Life in the army I find is a life of delightful and unexpected surprises. You are told that you are going to some large town and at once visions of comfortable quarters, with perhaps the luxury of a real bed loom up before you; you reach the town only to find you do not stay there but have to tramp out into the open country and fight for a corner in some ancient barn. You hear that the journey is to be done by rail, but nothing is said about ten miles march before and after reaching the station, while the crowning joy of all is to count on a month’s rest and then find yourself back in the trenches within a week. All these pleasant surprises have been mine recently.
We had a few very restful days in the place I last wrote from, a delightful spot on the banks of a wooded river, but since then we have been on the move by rail and motor lorries, and ‘Shank’s Mare’ till we found ourselves in Normandy where the boys had the time of their lives among the apple orchards.
Lieutenant Colonel H. R. Stirke, who commanded the 8th Dublins, had the following praise for Fr Doyle in a note that he wrote on this day in 1917:
He was one of the finest fellows I ever met, utterly fearless, always with a cheery word on his lips, and ever ready to go out and attend the wounded and dying under the heaviest fire. He was genuinely loved by everyone, and thoroughly deserved the unstinted praise he got from all ranks for his rare pluck and devotion to duty.
For fifteen months Fr Doyle and I worked together out here, generally sharing the same dug-outs and billets, we became fast friends. I acting as medical officer to his First Battalion. Often I envied him his coolness and courage in the face of danger; for this alone his men would have loved him, but he had other sterling qualities, which we all recognised only too well. He was beloved and respected, not only by those of his own faith, but equally by Protestants, to which denomination I belong…For his broad-mindedness we loved him. He seldom, if ever, preached, but he set us a shining example of a Christian life.
It is worth remembering what Fr Doyle did for Dr Buchanan. One night, when the doctor was sick, and there was no dry bedding in the dug-out, Fr Doyle lay face down on the damp ground and insisted that the doctor try to sleep on his back, in order to afford him some small chance of recuperation. The sacrifice and self-denial involved in this act of charity require no further elaboration from me.
This is one of my favourite scenes from all of Fr Doyle’s writings – 103 years ago today.
By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit box supported on two German bayonets. God’s angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice — but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.
We continue the narrative from O’Rahilly’s biography which recounts the events of September 5, 1916. Please note: this excerpt reveals the true horror of war, and those who are a bit squeamish may prefer to skip the first couple of paragraphs.
At last came the expected order to advance at once and hold the front line, the part assigned being Leuze Wood, the scene of much desperate fighting. Fr. Doyle may be left to describe the journey and the scene.
“The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts. I shall spare you gruesome details, but you can picture one s sensations as one felt the ground yield under one’s foot, and one sank down through the body of some poor fellow.
“Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark, with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony, or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot of it, was littered with heads or limbs or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon, but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand praying for and forgiving one another. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart.
“We pushed on rapidly through that charnel house, for the stench was fearful, till we stumbled across a sunken road. Here the retreating Germans had evidently made a last desperate stand, but had been caught by our artillery fire. The dead lay in piles, the blue grey uniforms broken by many a khaki-clad body. I saw the ruins of what was evidently the dressing station, judging by the number of bandaged men about; but a shell had found them out even here and swept them all into the net of death.
“A halt for a few minutes gave me the opportunity I was waiting for. I hurried along from group to group, and as I did the men fell on their knees to receive absolution. A few words to give them courage, for no man knew if he would return alive. A God bless and protect you, boys, and I passed on to the next company. As I did, a soldier stepped out of the ranks, caught me by the hand, and said: I am not a Catholic, sir, but I want to thank you for that beautiful prayer. The regiments moved on to the wood, while the doctor and I took up our positions in the dressing station to wait for the wounded. This was a dug-out on the hill facing Leuze Wood, and had been in German occupation the previous afternoon.
“To give you an idea of my position. From where I stood the ground sloped down steeply into a narrow valley, while on the opposite hill lay the wood, half of which the Fusiliers were holding, the Germans occupying the rest; the distance across being so short I could easily follow the movements of our men without a glass.
