Monday, May 26, 2014

Fr. William Doyle, S.J. Chaplain Of The Battle of Ypres "They Speak His Name With Tears"

[The following letter, written by Father William Doyle a few days before he was killed during the advance of Irish troops north-east of Ypres on August 17th, 1917, is a chapter of autobiography needing the fewest possible notes in its elucidation. This Jesuit Chaplain of the Irish Province was the son of Mr. Hugh Doyle of Dalkey, co. Dublin, for many years Registrar of the Dublin Bankruptcy Court; he was forty-four years of age when he wrote this to his father, aged eighty-six.* Educated at Radcliffe by the Rosminians, William Doyle nevertheless became a Jesuit. He studied in Belgium, was ordained at Milltown Park in 1907, was Professor at Clongowes (where he founded and edited The Clongovmian) and subsequently laboured in Limerick and in Dublin. In November, 1915, the call to more strenuous service came to him, and three months later he went to the Front with the 16th Irish Division. For his bravery at Ginchy he was awarded the Military Cross, and he was afterwards commended by his Commanding Officer for the V.C., which, however, he was not to receive. As a preamble to his own letter may be quoted a line from that of a brother-chaplain, written about Father Doyle before his death : "He is a marvel. They may talk of heroes and saints—they are hardly in it!" That exclamation neither the saints nor heroes aforesaid, nor yet the eighth Urban of the scrupulous Decree, will in anywise take amiss.]

July 30th, 1917.—For the past week we have been moving steadily up to the Front. It was half-past one a.m. when our first halting-place was reached, and we marched again at three. It was the morning of July 31st,. the Feast of St. Ignatius, a day dear to every Jesuit, but doubly so to the soldier sons of the soldier Saint. Was it to be Mass or sleep ? Nature said " sleep," but grace won the day; and while the weary soldiers slumbered the Adorable Sacrifice was offered for them. As we fall into the line once more the dark clouds are lit up with red and golden flashes of light, the earth quivers with the simultaneous crash of thousands of guns—the Fourth Battle of Ypres has begun. . . . The road was a sight never to be forgotten. On one side marched our columns in close formation. On the other galloped by an endless line of ammunition waggons, extra guns hurrying up to the Front, and motor-lorries packed with stores of all kinds ; while between the two flowed back the stream of empties and ambulance after ambulance filled with wounded and dying. We marched on through the City of the Dead—Ypres, out again by the opposite gate. A welcome halt at last, with perhaps an hour or more of delay. At that moment the place for sleep did not matter two straws—a thorn-bush, the bed of a stream, anywhere would do to satisfy the longing for even a few moments of slumber after nearly two days and nights of marching without sleep. I picked out a soft spot on the ruins of a home, laid me down with a sigh of relief.
August 1st.—Morning brought a leaden sky, more rain, and no breakfast. Our cook, with the rations, had got lost during the night, so there was nothing for it but to tighten one's belt.
Sunday, August 12th —We have just got back to camp,, after (for me at least) six days and seven continuous nights on the battle-field. I shall give you the principal events of these exciting days, as I jotted them down in my notebook. (August $th.) All day I have been busy hearing the men's confessions, and giving batch after batch Holy Communion. My poor, brave boys—they are lying on the battle-field, some in a little grave dug and blessed by their chaplain, who loves them all as if they were his own children. Do you wonder that, in spite of the joy that fills my heart, many a time tears gather in my eyes as I think of those who are gone ? As the men stand lined up on parade I go from Company to Company giving a General Absolution, which I know is a big comfort to them. Then I shoulder my pack and make for the train which, this time, is to carry us part of our journey. "Top-end for Blighty, boys; bottom-end for Berlin !" I tell them as they clamber in, for they like a cheery word. "If you're in Jerryland, Father, we're with you too," shouted one big giant, and is greeted with a roar of approval.

