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.
How little the expression ‘we were shelled for two hours’ conveys to you. People read in their papers some mornings: ‘The enemy fiercely attacked our trenches but were driven back again’ and never give a thought to the brave fellows who lie in heaps mangled and bleeding, nor to the moans of pain, nor the broken hearts in many a home. Not many at home care much, I fear, otherwise we should hear less of these brave speeches about ‘no peace at any price’ from men who will never have to fight. If only the world, Allied and German, could see and hear what we see and hear daily there would soon be a shout for ‘peace at any price’.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words on 1 January 1917. They are a fitting reflection for the world day of prayer for peace. Fr Doyle was tough and brave. But he also hated war, and longed for peace. He did so not out of fear or love of comfort, but because he saw the horror and pain that war meant for so many.Perhaps there are some who, motivated by their hatred of war and bloodshed, have little interest in the life and example of a heroic chaplain like Fr Doyle. These words may perhaps give cause for a second glance at Fr Doyle and his spirit, which so longed for peace.
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.
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!’
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.”
My genius of an orderly fried meat and pudding together and, with a smile of triumph on his face, brought both on the same plate to the dug-out. He is a good poor chap, but I would not recommend him as a cook.
COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote these words in a letter on 22nd December 1916, 102 years ago today. Fr Doyle loved his orderly (Fr Doyle had the rank of Captain, and thus had an orderly to attend to him), but he had much to suffer at his hands – he seems to have lacked a certain common sense. On one occasion he seems to have made tea from the water in which he washed Fr Doyle’s socks! On another occasion (if I recall correctly…) tea was made from water tainted with petrol. Yet, as usual, Fr Doyle offered it all up and took everything in good spirit.
The famous Fr Frank Browne SJ was a witness to the challenges posed by Fr Doyle’s orderly. Here is his account of one tale of woe.
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 from 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, I can perhaps gain something too.’ I must say his patience and restraint made a great impression on me.
Fr Doyle’s kindly patience in dealing with the incompetence of his orderly, and the huge inconveniences they caused him in the midst of so many other stresses and dangers, is surely a sign of great virtue.
Fr Doyle also “used” the incompetence of his orderly as a way of overcoming his own self-will. Copying the example of the Spaniard Luisa de Caravajal, a 16th century noblewoman who was close to the Jesuits and did much for the English martyrs of the Elizabethan persecution, he determined to allow himself to be “trampled on” by his orderly. Writing in his private diary in October 1916, he says:
Lately the desire to be trampled on and become the slave of everybody has grown very strong. I have resolved to make myself secretly the slave of my servant, and, as far as I can, to submit to his will e.g. to wait till he comes to serve my Mass and not to send for him, never to complain of anything he does, to take my meals in the way he chooses to cook them and at the hours he suggests, to let him arrange things in the way he sees fit, in a word humbly to let him trample on me as I deserve.
Fr Doyle was a master of the interior struggle for virtue. His predominant weakness (in my opinion) was his strong willed temperament. This temperament is obviously not entirely bad news the way a temperament oriented towards sloth or sensuality is – we need a strong will if we are ever to achieve anything in life. But Fr Doyle knew that he could easily tip over into a hot temper if he wasn’t careful. Even near the end of his life, we see him remain vigilant – very successfully – to master this defect.
All of this is also a further sign of Fr Doyle’s sound psychological health and that his penances were appropriate for him – a neurotic and unbalanced personality who performed penance out of an unhealthy obsession seems unlikely to be able to maintain patience and serenity in the face of the provocations and failures of his orderly. On the contrary, Fr Doyle was universally known for this sweetness and calm, even when tired, under stress and when facing grave dangers.
I had just finished breakfast when I heard Miss Krupp come singing overhead with that peculiar note which warns of her proximity. I ran to the door (the running consisted of one step) and saw the explosion at the bottom of the little hill about 200 yards away. A moment later another scream and the earth is flying sky-high, this time 50 yards nearer. I waited anxiously for the next shot. Again the range was shorter, the third shell bursting half the distance from the first and then I realised that at this rate of progression I should very soon have an unwelcome visitor landing at my very door, for my dug-out was in direct line of fire. There was no time to adopt the Dublin lad’s advice when faced with a difficulty and ‘send for the polis’, nor was there any use trying to get out of the way, for as likely as not another shell would land in the trench itself, while my dug-out afforded some protection.
I knew there was nothing to fear while His powerful protection was over me, and it never failed me yet, but I confess I shook with fear as another shell came crashing down and the stones and the clay rattled in a shower outside and on the roof.
It is a curious thing I have never had a moment’s hesitation, nor ever felt fear in going into the greatest danger when duty called and some poor chap needed help, but to sit ‘in cold blood’, so to speak, and wait to be blown to pieces or buried by a ‘crump’ is an experience which tests one’s nerves to the limit. Thank God I have been able to conceal my feelings and so help others to despise the danger when I was just longing to take to my heels.
An officer said to me at the Somme: ‘I have often envied you your coolness and cheerfulness in hot corners.’ I rather surprised him by saying that my real feeling was abject fear and I often shook like a leaf.
And writing later in the day about another attack:
Three of my lads came tearing in to my dug-out, they had nearly been sent to glory and felt they were safe with the priest. The poor priest cracks a joke or two, makes them forget their terror, and goes on with his lunch while every morsel sticks in his throat from fear and dread of the next shell. A moment passes, two – ‘here he comes’ – dead silence and anxious faces for a second and then we all laugh, for it is one of our own shells going over. Five minutes more and we know all danger has passed, but it has been a memorable day for me, though only one of many such in the past.