“Fighting was going on all round, so that I was kept busy, but all the time my thoughts and my heart were with my poor boys in the wood opposite. They had reached it safely, but the Germans somehow had worked round the sides and temporarily cut them off. No food or water could be sent up, while ten slightly wounded men who tried to come back were shot down, one after another. To make matters worse, our own artillery began to shell them, inflicting heavy losses, and though repeated messages were sent back, continued doing so for a long time. It appears the guns had fired so much that they were becoming worn out, making the shells fall 300 yards short.
“Under these circumstances it would be madness to try and reach the wood, but my heart bled for the wounded and dying lying there alone. When dusk came I made up my mind to try and creep through the valley, more especially as the fire had slackened very much, but once again the Providence of God watched over me. As I was setting out I met a sergeant who argued the point with me. ‘You can do little good, Father’, he said, ‘down there in the wood, and will only run a great risk. Wait till night comes and then we shall be able to bring all the wounded up here. Don’t forget that, though we have plenty of officers and to spare, we have only one priest to look after us.’ The poor fellow was so much in earnest I decided to wait a little at least. It was well I did so, for shortly afterwards the Germans opened a terrific bombardment and launched a counter attack on the wood. Some of the Cornwalls, who were holding a corner of the wood, broke and ran, jumping right on top of the Fusiliers. Brave Paddy from the Green Isle stood his ground …. and drove the Germans back with cold steel.
“Meanwhile we on the opposite hill were having a most unpleasant time. A wounded man had reported that the enemy had captured the wood. Communication was broken and Headquarters had no information of what was going on. At that moment an orderly dashed in with the startling news that the Germans were in the valley, and actually climbing our hill. Jerusalem! We non-combatants might easily escape to the rear, but who would protect the wounded? They could not be abandoned. If it were day light the Red Cross would give us protection, but in the darkness of the night the enemy would not think twice about flinging a dozen bombs down the steps of the dug-out. I looked round at the bloodstained walls and shivered. A nice coward, am I not Thank God, the situation was not quite so bad as reported ; our men got the upper hand, and drove back the attack, but that half-hour of suspense will live long in my memory.”
Today we continue the narrative and consider the events of September 4, 1916.
Next morning there was a short march over the brow of a hill and down into a valley still nearer to the front line. It was a great change from the trench life of the past six months, since at Loos for days one never saw a soul overground and all guns were carefully hidden But here there were scores and hundreds of cannon of all shapes and sizes, standing out boldly in the fields and “roaring as if they had swallowed a dish of uncooked shells.” Amid this infernal din and never-ending roar and crash of bursting shells, men and horses moved about as if there were no war. In this valley of death Fr. Doyle s men had their first casualties and he himself had a very narrow escape which is best described in his own words.
“I was standing about 100 yards away watching a party of my men crossing the valley, when I saw the earth under their feet open and the twenty men disappear in a cloud of smoke, while a column of stones and clay was shot a couple of hundred feet into the air. A big German shell by the merest chance had landed in the middle of the party. I rushed down the slope, getting a most unmerciful whack between the shoulders, probably from a falling stone, as it did not wound me, but it was no time to think of one’s safety. I gave them all a General Absolution, scraped the clay from the faces of a couple of buried men who were not wounded, and then anointed as many of the poor lads as I could reach. Two of them had no faces to anoint and others were ten feet under the clay, but a few were living still. By this time half a dozen volunteers had run up and were digging the buried men out. War may be horrible, but it certainly brings out the best side of a man’s character; over and over again I have seen men risking their lives to help or save a comrade, and these brave fellows knew the risk they were taking, for when a German shell falls in a certain place, you clear as quickly as you can since several more are pretty certain to land close. It was a case of duty for me, but real courage for them. We dug like demons for our lad’s lives and our own, to tell the truth, for every few minutes another iron pill from a Krupp gun would come tearing down the valley, making our very hearts leap into our mouths. More than once we were well sprinkled with clay and stones, but the cup of cold water promise was well kept, and not one of the party received a scratch. We got three buried men out alive, not much the worse for their trying experience, but so thoroughly had the shell done its work that there was not a single wounded man in the rest of the party; all had gone to a better land. As I walked back I nearly shared the fate of my boys, but somehow escaped again, and pulled out two more lads who were only buried up to the waist and uninjured. Meanwhile the regiment had been ordered back to a safer position on the hill, and we were able to breathe once more.”
