6 June 1917

Today we have a small excerpt from one of Fr Doyle’s letters which describes his preparations for the Battle of Messines. It was a truly devastating engagement. We shall read Fr Doyle’s description of the events tomorrow, though in preparation you may be interested in reading a description of the attack here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Messines

For today, we will focus on Fr Doyle’s spiritual preparations.  Here is Fr Doyle’s description of this night in 1917, which also happened to be the night before the feast of Corpus Christi:

On Wednesday night, June 6th we moved off, so as to be in position for the attack at 3.10 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Feast of Corpus Christ! I got to the little temporary chapel at the rear of our trenches soon after twelve, and tried to get a few moments’ sleep before beginning Mass at one, a hopeless task, you may imagine, as the guns had gone raging mad. I could not help thinking would this be my last Mass, though I really never had any doubt the good God would continue to protect me in the future as He had done in the past, and I was quite content to leave myself in His hands, since He knows what is best for us all.

Alfred O’Rahilly describes the rest of the preparation in these words:

It was 11.50 when Fr. Browne and Fr. Doyle reached the little sandbag chapel which they had used when holding the line. There they lay down for an hour’s rest on two stretchers borrowed from the huge pile waiting nearby for the morrow’s bloody work. Leaving their servant lying fast asleep through sheer exhaustion, the two chaplains got up at 1 a.m. and prepared the altar. Fr. Doyle said Mass first and was served by Fr Browne, who, not having yet made his Last Vows, renewed his Vows at the Mass, as he always did at home on Corpus Christi. It was surely a weird and solemn Renovation. While Fr. Browne unvested after his own Mass and packed up the things, Fr. Doyle and his servant (now awake) prepared breakfast. At 2.30 the two chaplains put on their battle kit and made for their respective aid posts. Up near the front line, along the hedgerows, the battalions of the 48th Brigade were massed in support position. Their task was not to attack, but to follow up and consolidate and, should need arise, to help the leading brigades. “As I walked up to my post at the advanced dressing station,” says Fr. Doyle, “I prayed for that peace of a perfect trust which seems to be so pleasing to our Lord.”

Thoughts for June 5 from Fr Willie Doyle

I have not told them at home, and do not want them to know but we have had a terrible time for the last three weeks, constant and increasing shelling, with many wonderful escapes. We are on the eve of a tremendous battle and the danger will be very great. Sometimes I think God wishes the actual sacrifice of my life — the offering of it was made long ago. But if so, that almost useless life will be given most joyfully. I feel wonderful peace and confidence in leaving myself absolutely in God’s Hands. Only I know it would not be right, I would like never to take shelter from bursting shells; and up to a few days ago, till ordered by the Colonel, I never wore a steel helmet. I want to give myself absolutely to Him to do with me just as He pleases, to strike or kill me, as He wishes, trying to go along bravely and truthfully, looking up into His loving Face, for surely He knows best. On the other hand I have the conviction, growing stronger every day, that nothing serious will befall me; a wound would be joy, ‘to shed one’s blood for Jesus,’ when I would gladly empty my veins for Him. Otherwise why would He impress so strongly on my mind that this ‘novitiate’ out here is only the preparation for my real life’s work? Why does He put so many schemes and plans into my mind? Why has He mapped out several little books, one of which will do great good, I believe, because every word will be His? Then the possibilities of the Holy Childhood have gripped me, and His little perishing souls, 10,000 a day, seem ever to be pleading for a sight of Jesus! Yet I have laid even the desire to do these things at His Feet, and I strive might and main to have no will but His, for this pleases Him most. I am very calm and trustful in face of the awful storm so soon to burst. But could it be otherwise, when He is ever with me and when I know that should I fall, it will only be into His Arms of love?

COMMENT: Fr Doyle wrote this letter on 5 June 1917.

Fr Doyle was completely abandoned to God’s will, accepting even death if He should wish it. Yet his own assessment of his future was mistaken – at this stage he felt that he would survive the war, but in reality he had only two and a half months left until he fell into those “arms of love”.

