game went on as if nothing had happened. The Germans must have admired the cool pluck of the players, for they did not fire any more. This is just one little incident of the war, showing how little is thought of human life out here; it sounds callous but there is no room for sentiment in warfare, and I suppose it is better so…

I was riding on my bicycle past a wagon when the machine slipped, throwing me between the front and back wheels of the limber. Fortunately the horses were going very slowly and I was able, how I cannot tell, to roll out before the wheel went over my legs. I have no luck, you see, else I should be home now with a couple of broken legs, not to speak of a crushed head. The only commiseration I received was the remark of some passing officers that ‘the Christmas champagne must have been very strong!’

Thoughts for Christmas Eve from Fr Willie Doyle

The following excerpt from O’Rahilly’s biography of Fr Doyle recalls Christmas Eve and Midnight Mass during the war in 1916…

Christmas itself Fr. Doyle had the good luck of spending in billets. He got permission from General Hickie to have Midnight Mass for his men in the Convent. The chapel was a fine large one, as in pre-war times over three hundred boarders and orphans were resident in the Convent; and by opening folding-doors the refectory was added to the chapel and thus doubled the available room. An hour before Mass every inch of space was filled, even inside the altar rails and in the corridor, while numbers had to remain in the open. Word had in fact gone round about the Mass, and men from other battalions came to hear it, some having walked several miles from another village. Before the Mass there was strenuous Confession-work. “We were kept hard at work hearing confessions all the evening till nine o’clock” writes Fr. Doyle, “the sort of Confessions you would like, the real serious business, no nonsense and no trimmings. As I was leaving the village church, a big soldier stopped me to know, like our Gardiner Street friend, ‘if the Fathers would be sittin’ any more that night.’ He was soon polished off, poor chap, and then insisted on escorting me home. He was one of my old boys, and having had a couple of glasses of beer — ‘It wouldn’t scratch the back of your throat, Father, that French stuff’ — was in the mood to be complimentary. ‘We miss you sorely, Father, in the battalion’, he said, ‘we do be always talking about you’. Then in a tone of great confidence: ‘Look, Father, there isn’t a man who wouldn’t give the whole of the world, if he had it, for your little toe! That’s the truth’. The poor fellow meant well, but ‘the stuff that would not scratch his throat’ certainly helped his imagination and eloquence. I reached the Convent a bit tired, intending to have a rest before Mass, but found a string of the boys awaiting my arrival, determined that they at least would not be left out in the cold. I was kept hard at it hearing Confessions till the stroke of twelve and seldom had a more fruitful or consoling couple of hours’ work, the love of the little Babe of Bethlehem softening hearts which all the terrors of war had failed to touch.”

The Mass itself was a great success and brought consolation and spiritual peace to many a war- weary exile. This is what Fr. Doyle says:

“I sang the Mass, the girls’ choir doing the needful. One of the Tommies, from Dolphin’s Barn, sang the Adeste beautifully with just a touch of the sweet Dublin accent to remind us of home, sweet home, the whole congregation joining in the chorus. It was a curious contrast: the chapel packed with men and officers, almost strangely quiet and reverent (the nuns were particularly struck by this), praying .and singing most devoutly, while the big tears ran down many a rough cheek: outside the cannon boomed and the machine-guns spat out a hail of lead: peace and good will — hatred and bloodshed!

“It was a Midnight Mass none of us will ever forget. A good 500 men came to Holy Communion, so that I was more than rewarded for my work.”