The men’s resting place that night consisted of some open shell holes. “To make matters worse,” writes Fr. Doyle “we were posted fifteen yards in front of two batteries of field guns, while on our right a little further off were half a dozen huge sixty-pounders; not once during the whole night did these guns cease firing.” This proximity not only contributed an ear-splitting din but added considerably to the men’s risk owing to the occasional premature bursting of the shells. In spite of these discomforts and the torrential downpour of rain, the men slept out of sheer weariness. “I could not help thinking,” says Fr. Doyle, “of Him who often had nowhere to lay His head, and it helped me to resemble Him a little.”
Today is also the anniversary of the death of the Servant of God, Fr Vincent Capodanno, a military chaplain in the Vietnam War who, just like Fr Doyle, died while rushing out onto the field of battle to bring spiritual and temporal comfort to his men. He died in 1967. I do not know much about Fr Capodanno’s spirituality or interior life, but from what I know of his life in the war, it seems almost identical to that of Fr Doyle – total selflessness and a desire to share every hardship with the soldiers in order to serve them and save their souls.
The vocation of the military chaplain is a special and unique one, and one can certainly combine a lively hatred for war with an admiration for the virtues of these chaplains, for they embody the mission of the Church – to bring the salvation of Christ to the ends of the earth, even if that means living, and dying, on a bloody battlefield.
The above image was published in an Irish newspaper at the end of 1916. The priest is unidentified, but we can well imagine Fr Doyle in this situation. The picture represents a scene from 2nd September 1916. Fr Doyle and his men had to suddenly march to the front one night in September 1916 alright, but it was on the evening of the 3rd and not of the 2nd.
Before we recount the events of 3 September 1916, let us read Fr Doyle’s reflection on his experiences in the Battle of the Somme that month. Writing to his father later in September 1916, he had this to say:
“I have been through the most terrible experience of my whole life, in comparison with which all that I have witnessed or suffered since my arrival in France seems of little consequence; a time of such awful horror that I believe if the good God had not helped me powerfully by His grace I could never have endured it. To sum up all in one word, for the past week I have been living literally in hell, amid sights and scenes and dangers enough to test the courage of the bravest; but through it all my confidence and trust in our Blessed Lord s protection never wavered, for I felt that somehow, even if it needed a miracle, He would bring me safe through the furnace of tribulation. I was hit three times, on the last occasion by a piece of shell big enough to have taken off half my leg, but wonderful to relate I did not receive a wound or scratch there is some advantage, you see, in having a good thick skin! As you can imagine, I am pretty well worn out and exhausted, rather shaken by the terrific strain of those days and nights without any real sleep or repose, with nerves tingling, ever on the jump, like the rest of us; but it is all over now; we are well behind the firing line on our way at last for a good long rest, which report says will be enjoyed close to the sea.”
Now for the events of 103 years ago today from O’Rahilly’s biography:
Each morning Fr. Doyle said Mass in the open and gave Holy Communion to hundreds of the men. “I wish you could have seen them kneeling there before the whole camp, recollected and prayerful a grand profession surely of the faith that is in them. More than one non-Catholic was touched by it; and it made many a one, I am sure, turn to God in the hour of need.” On the evening of Sunday, September 3, just as they were sitting down to dinner, spread on a pile of empty shell boxes, rgent orders reached the 16th Division to march in ten minutes.
“There was only time to grab a slice of bread and hack off a piece of meat before rushing to get one’s kit. As luck would have it I had had nothing to eat since the morning and was famished, but there was nothing for it but to tighten one’s belt and look happy”. There are occasions when even the world can appreciate Jesuit obedience! After a couple of hours tramp a halt was called and an order came to stock all impedimenta kits, packs, blankets, etc., by the side of the road. Fr. Doyle, it is almost needless to say, held on to his Mass things, though to his great sorrow for five days he was unable to offer the Holy Sacrifice “the biggest privation of the whole campaign.”
The night was spent without covering or blankets, sitting on the ground.
Tomorrow we shall pick up from this point, with some of Fr Doyle’s typical close shaves with death.