Ronan McGreevy: An Irishman’s Diary on Fr Willie Doyle, who died in the trenches

‘Even in this secular age, there is much wisdom, love and humility in his teachings’

Nearly 5,000 Irishmen died at the Battle of Passchendaele. Among them were 1,200 men who were killed on one terrible day in August 1917. Video Enda O’Dowd/Ronan McGreevy

 

Neither the endless supplications nor the penances and mortifications performed by Fr Willie Doyle SJ would save him from a German shell.

Doyle died, as he had lived, in the service of others. He was killed alongside three other Irishmen who had taken refuge in a shell hole during the first World War, 100 years ago this month.

He went to the assistance of two officers who were dying, Second Lieutenant Arthur Green from Co Down and Second Lieutenant Charles Marlow, a former captain of the King’s Hospital School cricket team.

According to one account, Doyle was anointing one of the men when a shell burst among them. It also killed Pte John Meehan, a previous winner of the Military Medal, who had taken shelter there. Their bodies were never recovered from the battlefield.

Numerous times in the previous weeks, Fr Doyle had thanked providence for his many escapes.

He had been a chaplain in the 16th (Irish) Division. The division and the 36th (Ulster) Division were triumphant at Messines Ridge in June 1917.

They were then transferred from the Second Army under Gen Sir Herbert Plumer to the Fifth Army under General Sir Hubert Gough. His command would have tragic consequences for both divisions.

Passchendaele

On August 3rd, four days after the start of the Battle of Passchendaele, the two divisions went into the line in anticipation of the next phase of this most sordid of encounters.

For 13 days they endured the worst conditions imaginable. The rain fell, day after day, turning their makeshift trenches into a swamp. They were overlooked by the German positions and the shells too fell like rain. It was death to move oneself, yet Fr Doyle, as the only Catholic chaplain in a brigade, scurried from one trench to another anointing so many on the verge of death.

His famously cheerful disposition was tested beyond endurance by the carnage he witnessed. When an incendiary shell filled with gas landed near him, Doyle wearily wrote to his father, “I am afraid you will think me ungrateful, but more than once I almost regretted my escape, so great had been the strain of these past days”.

Two days later he was killed during the Battle of Langemarck, the second phase of the Battle of Passchendaele

After the initial British assault at Passchendaele petered out because of the terrible ground conditions, both the British and Germans resorted to an artillery duel which Doyle recalled reaching “a pitch of unimaginable intensity”.

Yet, Doyle’s belief that he would be spared the same fate as so many others did not waver. On August 14th, 1917, he wrote again to his father. “I have told you all my escapes, dearest father, because I think what I have written will give you the same confidence which I feel, that my old armchair up in heaven is not ready yet.”

Two days later he was killed during the Battle of Langemarck, the second phase of the Battle of Passchendaele. The two divisions went over the top at 4.45am. Four hours later, they returned to their starting positions less 1,200 men who had been killed. They were either killed by shelling or mown down by machine gun placements from reinforced concrete bunkers and fortified farms which had not been dealt with in the bombardment preceding the attack.

Heavy shelling

Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle waited until after the war to deliver his withering verdict on Langemarck: “The two Irish divisions were broken to bits and their brigadiers called it murder. They were violent in their denunciation of the Fifth Army for having put their men into the attack after those 13 days of heavy shelling.”

Maj Gen Oliver Nugent, the man commanding the 36th (Ulster) Division was sure Gough was to blame. He wrote to his wife: “No one can talk to him and come away thinking that he is mentally or intellectually fit to command a big army.”

Death was not the end of the Fr Doyle story. In the 1920s, a former Jesuit priest and polymath, Prof Alfred O’Rahilly, published a bestselling biography of Fr Doyle which was translated into many languages.

Readers were captivated by Fr Doyle’s intense spirituality, his life of prayer and penance and his selflessness in the service of others. Thousands testified to his intercession in some aspect of their lives. Many wanted him canonised, but the Jesuits demurred and nothing came of it.

One hundred years on, Dr Patrick Kenny has written a new book, To Raise the Fallen (published by Veritas), marking the centenary of Fr Doyle’s death. It is a distillation of the Jesuit priest’s life and teachings.

Doyle was a true Christian who bore witness to his faith in everything he did. His descriptions of what he witnessed remain among the most vivid of the first World War. His command of the English language was superb, but there was much more to him than that.

Even in this secular age, there is much wisdom, love and humility in his teachings. He is not just a priest who died in the first World War. Fr Willie Doyle is a man for the ages.