Father William Doyle

Father William Doyle

 

Father William Doyle was born at Dalkey, Co Dublin on 3rd March, 1873, the youngest of seven children. He was ordained as a Jesuit in 1907 and volunteered to serve as a Military Chaplain at the front in 1914. He was appointed to the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 16th (Irish) Division, in November 1915. His first experience of battle was at Loos where he was caught in the German poison gas attack on 26 April. He ministered to the soldiers in the midst of the battle, displaying a total disregard for his own safety. He was mentioned in dispatches but his Colonel’s recommendation for the Military Cross was not accepted because he had not been long enough at the front. He was presented with the parchment of merit of the 49th Brigade.

In May 1916, he had a lucky escape: "I was standing in a trench, quite a long distance from the firing line, a spot almost as safe as Dalkey (his home village) itself, talking to some of my men when we heard in the distance the scream of a shell......none of us had calculated that this gentleman had made up his mind to drop into the trench itself, a couple of paces from where I stood. What really took place in the next ten seconds I cannot say. I was conscious of a terrific explosion and the thud of falling stones and debris. I thought the drums of my ears were split by the crash, and I believe I was knocked down by the concussion, but when I jumped to my feet I found that the two men who had been standing at my left hand, the side the shell fell, were stretched on the ground dead, though I think I had time to give them absolution and anoint them. The poor fellow on my right was lying badly wounded in the head; but I myself , though a bit stunned and dazed by the suddenness of the whole thing, was absolutely untouched, though covered with dirt and blood."

In August 1916, he took part in the fighting at Ginchy and Guillemont. His description of Leuze Wood is striking: "The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts...... Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot, was littered with heads or limbs, or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart."

In December, 1916, he was transferred to 8th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He met his fellow Jesuit Father Frank Browne who was attached to the 2nd and 9th Dublins. His concern for the his men shines through his letters and diaries.

"I found the dying lad - he was not much more- so tightly jammed into a corner of the trench that it was almost impossible to get him out. Both legs were smashed, one in two or three places, so his chances of life were small, and there were other injuries as well. What a harrowing picture that scene would have made. A splendid young soldier, married only a month they told me, lying there, pale and motionless in the mud and water with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. The stretcher bearers hard at work binding up as well as they may, his broken limbs; round about a group of silent Tommies looking on and wondering when will their turn come. Peace for a moment seems to have taken possession of the battlefield, not a sound save the deep boom of some far-off gun and the stifled moans of the dying boy, while as if anxious to hide the scene, nature drops her soft mantle of snow on the living and dead alike."

He was awarded the Military Cross in January, 1917 though many believed that he deserved the Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. He took part in the attack on Wytschaete Ridge in June,1917. Fr.Browne was transferred to the Irish Guards at the start of August which left Fr. Doyle to service four battalions by himself.

He had a number of close calls before he was killed by a shell along with three officers on 17 August, on Frezenberg Ridge. He was recommended for the DSO at Wytschaete and the VC at Frezenberg. His biographer comments: "However the triple disqualification of being an Irishmen, a Catholic and a Jesuit, proved insuperable."

He has no known grave but is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial (Panel 144 to 145).

Fr Willie Doyle, of the Dublin Fusiliers, "we should have had more prisoners, only a hotblooded Irishman is a dangerous customer when he gets behind a bayonet and wants to let daylight through everybody." (p107) Fr Doyle's explanation implies that the Irish were particularly prone to this type of behaviour. It was their "hot blood"you see.

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Willie Doyle was born in Dalkey, Co Dublin on 3 March 1873. He was the youngest of seven children: four boys and three boys. Willie entered the Jesuits at the age of 18 after reading a biography of St Alphosus Liguori. One of his brothers, Charles, also became a Jesuit and a member of the Belvedere Community. Another of his brothers joined the noviciate but died just before he was due to be ordained. One of his sisters became a nun with the Sisters of Mercy. Willie Doyle was ordained in 1907, and he worked on ‘missions and retreats’ both Dublin and Limerick. He won fame as a preacher and spiritual director. He had a great gift of being able to bring back hardened sinners to confession. He was on the teaching staff at Belvedere and at Clongowes Wood College and was the first editor of their annual journal, The Clongownian. Willie Doyle was appointed chaplain to the 16th Irish Division in 1915. In December 1916, he was transferred to the 8 th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was an incredibly brave man, strong in the face of adversity. This excerpt from his own diary gives a picture of the man he was: By cutting a piece out of the side of the trench, I was just able to stand in front of my tiny altar, a biscuit tin supported by two German bayonets. God's angels, no doubt, were hovering overhead, but so were the shells, hundreds of them, and I was a little afraid that when the earth shook with the crash of the guns, the chalice might be overturned. Round about me on every side was the biggest congregation I ever had: behind the altar, on either side, and in front, row after row, sometimes crowding one upon the other, but all quiet and silent, as if they were straining their ears to catch every syllable of that tremendous act of Sacrifice - but every man was dead! Some had lain there for a week and were foul and horrible to look at, with faces black and green. Others had only just fallen, and seemed rather sleeping than dead, but there they lay, for none had time to bury them, brave fellows, every one, friend and foe alike, while I held in my unworthy hands the God of Battles, their Creator and their Judge, and prayed to Him to give rest to their souls. Surely that Mass for the Dead, in the midst of, and surrounded by the dead, was an experience not easily to be forgotten.Willie Doyle was decorated with the Military Cross for his courage in the Battle of theSomme, and was also recommended for the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross for his bravery on the battlefield; celebrating Mass and administering the Sacraments to dying and wounded soldiers, and dragging them to safety, in the heat of battle, without a thought for his own safety. But it was argued that these honours were only for those killed in action, as soldiers. One thing is certain; Willie Doyle himself he would not have desired such things in any case. The Vatican never formally approved of such honours. His final days came while his battalion was fighting in the Third Battle of Ypres in August 1917. On 14 August 1917 he wrote his last letter to his father: Three days later he was dead. There are conflicting accounts as to how he died: one that he was attending to a soldier in a shelter when it was shelled, the other that he was shot while attending the soldier. What is certain is that on 17 August 1917, Willie Doyle SJ met his death at the age of 44. His friend and fellow-teacher from Belvedere, Fr Frank Browne SJ (who was chaplain to The Irish Guards), identified Willie Doyle’s remains and assisted at his funeral. After his death, many people prayed to Willie Doyle as if he was a saint. There is an ongoing campaign to have him beatified. It is not known where Fr Willie Doyle is buried. In November 1999 a story was published in the Guardian stating that an 88 year old woman knew the site of his grave. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission refused to re-open the grave for tests. Thus, the place of Willie Doyle’s burial remains a secret. He is commemorated on the memorial at Tynecot. As an indication of the respect Fr. Doyle had amongst the Irishmen from the North and South of Ireland, perhaps the last word on this man should be left to an Ulster Presbyterian written in 'The Weekly News,' on the 1st of September 1917: God never made a nobler soul. Fr. Doyle was a good deal among us. We could not possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He didn't know the meaning of fear and he did not know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life and take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment. If he risked his life looking after Ulster Protestant Soldiers once, he did it a hundred times in the last few days. The Ulstermen felt his loss more keenly than anybody, and none were readier to show their marks of respect to the dead hero priest than were our Ulster Presbyterians