Fr Doyle’s death robbed us of those “several little books” that he had mapped out, although we do have one of them – his famous booklet Scruples and their TreatmentBut on the other hand, if he had survived the war he would almost certainly have destroyed his private notes and diaries. It is these precious writings that allow us to see this master spiritual tactician at work in his own life. We are all the richer for that.

Thoughts for June 4 from Fr Willie Doyle

I had not the heart to wake up the poor nuns, and after all when one is fast asleep, is not a hard plank just as soft as a feather bed? You see I am becoming a bit of a philosopher! The next morning, I had Mass in a field close to the camp. I wish you could have seen the men as they knelt in a hollow square round the improvised altar, brilliant sunshine overhead, and the soft green of spring about them. They looked so happy, poor lads, as I went down one line and up the other, giving them the Bread of the Strong, and I could not help thinking of another scene long ago when our Lord made the multitude sit down on the grass, and fed them miraculously with the seven loaves. Before I got to the end of my 700 Communions I felt wondrous pity for the twelve Apostles, for they must have been jolly tired also.

COMMENT: The incident described here took place in the early days of June 1917. Fr Doyle was meant to sleep in a convent (he was looking forward to what he described as “an unblushing gluttonous feast of blankets” after 16 days in the front line), but due to a mistake on the part of his orderly, he arrived late at the convent and the nuns were already asleep. Fr Doyle seems to have reached a point where everything is seen as coming from the hand of God – he was happy with the hard plank of wood, because when you’re asleep, it’s all the same really! How many of us would take this setback with such calm acceptance, especially after 16 days of intense pressure and danger at the front line? This incident reminds uf of another, even more heroic one: on one occasion, when the medical doctor was ill, and there was no dry ground to sleep on in the dig out, Fr Doyle lay face down on the damp ground and made the doctor sleep on his back….

In today’s quote we also see Fr Doyle’s simple, cheerful humanity. This quote comes from one of Fr Doyle’s letters home to his father. His humorous comment at how tired the Apostles must have been when Jesus fed the five thousand is so typical of him – these little asides must surely have brought a smile to his father’s face. His constant solicitude for his father so many miles away, when he himself thought so little of his own extreme danger, is one of Fr Doyle’s most charming characteristics.

29 May 1917

Fr Doyle wrote the following letter to his father on 29 May 1917 – 104 years ago today. In this letter he outlines what a “raiding party” is. He firstly gives a humorous example of what a raiding party could be like (using a witty example) followed by a very serious account of an actual raiding party he recently witnessed. 

In today’s excerpts we once again see Fr Doyle’s own wit as well as his love for his father in the effort he went to to write out this humorous scene:

As you might like to know how the ‘game of raiding your neighbour’ is played, a sort of novelty for your next garden party, I shall give you a few particulars. You dig two trenches about 100 yards apart and fill one with the enemy, who are well provided with hand bombs, machine guns etc. Some night when you think they won’t expect your coming, a party of your men climb over the top of their parapet and start to crawl a là Red Indian towards the foe. It is exciting work for star shells are going up every few minutes and lighting up No Man’s Land, during which time your men lie on their faces motionless, probably cursing the inventor of the said star-shells, or Very Lights, and praying for Egyptian darkness. It is part of the game that if the enemy see you, they promptly paste you with bombs (which hurt) or give you a shower bath of leaden bullets. For this reason, when the game is played at garden parties it is recommended to place husbands in one trench and wives in the other and to oppose P.P.’s or Rev. Mothers by their curates and communities; in this way accuracy of aim is wonderfully improved and the casualties delightfully high, which is a desideratum in these days, when the supper hour arrives.

And becoming more serious Fr Doyle recounts the following episode:

Having reached a certain distance the raiders wait for the artillery barrage to open. That is a sight never to be forgotten. At a fixed moment every gun opens fire simultaneously with a crash that shakes the Heavens and for five minutes the enemy’s trench, from end to end, is a line of fire lit up by the hundreds of bursting shells. Then the barrage lifts like a curtain to the second trench, to keep back reinforcements, while the attackers dash through the cut barbed wire, over into the trench, sometimes to meet a stout opposition in spite of the awful shelling, sometimes only finding the bleeding remains of what was once a brave man. Dug-outs are bombed if their occupants won’t come out, papers and maps secured, prisoners captured if possible, to be questioned later for information, which seems to be freely and foolishly given, and then the raiders, carrying their own dead and wounded get back as quickly as they can to their own lines, for by this time the enemy artillery have opened fire and things are warm and lively.

