31 March 1917

We left Belgium  a glorious morning, dry under foot, with brilliant sunshine. The Brigade of four regiments made a gallant show, each headed by its band of pipers, and followed by the transport. We were the first to move off, and so came in for an extra share of greetings from the villagers who turned out to see us pass, as fine a lot of sturdy chaps as you could wish to gaze on, not to mention the gallant chaplain.

Our march for the first day was not a very long one, something about 20 miles, but, as every pace took us further and further from the trenches, the march was a labour of love. At midday a halt was called for dinner, which had been cooking slowly into traveling kitchens which accompanied us, and, in a few minutes, every man was sitting by the roadside, negotiating a big supply of hot meat and potatoes with a substantial chunk of bread. We, poor officers, were left to hunt for ourselves, a hunt which did not promise well at first, as the people in the (cafes) were anything but friendly, and said they had nothing to give us to eat. The reason, I discovered later, was that some British officers that gone away without paying their bill, a not uncommon thing, I am sorry to say. Eventually, with the help of a little palaver and my bad French, our party secured some excellent bread and butter, coffee, and a basket of fresh eggs. On again after an hours rest .

Marching with a heavy rifle and full kit is no joke, hence our pace is slow. I often wonder how the poor men stick it, and stick it they do, most of them at least, till I have seen them drop senseless by the road from sheer exhaustion. As a rule they are left there to follow the as best they can, for is they knew that falling out meant a lift, not many of the regiment would reach their destination on foot. To make matters worse we had to trump along over unpaved roads, which must be an invention of the Old Boy to torture people

At last the town we were bound for came insight and hopes of a good rest were high when word came along we were not to stay in that haven of peace and plenty, but trudge on another three miles. The camel is supposed to be a patient animal, but Tommy can give him points any day. Our lodging was a mutilated country farmhouse, dirty uncomfortable, and the less said about it the better, but everyone was too tired to care much, even though we officers snoring on the floor felt inclined to envy the sardines in their comfortable box.

31 March 1916 – Fr Doyle’s first night in the trenches

I had rather an amusing experience the first night I spent in the trenches. On arriving here I found two officers in the dugout which was intended for me; but as they were leaving next day I did not care to evict them. After some search I came across an unoccupied glorified rabbit hole – any port in a storm. It was not too inviting, looking rather damp; but I got a trench board which made a capital foundation for a bed, and spread my sleeping bag over it. Let me say here that I do not recommend a trench board for a bed. It is simply a kind of ladder with flat steps which is laid at the bottom of the trench; but being very narrow it requires great skill to prevent yourself from rolling off during the night. In addition, the sharp edges of the steps have a trick of cutting into your back and ribs making you feel in the morning as if you had been at Donnybrook fair the night before. In spite of it all I slept soundly till I was awakened by feeling a huge rat sitting on my chest. The rats round here beat anything I’ve ever seen. If I told you they were as big as sheep you would scarcely believe me, so let me say a lamb; in any case this fellow was a whopper. But as I gradually woke more fully I felt his weight and could dimly see the black outline. Before I quite realized what was happening a warm soft tongue began to lick my face, and I recognized my old friend- the dog.

Spy Wednesday 1917

On Spy Wednesday evening after Benediction, I told the men I wanted nine volunteers to watch an hour during the following night before the Altar of Repose. I had barely finished speaking when the whole church made a rush up to the altar rails and were keenly disappointed when I could only take the first nine, though I could have had thirty an hour if I wanted them. I was touched by the poor fellows’ generosity, for they had just finished a long, hard day’s work with more before them. I got the nine men to bring their blankets into the little sacristy, and while one watched, the others slept. Surely our Lord must have been pleased with His Guard if Honour, and will bless them as only he can.

Letter 2: 5 March 1916

On the way I noticed that heavy firing was going on ahead, but it was only when I reached a bend in the road that I realized the enemy were actually shelling the very spot I had to pass. Some soldiers stopped me, saying it was dangerous to go on. At the moment I was wondering what had become of the side of a vacant house which had suddenly vanished in a cloud of smoke, and I was painfully aware of the proximity of high explosive shells. 

Here was a fix! I knew my regiment was waiting in the village for Mass, and also that half of them were going to the trenches that afternoon for the first time; if I did not turn up they would lose Confession and Holy Communion, but the only way to reach them was by the shell-swept road. What really decided me was the thought that I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament, and I felt that, having our Lord Himself with me, no harm could possibly come to me. I mounted the bicycle and faced the music. I don’t want you to think me very brave and courageous, for I confess I felt horribly afraid; it was my baptism of fire, and one needs to grow accustomed to the sound of bursting shells. Just then I was wishing my regiment in Jericho and every German gun at the bottom of the Red Sea or any other hot place. 

