Ever-present comfort for the dying

Among the chaplains to the army who displayed enormous courage on the frontlines was Willie Doyle SJ, writes Carole Hope


When the first World War broke out in 1914 Ireland was yet to gain independence. The British army had always had a presence there and a strong tradition of enlistment into Irish regiments. When Britain entered the war it quickly became evident that not only was the number of chaplains insufficient to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding army, but the Chaplain General’s Department was woefully unprepared to meet the demands of processing the 1,200 applications across all denominations by October 2014.

A month later, Dublin Jesuit Fr Willie Doyle volunteered and was added to the list, waiting a year before deployment to 16th (Irish) Division training in England. There was no training programme for chaplains, and once they arrived in war zones it was expected that they should remain with field ambulances, in keeping with the Geneva Convention of 1864.

Leading churchmen criticised this stance, and the most scornful was the Irish Catholic Church, in view of the sacramental needs of its soldiers. The Tablet commented on 7th November, 1914: “Some disappointment is expressed in some quarters that the Catholic chaplains cannot be in the Firing Line, instead of being kept with the ambulances, but is complaint reasonable?”

However, as the war progressed it became increasingly accepted that those padres who wished to do so worked in the front line. Fr Willie Doyle followed in the footsteps of Dublin Diocesan priest Fr Francis Gleeson in accompanying his flock as far forward in the firing line as was allowed. Fr Doyle was also a ground breaker in writing (uncensored) letters home with detailed accounts of what he knew of the war effort and his involvement, which have been preserved.

Within weeks of arriving in the Loos sector in February 1916 he was frantically working in gas-filled trenches and risked life and limb again when the 16th (Irish) Division moved on to the Somme in September, for which work he was awarded the Military Cross.

In this centenary year of the 1917 Battles of Messines and Passchendaele (properly termed “Third Ypres”) it is apposite to remember his work in bringing practical comforts as well as the solace of religion to the wounded, dying, dead and those who continued to endure. In doing so, he was called to his maker on August 16th, 1917, while rescuing a wounded officer during the Battle of Langemarck phase of the campaign.

not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards

The Battle of Messines was an outstanding success for 16th (Irish) Division, and we have a detailed account from Fr Doyle’s perspective. On the eve of the battle he, served by his fellow chaplain (and good friend) Fr Frank Browne, said Mass before making for their respective aid posts in the valley between Wytschaete and Kemmel Hill. He recorded the phenomenal noise of the artillery bombardment, the tension of waiting prior to zero hour and that moment when, at 3.10am on Thursday, June 7th, 1917, 19 operational mines, packed with nearly a million pounds of highly explosive ammonal, were detonated directly underneath the German positions on the Messines Ridge.

“Even now I can scarcely think of the scene which followed without trembling with horror. Punctually to the second at 3.10am there was a deep muffled roar; the ground in front of where I stood rose up as if some giant had wakened from his sleep and was bursting his way through the earth’s crust, and then I saw seven huge columns of smoke and flames shoot hundreds of feet in the air, while masses of clay and stone, tons in weight, were hurled about like pebbles. I never before realised what an earthquake was like, for not only did the ground quiver and shake, but actually rocked backwards and forwards so that I kept on my feet with difficulty.”

Absolve and anoint

Fr Doyle’s battalion, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were not part of the first infantry charge, and he was able to keep an eye on them while held in their reserve position, but still under shellfire. One “crump” hit a trench wall, blowing three men 50 yards into a field and burying five others in a dug-out. Fr Doyle climbed over the trench to run to the men in the field, but could only absolve and anoint, all dying, before joining in to try and rescue those buried, three of whom were still alive.

Eventually the 8th Dubs were called into action. Fr Doyle writes: “When the regiment moved forward the Doctor and I went with them. By this time the impregnable (!!) ridge was in our hands and the enemy retreating down the far side. I spent the rest of that memorable day wandering over the battlefield looking for the wounded and had the happiness of helping many a poor chap, for shells were flying about on all sides.”

Fr Doyle spent the next 24 hours working in sweltering heat with a devouring thirst and little food. Days later, he had one of his famous escapes when an 8in shell exploded nearby, throwing him on to his back and leaving him badly bruised. He reassured his father:

“Let me say first of all that I am really well, though naturally still very tired, or rather dazed from the noise and strain of the past month. I have suffered a good deal too, from blood blisters on my feet, the result of having to wear one’s boots so constantly, which made climbing up and down the shell-holes, mile after mile of it, quite a delightful torture.”

Following the Battle of Messines 16th (Irish) Division were taken out of the line, spending six weeks in Pas de Calais undergoing training for the next onslaught, which came to be known as Battle of Passchendaele. They arrived back in rainy Belgium at Watou camp, west of Poperinge, on July 25th, 1917.