As I marched through Ypres at the head of the column, an officer ran across the road and stopped me. "Are you a Catholic priest ? I should like to go to Confession." There and then, by the side of the road, while the men marched by, he made his peace with God, and went away, let us hope, as happy as I felt at that moment. It was a trivial incident; but it brought home vividly to me what a priest is, and the wondrous power given him by God.
All the time we were pushing on steadily. Suddenly the storm burst. The enemy's guns had opened fire with a crash. I can but describe the din by asking you to start together fifty first-class thunder-storms. On we hurried, when right before us the Hun started to put down a heavy barrage, literally a curtain of shells. In the darkness I stumbled across a huge shell-hole crater. Into it we rolled and lay on our faces while shells burst on every side. We reached Headquarters, a strong blockhouse made of concrete and iron rails, a masterpiece of German cleverness. From time to time, all during the night, the enemy gunners kept firing at our shelter, having the range to a nicety. Scores exploded within a few feet of it, shaking us till our bones rattled, and one burst near the entrance, nearly blowing us over, but doing no harm, thanks to the scientific construction of the passage.
The following morning, though the Colonel and other officers pressed me very much to remain with them, on the ground that I would be more comfortable, I felt I could do better work at the advanced dressing-station, or rather aid-post, and went and joined the doctor. The following night a shell again burst at the entrance to the block-house, but this time exploded several boxes of rockets which had been left at the door. A mass of flame and smoke rushed into the dug-out, severely burning some, and almost suffocating all, fifteen in number. You can imagine what I felt as I saw all my friends carried off to hospital, possibly to suffer ill-effects for life. I was delighted to find a tiny ammunition store which I speedily converted into a chapel, building an altar with the boxes. I had to be both priest and acolyte, and, in a way, I was not sorry. I could not stand up, so I was able for once to offer the Holy Sacrifice on my knees. It is strange that out here a desire I have long cherished should be gratified —namely, to be able to celebrate alone, taking as much time as I wished, and not inconveniencing anyone.
I spent a good part of the day, when not occupied with the wounded, wandering round the battle-field with a spade to bury stray dead. Though there was not very much infantry-fighting, owing to the state of the ground, not for a moment during the week did the artillery duel cease, reaching at times a pitch of unimaginable intensity. We counted once fifty shells, big chaps too, whizzing over our little nest in sixty seconds, not counting those which burst close by. I have walked about for hours at a time getting through my work with "crumps" of all sizes bursting in dozens on every side.
August 7th.—Word reached me about midnight that a party of men had been caught by shell-fire nearly a mile away. I dashed off in the darkness, this time hugging my helmet as the Boche was firing gas-shells. A moment's pause to absolve a couple of dying men, and then I reached the group of smashed and bleeding bodies, most of them still breathing. The first thing I saw almost unnerved me—a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorus flame. He was the first victim I had seen of the new gas the Germans are using, a fresh horror in this awful war. The poor lad recognized me. I anointed him on a little spot of unburnt flesh, gave him a drink which he begged for, and then hastened to the others. Back again to the aid-post for stretchers and help to carry in the wounded, while all the time the shells are coming down like hail. Good God, how can any human being live in this ! As I hurry back I hear that two men have been hit twenty yards away. I am with them in a moment, splashing through mud and water—a quick absolution, the last Rites of the Church, and a flash from a gun shows me that the poor boy in my arms is my own servant, a wonderfully good and pious lad.
August 8th.—There is little to record during the next couple of days except the discovery of a new Cathedral and the happiness of daily Mass. This time I was not quite so well off, as I could not kneel upright, and my feet were in the water, which helped to keep the fires of devotion from growing too warm. When night fell I made my way to a new part of the line, which could not be approached in daylight, to bury an officer and some men.
August 10th.—A sad morning, as many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee ; but never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. " Thank God, Father," he said, "I am able to stick it out to the end. Is it not all for little Belgium ?" The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased even his bodily pain : "I am much better now and easier—God bless you !" as I left him to attend a dying man. He opened his eyes as I knelt beside him: "Ah, Father Doyle, Father Doyle," he whispered faintly, and then motioned me to bend lower as if he had some message to give. As I did so, he put two arms round my neck and kissed me.* . . . Sitting a little way off I saw a man with his face smashed by a shell. He raised his head as I spoke : " Is that the priest of God ? Thank God, I am all right now." I took his blood-covered hands in mine.
* Any words are weak beside that silent kiss ; but a few spoken and written tributes to the Chaplain will dare quotation. A Sergeant of the
In the afternoon, while going my rounds, I was forced to take shelter in the dug-out of a young officer belonging to another regiment. I found that he was a Catholic, came from Dublin, and had been married just a month. Was this a chance visit ? I had not long left the spot when a shell burst and killed him. I carried his body out the next day and buried him in a shell-hole
August 11th.—I had ventured a bit down the trench to find a spot to bury some bodies left lying there. I had reached a sheltered corner when I heard the scream of a shell coming straight for the spot where I stood. Instinctively I crouched down, the shell whizzed past my head—I felt my hair blown about by the hot air—and hurst in front of me with a deafening crash. It seemed to me as if a heavy wooden hammer had hit me on the top of my head. I hardly knew how I reached the dug-out. That night we were relieved, or, rather, it was early morning, 4.30 a.m., when the last Company marched out. We hurried over the open, floundering in the thick mud, tripping over wire in the darkness. We had nearly reached the road when, like a hurricane, a shower of shells came smashing down upon us. We could not stop to shelter,
Dublin Fusiliers : " Father Doyle did not know what fear was, and everybody in the Battalion, Protestant and Catholic alike, idolized him. He loved the men, and spent every hour of his time looking after them. He was asked not to go into action with the Battalion, but he would not stop behind."
The CO. 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers: "He was genuinely loved by everyone, and deserved the unstinted praise he got from all ranks for his rare pluck and devotion to duty." Another brother officer: "God bless Father Doyle, is the heartfelt wish of all the men of the Irish Division Well do we remember how our beloved padre did the long three days' march with the A Company. Then who of the men do not recall with a tear and a smile how he went' over the top ' at Wytschaete. Ypres sounded the knell. Many a dying soldier on that bloody field has flashed a last look of loving recognition as our brave padre rushed to his aid." An I listerman : "If he risked his life in looking after Ulster Protestant soldiers once, he did it a hundred times in the last few days. They told him he was wanted in a more exposed part of the field to administer the Last Rites of his Church to a Fusilier. While he was doing what he could to comfort the poor chap, the priest was struck down. He and the man he 'was ministering to passed out of life together." for dawn was breaking and we should have been seen by the enemy. Crash, one shell has pitched into the middle of the line—and then, just when the end seemed at hand, our batteries opened fire with a roar. The German guns ceased like magic, or turned their attention elsewhere.
I have told you all my escapes, dearest Father, because I think what I have written will give you the same confidence that I feel, and I do not want you to be uneasy about me. Heaps of love to every dear one.