Thoughts for May 24 from Fr Willie Doyle

One German prisoner, badly wounded in the leg, was brought in. He knew only a few words of English, but spoke French fluently. I try to do all I can for the unfortunate prisoners, as sometimes not much sympathy is shown them, and they have evidently been drilled into believing that we promptly roast and eat them alive. I gave him a drink, made him as comfortable as possible, and then seeing a rosary in his pocket, asked him was he a Catholic. ‘I am a Catholic priest,’ I said, ‘and you need not have any fear’.

‘Ah’, he replied, ‘you are a true priest’. He gave me his home address in Germany, and asked me to write to his parents. ‘Poor father and mother will be uneasy,’ he said, as his eyes filled with tears. ‘O my God, how I am suffering, but I offer it all up to You’. I hope to get a letter through by means of the Swiss Red Cross, which will be a comfort to his anxious parents, who seem good pious souls.

COMMENT: This incident occurred on this day in 1917. It demonstrates Fr Doyle’s kindness to everyone he met, even to one who was probably firing shells at him just a few days previously. There are many other recorded instances of Fr Doyle’s kindness to German prisoners. He fed them, tended to their wounds, found them something to eat or drink.

In this way he reflected his Master who told us to love our enemies and that whatever we do for others should be considered as done to Christ also.

22 May 1917

The enemy for once did me a good turn. I had arranged to hear the men’s Confessions, shortly before he opened fire and a couple of well- directed shells helped my work immensely by putting the fear of God into the hearts of a few careless boys who might not have troubled about coming near me otherwise. I wonder whether the Sacraments were ever administered under stranger circumstances. Picture my little dug-out (none too big at any time) packed with men who had dashed in for shelter from the splinters and shrapnel coming down like hail. In one corner is kneeling a poor fellow, recently joined who has not ‘knelt to the priest’, as the men quaintly say, for many a day, trying to make his confession. I make short work of that for a shower of clay and stones falling at the door is a gentle hint that the ‘crumps’ are getting uncomfortably near and I want to give him absolution in case an unwelcome visitor should walk in. Then, while outside, the ground rocks and seems to split with the crash of the shells – big chaps some of them – I give them all Holy Communion, say a short prayer and perform the wonderful feat of packing a few more men into our sardine tin of a house. 

As soon as I got the chance I slipped round to see how many casualties there were, for I thought not a mouse could survive the bombardment. Thank God no one was killed, or even badly hit, and the firing having ceased, we should breathe again. I was walking up the trench from the dressing station when I heard the scream of another shell…It was then I realised my good fortune. There were two ways to my dug-out and naturally I choose the shorter. This time, without any special reason, I went by the longer way and it was well I did for the shell pitched in the other trench and probably would have caught me nicely as I went by, but instead of that it wreaked its vengeance on my unfortunate orderly, who was close by in his dug-out, sending him spinning on his head, but otherwise not injuring him. I found another string of men awaiting my return for Confession and Holy Communion, in fact quite a busy evening, thanks once more to Fritz’s ‘H.E.’ or High Explosive, which has a wonderful persuasive effect of its own. I am wondering how many pounds of H.E. I shall require when giving my next retreat. 

22 May 1916

You will be sorry to hear that I have lost the good nuns and my little Chapel. I call it ‘mine’ as it was associated with so many stirring events in my life at the front. I was on my way there the famous Sunday morning when the shells miraculously stopped falling on the road I had to pass. I was going to the same little chapel when the bombardment and gas attack of 27 April began, and several times I have said Mass at the Altar, which is now in fragments. A few mornings ago a big shell hit the chapel, burst inside, and literally blew it to bits, not a brick being left standing on another. It was the most complete bit of destructive work I have ever seen. I remember the poor nuns telling me that they had become so accustomed to the shelling they did not bother taking shelter in the cellar. For some reason or other (God’s providence over them no doubt) they had gone down to the lower regions this morning and so escaped without a scratch. I am very sorry to leave them, for we had become fast friends and more than once they had bound up my wounds, internal ones be it noted, pouring in rolls and coffee, hot and strong. I think I never met four pluckier women – three times they were sent away by the military authorities and as often came back. I should not be a bit surprised to find them one morning camped once more on the ruins of the convent.