No picnic

The opening battle of the new campaign took place on 31st July, for which 16th (Irish) Division were in reserve and did not see fighting action. Nevertheless, it was no picnic. After a three hour march Fr Doyle and his men reached Brandhoek camp just after Midnight, where they waited in soggy fields all day under intermittent shell fire until orders were received early evening to move up to the reserve position on Frezenberg Ridge, marching en route through the ruins of Ypres. At the end of their shift before returning to camp on 2nd August they formed burial parties for the dead of 15th (Scottish) Division killed in the assault.

For the past 48 hours we have lived, eat and slept in a flooded dug-out which you left at the peril of your life

The fighting of July 31st only made little advance, so the process of attrition started over again with the cycle of moving back and forth from camp to taking turn on duty in front-line trenches. Fr Doyle always accompanied his men to the trenches and, indeed, did double shift, staying with the relieving 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whose chaplain, Fr Frank Browne, had been recalled to the Irish Guards early in August, for whom there was no replacement.

From the moment 44-year-old Fr Doyle went into the front line on Frezenberg Ridge, his final days were largely spent expending great physical effort to get to and from, and to work in, the front line; existing in muck, mud and water; under constant, nerve-jangling enemy bombardment; witnessing sights to turn the strongest of stomachs; conscientiously remaining in the front line above and beyond the call of duty; assisting with the injured; burying the dead; performing his sacramental ministry and, above all, easing the passage of the mortally wounded.

Last rites

The Germans were by now using mustard-gas shells, and when 8th Dubs were relieved by 9th Dubs on August 8th, there were casualties in both battalions from a bombardment. The next day, 8th Dubs were recalled to the trenches, after just one out of their allotted three days back at camp, following heavy losses of 9th Dubs. On 8th August Fr Doyle had “spent a good part of the day, when not occupied with the wounded, wandering around the battlefield with a spade to bury stray dead”. He records men being caught by shellfire; to reach them he had to cover a mile, and, on returning with stretcher bearers to the aid post, he had to give the last rites to his own servant.

As well as casualties from shellfire, there were many from illness attributable to the foul conditions brought on by unseasonable wet weather. Fr Doyle described those days of August as raw and bleak, existing a lot of the time in sticky mud, foul-smelling black slime, including “sitting on a box with one’s feet in twelve inches of water! For the past 48 hours we have lived, eat and slept in a flooded dug-out which you left at the peril of your life . . . ”

On Sunday, August 12th, 1917, he wrote his last letter home having “just got back to camp after (for me at least) six days and seven nights on the battlefield. There was no chance last night of a moment’s rest and you may imagine there was little sleep the previous nights either, so you may fancy what a relief it was to change one’s sodden, muddy clothes.”

Killed in a dug-out

By the time battalions of 16th (Irish) Division lined up for the next assault in the early hours of Thursday, August 16th, 1917, Fr Doyle’s 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers had been decimated holding the line. They were divided up and attached to (the also depleted) 9th Dubs and 7th Royal Irish Rifles, with other men forming carrying parties, leaving one composite company of 8th Dubs, fewer than 90 men. Fr Doyle was attached to the latter under the command of newly promoted Maj Cowley following injuries to senior officers.

The Medical Officer set up an aid post in shallow gun pits near Frezenberg, assisted by Fr Doyle. As the fighting became more intense Maj Cowley ordered the noncombatants to retire, and the doctor and padre retreated to battalion headquarters in Wilde Wood, leaving a corporal in charge of the aid post. We do not know the timings, how long it took Fr Doyle to get to HQ or how long he remained there, but we do know he was restless (as recorded by war correspondent Philip Gibb) and did not stay. Fr Doyle’s movements are not recorded in the narrative subsequently written up by Maj Cowley, and the only mention in the battalion war diary is:

“2/Lts Marlow and Green & Fr Doyle (chaplain) were killed in a dug-out in front of the Black Line near the railway.”

The dug-out referred to was farther forward than the aid post. Fr Doyle made the decision to leave there to rescue an officer reported wounded further forward in the firing line. Zero Hour had been 4.45am; the time of his death was between 3pm, when he was reported alive, and 3.45pm, when he was reported dead. This is part of an account of his death:

“Word came in that an officer of the Dublins had been badly hit, and was lying out in an exposed position. Fr Doyle at once decided to go out to him, and left the Aid Post with his runner, Private McInespie, and a Lieut Grant. Some 20 minutes later, at about a quarter to four, McInespie staggered into the aid post and fell down in a state of collapse and shock. Corporal Raitt went to his assistance and after considerable difficulty managed to revive him. His first words on coming back to consciousness were: ‘Fr Doyle has been killed!’”

Writing three months later to a friend in Dublin, Maj Gen William Hickie, Officer Commanding 16th (Irish) Division, was full of praise and admiration for Fr Doyle. Hickie stated: “He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his CO by his Brigadier and by myself. Superior authority, however, has not granted it.”

Because of the continuing fierce fighting, Fr Doyle’s body could not be immediately recovered. It was subsequently lost, and he is remembered on the Memorial to the Missing (panel 160) at Tyne Cot cemetery.

Carole Hopeis author of Worshipper and Worshipped

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