As ever, dearest Father, your loving son, 
[Six days later, Father Doyle fell. Tributes were paid to his memory in the Press, sometimes in unaccustomed places. One such lingers in memory from the pages of The Morning Post: " The Orangemen will not forget a certain Catholic Chaplain who lies in a soldier's grave in that sinister plain beyond Ypres. He went forward and back over the battle-field with bullets whistling about him, seeking out the dying and kneeling in the mud beside them to give them absolution ; walking with Death with a smile on his face, watched by his men with a reverence and a kind of awe. His familiar figure was seen and welcomed by hundreds of Irishmen who lay in that bloody place. Each time he came back across the field he was begged to remain in comparative safety. Smilingly he shook his head, and went out again into the storm. He would not desert his boys in their agony. They remember him as a saint—they speak his name with tears."

Link (here) to read the original in the Dublin Review
The Second Photo is from the Australian Army of what the battlefield looked like around the time Father William Doyle served in the area.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this and for your other posts on Fr Doyle. They are very informative.

I live a couple of miles from Dalkey in Ireland where Fr Doyle grew up. I am a great admirer of his and am trying to promote greater awareness of him, perhaps with a view towards creating some new interest in his cause.

To this end I have just started a blog a few days ago dedicated to Fr Doyle, his life and his writings. I will post daily thoughts from his writings and other commentary from time to time.

I have not finished setting out his basic biography and I intend to write an essay on his spirituality in the coming days. But the basic blog is there. Please come and visit, make a comment and perhaps send some of your readers along as well!!


Anonymous said...

Eh, rather stupidly, I forgot to inckude the url for the Fr Doyle blog!!

Here it is:


Maria said...

I love your blog: Remembering Fr. William Doyle SJ, but it was your posts on John Sullivan that really grabbed me. What a man of God.