28 April: Aftermath of the Hulloch gas attack

 

We continue today with an excerpt from the original letter detailing some of the work Fr Doyle had to undertake towards the end of April, 1916. After these stressful days were ended, Fr Doyle was given a few days rest, and he was able to remove and change his clothes for the first time in over two weeks! Such was his exhaustion from serving the soldiers that he slept for 13 hours straight on his first night of rest!

On paper every man with a helmet was as safe as I was from gas poisoning. But now it is evident many of the men despised the ‘old German gas,’ some did not bother putting on their helmets, others had torn theirs, and others like myself had thrown them aside or lost them. From early morning till late at night I worked my way from trench to trench single handed the first day, with three regiments to look after, and could get no help. Many men died before I could reach them; others seemed just to live till I anointed them, and were gone before I passed back. There they lay, scores of them (we lost 800, nearly all from gas) in the bottom of the trench, in every conceivable posture of human agony: the clothes torn off their bodies in a vain effort to breathe; while from end to end of that valley of death came one low unceasing moan from the lips of brave men fighting and struggling for life.

I don’t think you will blame me when I tell you that more than once the words of Absolution stuck in my throat, and the tears splashed down on the patient suffering faces of my poor boys as I leant down to anoint them. One young soldier seized my two hands and covered them with kisses; another looked up and said: ‘Oh! Father I can die happy now, sure I’m not afraid of death or anything else since I have seen you.’ Don’t you think, dear father, that the little sacrifice made in coming out here has already been more than repaid, and if you have suffered a little anxiety on my account, you have at least the consolation of knowing that I have, through God’s goodness, been able to comfort many a poor fellow and perhaps to open the gates of Heaven for them.

Fr Doyle’s narrow escape in the Hulloch gas attack

 

Fr Doyle sent the letter below to his father one year after the gas attack of April 1916 (see yesterday’s post). In this letter, he reveals more details of what had happened on April 26-28 1916. It seems to have been an even closer scrape with death than he had let on in the original letter, and he seems to have held off telling his father about it in case it caused undue worry for him.

I have never told you the whole story of that memorable April morning or the repetition of it the following day, or how when I was lying on the stretcher going to ‘peg out,’ as the doctor believed, God gave me back my strength and energy in a way which was nothing short of a miracle, to help many a poor fellow to die in peace and perhaps to open the gates of heaven to not a few.

 I had come through the three attacks without ill results, though having been unexpectedly caught by the last one, as I was anointing a dying man and did not see the poisonous fumes coming, I had swallowed some of the gas before I could get my helmet on. It was nothing very serious, but left me rather weak and washy. There was little time to think of that, for wounded and dying were lying all along the trenches, and I was the only priest on that section at the time.

 The fumes had quite blown away, but a good deal of the gas, being of a heavy nature, had sunk down to the bottom of the trench and gathered under the duck-boards or wooden flooring. It was impossible to do one’s work with the gas helmet on, and so as I knelt down to absolve or anoint man after man for the greater part of that day, I had to inhale the chlorine fumes till I had nearly enough gas in my poor inside to inflate a German sausage balloon.

 I did not then know that when a man is gassed his only chance (and a poor one at that) is to lie perfectly still to give the heart a chance of fighting its foe. In happy ignorance of my real state, I covered mile after mile of those trenches until at last in the evening, when the work was done, I was able to rejoin my battalion in a village close to the Line.

