17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 102 years ago today. Here are his sentiments on this occasion, as captured in a letter written to his father just half an hour before departure.

I set out to face to future with a certain amount of trepidation…Strange to say, I have not the smallest anxiety about the possible dangers of warfare, not so great for me, as for others, but I do dread the horrors of the battlefield which all say no words can picture. Still it is a consolation to know what a comfort the mere presence of a priest is to both officers and men alike. They are one and all going to face their duty with the joy of heart which comes with a clear conscience; many of them had not been to confession for over twenty years.


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.22

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 gives the last rites to dying soldiers

101 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.)