 

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Father William Doyle was born at Dalkey, Co Dublin on 3rd March, 1873, the youngest of seven children. He was ordained as a Jesuit in 1907 and volunteered to serve as a Military Chaplain at the front in 1914. He was appointed to the 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 16th (Irish) Division, in November 1915. His first experience of battle was at Loos where he was caught in the German poison gas attack on 26 April. He ministered to the soldiers in the midst of the battle, displaying a total disregard for his own safety. He was mentioned in dispatches but his Colonel’s recommendation for the Military Cross was not accepted because he had not been long enough at the front. He was presented with the parchment of merit of the 49th Brigade.

In May 1916, he had a lucky escape: "I was standing in a trench, quite a long distance from the firing line, a spot almost as safe as Dalkey (his home village) itself, talking to some of my men when we heard in the distance the scream of a shell......none of us had calculated that this gentleman had made up his mind to drop into the trench itself, a couple of paces from where I stood. What really took place in the next ten seconds I cannot say. I was conscious of a terrific explosion and the thud of falling stones and debris. I thought the drums of my ears were split by the crash, and I believe I was knocked down by the concussion, but when I jumped to my feet I found that the two men who had been standing at my left hand, the side the shell fell, were stretched on the ground dead, though I think I had time to give them absolution and anoint them. The poor fellow on my right was lying badly wounded in the head; but I myself , though a bit stunned and dazed by the suddenness of the whole thing, was absolutely untouched, though covered with dirt and blood."

In August 1916, he took part in the fighting at Ginchy and Guillemont. His description of Leuze Wood is striking: "The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud, and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we marched in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts...... Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefield of some days previous. The wounded, at least I hope so, had all been removed, but the dead lay there stiff and stark with open staring eyes, just as they had fallen. Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality. Some lay as if they were sleeping quietly, others had died in agony or had had the life crushed out of them by mortal fear, while the whole ground, every foot, was littered with heads or limbs, or pieces of torn human bodies. In the bottom of one hole lay a British and a German soldier, locked in a deadly embrace, neither had any weapon but they had fought on to the bitter end. Another couple seemed to have realised that the horrible struggle was none of their making, and that they were both children of the same God; they had died hand-in-hand. A third face caught my eye, a tall, strikingly handsome young German, not more, I should say, than eighteen. He lay there calm and peaceful, with a smile of happiness on his face, as if he had had a glimpse of Heaven before he died. Ah, if only his poor mother could have seen her boy it would have soothed the pain of her broken heart."

In December, 1916, he was transferred to 8th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He met his fellow Jesuit Father Frank Browne who was attached to the 2nd and 9th Dublins. His concern for the his men shines through his letters and diaries.

"I found the dying lad - he was not much more- so tightly jammed into a corner of the trench that it was almost impossible to get him out. Both legs were smashed, one in two or three places, so his chances of life were small, and there were other injuries as well. What a harrowing picture that scene would have made. A splendid young soldier, married only a month they told me, lying there, pale and motionless in the mud and water with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. The stretcher bearers hard at work binding up as well as they may, his broken limbs; round about a group of silent Tommies looking on and wondering when will their turn come. Peace for a moment seems to have taken possession of the battlefield, not a sound save the deep boom of some far-off gun and the stifled moans of the dying boy, while as if anxious to hide the scene, nature drops her soft mantle of snow on the living and dead alike."

He was awarded the Military Cross in January, 1917 though many believed that he deserved the Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire. He took part in the attack on Wytschaete Ridge in June,1917. Fr.Browne was transferred to the Irish Guards at the start of August which left Fr. Doyle to service four battalions by himself.

He had a number of close calls before he was killed by a shell along with three officers on 17 August, on Frezenberg Ridge. He was recommended for the DSO at Wytschaete and the VC at Frezenberg. His biographer comments: "However the triple disqualification of being an Irishmen, a Catholic and a Jesuit, proved insuperable."

He has no known grave but is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial (Panel 144 to 145).

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