Call it a miracle if you will, but the moment I turned the corner the guns ceased firing, and not a shell fell till I was safely in the village Church. My confidence in God’s protection was not misplaced. Naturally I did not know this was going to happen, and it was anything but pleasant riding down the last stretch of road, listening for the scream of the coming shell. Have you ever had a nightmare in which you were pursued by ten mad bulls, while the faster you tried to run, the more your feet stuck in the mud? These were just my feelings as I pedalled down that blessed road which seemed to grow longer and longer the further I went. 

At last I turned the corner, reached the Church, and had just begun Mass when down came the hail of shells once more. One or two must have burst very close, judging by the way the walls shook, but I felt quite happy and quite ready to be blown from the altar, for I saw a fine plump Frenchwoman just behind me; she might have been killed, but I was quite safe! 

I mention this little adventure as I think it will console you, as it has consoled me, showing that all the good prayers are not in vain, and that this is a happy omen of God’s loving protection from all dangers. I have just heard that one, at least, of the men to whom I gave Holy Communion that morning was killed the same night in the trenches.

Letter 1L 5 March 1916

I am suffering much in every way, most of all, perhaps, from sheer fatigue. As regards food and lodging I am not badly off, but the discomforts of the life would be long to tell. However, like St. Paul I can say that I superabound with joy in all my tribulations; for I know that they come from God’s hand and that they are working out some plan of His in my soul. What a joy to be able to offer oneself entirely, even life itself, each morning at Mass, and to think that perhaps before evening He may have accepted the offering!

18 February 1916

Having set sail to the continent, Fr Doyle describes the crossing. 

The moon was surrounded by magnificent halo or crown, which I promptly bagged for myself. I was fortunately able to get some tea on shore, for though they served us with lifebelts, nothing in the shape of dinner or rations came along. There were only a few bunks which I left to the other officers, and as there was no place to sleep, except the stoke hole, which I was not having this journey, I picked a comfortable corner on deck and prepared for a snooze, when alas! Down came the rain. Providence however came to my rescue: the 2nd engineer passing by very kindly offered me a share of his cabin, and I slept like a top on the settee. He was awfully kind to me, even offering me a share of his bunk, and this morning he had hot coffee and buns ready when I awoke; but as I was hoping to be able to celebrate Mass on shore, I had to postpone that luxury. At present there seems little prospect of either Mass or breakfast, as it is now 9 and we have been lying offshore since 4 this morning. 11:30 AM. Just landed. Seeing there was no chance for Mass, I secured a welcome cup of tea; also a plate of cold liver and potatoes likewise cold – a dish to tempt one’s appetite after a channel crossing!

17 February 1916

Fr Doyle left his training camp and headed to the continent 105 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.

14 February 1916

We are having desperate work these days. The good God is simply pouring out His grace on these poor fellows and reconciling them before they die. It has to be quick work, no time for ‘trimmings.’ I have positively a pain in my arm giving Absolution and Communions in the morning. I was able to manage Exposition all day last Sunday, which bought in many an erring sheep. I realise that from this on my life will be a martyrdom in a way I never thought of. I have got to love my brave lads almost like my own brothers and sisters. They are so wild and reckless, and at the same time so full of faith and love of God and His Blessed Mother. Yet soon I shall have to see the majority of them blown to bits, torn and mangled out of shape. Our Brigade is leaving tomorrow for France. I am waiting till Friday night, so as to get in all the confessions I can. Do pray I may be able to say daily Mass. I shall carry everything necessary on my back, and so may manage the Holy Sacrifice in the train.

2 February 1917

Today, however, I was able to offer the Holy Sacrifice in the trenches, my chapel being a dug-out capable of holding ten or a dozen comfortably, but as my congregation numbered forty-six the vacant space was small. How they all managed to squeeze in I cannot say. There was no question of kneeling down, the men simply stood, silently and reverently round the little improvised altar of ammunition boxes; glad as one of them quaintly expressed it ‘glad to have a say in it.’ Surely Our Lord must have been glad also, for every one of the forty-six received Holy Communion and went back to their posts happy at heart and strengthened to face the hardships of these days and nights of cold.

The same afternoon, as I was coming back from my round of the Front Line trench I was caught in a rather heavy ‘strafe’ of the Germans. The point they were shelling was some little distance further on, but quite close to my way home and as splinters were flying about rather abundantly I thought it well to get under cover.

Accordingly, I crawled into a hole in which there were already six men and judging by the look on their faces no one could have been more welcome. ‘Come in Father’, one of them cried, ‘we’re safe now, anyhow.’

Poor fellows, they have such simple, strong faith and reverence for the priest that they would not mind, I think, if all the shells in Prussialand came tumbling into the trench; ‘Isn’t the priest of God with us, what more do you want?’

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.