 It was only then I began to realise that I felt ‘rotten bad’ as schoolboys say. I remember the doctor, who was a great friend of mine, feeling my pulse and shaking his head as he put me lying in a corner of the shattered house, and then he sat beside me for hours with a kindness I can never forget. He told me afterwards he was sure I was a ‘gone coon’ but at the moment I did not care much. Then I fell asleep only to be rudely awakened at four next morning by the crash of guns and the dreaded bugle call ‘gas alarm, gas alarm.’ The Germans had launched a second attack, fiercer than the first. It did not take long to make up my mind what to do — who would hesitate at such a moment, when the Reaper Death was busy? — and before I reached the trenches I had anointed a number of poor fellows who had struggled back after being gassed and had fallen dying by the roadside.’

The harvest that day was a big one, for there had been bloody fighting all along the Front. Many a man died happy in the thought that the priest’s hand had been raised in absolution over his head and the Holy Oils’ anointing had given pardon to those senses which he had used to offend the Almighty. It was a long, hard day, a day of heart rending sights, with the consolation of good work done in spite of the deadly fumes, and I reached my billet wet and muddy, pretty nearly worn out, but perfectly well, with not the slightest ill effect from what I had gone through, nor have I felt any since. Surely God has been good to me. That was not the first of His many favours, nor has it been the last.

26 April: 105th anniversary of the Hulloch gas attack

 

Fr Doyle had many incredibly close shaves with death during the almost 2 years he spent as a military chaplain. He has recorded many of these in his diaries and in the letters he sent home to his father. One of these dramatic moments occurred on the night of April 26 and early morning April 27 1916. Here is an excerpt from a letter home to his father which recounts the experience in a lot of detail. A few things stand out in this letter. Firstly the fact that he recorded the event in so much detail in order to keep his father informed tells us something of Fr Doyle’s filial respect and love. How many of us would easily excuse ourselves of the duty of writing home, preferring instead to sleep or take it easy in some other way? Secondly there is his trust in Providence and the seemingly supernatural help he received that day. Did he imagine this help, or did his guardian angel assist him in a special way on this day? We do not know, but it would not be the first time in history that somebody has received specific assistance in this form. Thirdly, we see something of the value of the priesthood and the sacraments, and how important the presence of the priest was to the dying soldiers, and how far Fr Doyle would go to assist them. 

Tomorrow we will reproduce the text of a letter he wrote a year later in which he gives even more details of the danger he faced on this occasion (he didn’t reveal everything to his father all at once in case it worried him) and on Friday we will reproduce part of a letter which reveals some of the harrowing work he had to undertake in the days following this gas attack.

About four o’clock (in the morning) the thought struck me that it would be a good thing to walk back to the village to warm myself and say an early Mass for the nuns, who usually have to wait hours for some chaplain to turn up. They have been very kind to me, and I was glad of this chance of doing this little service to them. The village is about two miles behind our trench, in such a position that one can leave cover with perfect safety and walk there across the fields. As I left the trench about 4.45, the sun was just rising. It was a perfect morning with a gentle breeze blowing. Now and again came the crack of a rifle, but all was unusually calm and still: little did I think of the deadly storm about to burst and hurry so many brave men into eternity. I had just reached a point half way between our trenches and the village when I heard behind me the deep boom of a German gun quickly followed by a dozen others. In a moment our gunners replied and before I could well realize what was taking place, the air was alive with shells. At first I thought it was just a bit of the usual good morning greeting and that after ten minutes artillery strafe all would be quiet once more. But I soon saw this was a serious business, for gun after gun, and battery after battery, was rapidly coming into action, until at the lowest number 500 guns were roaring all round me. It was a magnificent if terrifying sight. The ground fairly shook with the roar of the guns, for the heavies now had taken up the challenge, and all round the horizon I could see the clouds of smoke and dust from the bursting shells as both sides kept searching for their opponents’ hidden cannon. 

There I stood in the very centre of the battle, the one man of all the thousands engaged who was absolutely safe, for I was away from the trenches, there were no guns or troops near me to draw fire, and though tens of thousands of shells went over my head, not even a splinter fell near me. I felt that the good God had quietly dumped me there till all danger had passed.

After a while seeing that this heavy shelling meant an attack of some kind, and that soon many a dying man would need my help, I turned round and made my way towards the ambulance station. As I approached the trenches I noticed the smoke from the bursting shells, which was hanging thickly over them and was being driven towards me across the fields. For once, I said to myself, I am going to smell the smoke of a real battle, and I stepped out quite gaily— the next moment I had turned and was running back for my life — the Germans had started a poison gas attack which I had mistaken for shell smoke, and I had walked straight into it!

After about 20 yards I stopped to see what was to be done, for I knew it was useless to try and escape by running. I saw (assuredly again providentially) that I had struck the extreme edge of the gas and also that the wind was blowing it away to my left. A hundred yards in the opposite direction, and I was safe. I must confess for a moment I got a shock, as a gas attack was the very last thing I was thinking about — in fact we thought the Germans had given it up. Fortunately too I had not forgotten the old days of the chemistry room at Ratcliffe College nor Brother Thompson and his stink bottles so I knew at the first whiff it was chlorine gas and time for this child to make tracks.

But I was not yet out of the wood. Even as I was congratulating myself on my good fortune, I saw both right and left of where I stood the green wave of a second gas attack rolling towards me like some huge spectre stretching out its ghostly arms. As I saw it coming, my heart went out to God in one fervent act of gratitude for His goodness to me. As probably you know we all carry smoke helmets slung over our shoulders in a case, to be used against a gas attack. That morning as I was leaving my dugout I threw my helmet aside. I had a fairly long walk before me, the helmet is a bit heavy on a hot day, and as I said, German gas was most unlikely. So I made up my mind to leave it behind. In view of what happened, it may appear imagination now, but a voice seemed to whisper loudly in my ear: ‘Take your helmet with you; don’t leave without it’ (On the anniversary of this escape he once more asserted: ‘Some invisible, almost physical, force turned me back to get my helmet.’)  I turned back and slung it over my shoulder. Surely it was the warning voice of my guardian angel, for if I had not done so, you would never have had this letter. 

I wonder can you picture my feelings at this moment? Here was death in its most awful form sweeping down towards me; thank God I had the one thing which could save me, but with a carelessness for which I ought to be scourged, I had never tried the helmet on and did not know if it were in working order. In theory, with the helmet on I was absolutely safe, but it was an anxious moment waiting for the scorching test, and to make things more horrible, I was absolutely alone. But I had the companionship of One Who sustained me in the hour of trial, and kneeling down I took the Pyx from my pocket and received the Blessed Eucharist as Viaticum. I had not a moment to spare, and had my helmet just fixed when I was buried in a thick green fog of poison gas. In a few moments my confidence returned for the helmet worked perfectly and I found I was able to breathe without any ill effects from the gas.

By the time I got down to the dressing station the guns had ceased fire, the gas blown away, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Already a stream of wounded was coming in and I soon had my hands full, when an urgent message  reached me from the front trench. A poor fellow had been desperately wounded, a bullet had cut him like a knife across the stomach, with results you can best imagine. He was told he had only a few minutes to live, and asked if they could do anything for him. ‘I have only one wish before I die’, he answered, ‘could you possibly get me Fr. Doyle? I’ll go happy then.’ It was hard work to reach him, as parts of the communication trench were knee deep in water and thick mud. Then I was misdirected and sent in the wrong direction, but I kept on praying I might be in time, and at last found the dying man still breathing and conscious. The look of joy, which lit up his face when I knelt beside him, was reward enough for the effort I had made. I gave him Absolution and anointed him before he died, but occupied as I was I did not notice that a third gas attack had begun. Before I could get my helmet out and on, I had swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, which did me no serious harm beyond making me feel rather sick and weak.

As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on, but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘ help me to tear off this helmet — I can’t breathe. I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far; so catching hold of him, I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that ten minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled, though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help and set my teeth, for if I once let go, he was a dead man. Thank God, we both at last got to the aid post, and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak. Fortunately this last attack was short and light, so that I was able to take off my helmet and after a cup of tea was all right. The best proof I can give you of this, lies in the fact that I have since put in three of the hardest days’ work of my life which I could not possibly have done had I been really gassed, as its first effect is to leave one as helpless as a child.