Monday, November 10, 2003


This is Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day depending on where you are. It used to be Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the war-to-end-wars, World War I, The Great War. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month it all came to a halt.

Fr. William Doyle, S.J. was caught up in that war as chaplain to the 16th (Irish) Division. Here is some of his story, taken from Myles Dungan’s Irish Voices from the Great War:

By the end of July 1917 Fr. Willie Doyle had found himself ministering to all four battalions of the 48th Brigade. Fr. Francis Browne, a fellow Jesuit, had been transferred to the Irish Guards and a clerical error had resulted in his being replaced by the wrong man. This priest, when he discovered the mistake, refused point blank to go to Ypres. All the while Doyle’s fame was spreading. Unlike many chaplains, he seemed to spend most of his time in the front line. He was revered by the men of the 16th, and, despite his religious beliefs, greatly respected and admired by the overwhelmingly Protestant 36th Division. Although a natural optimist, occasionally black despair showed through in his diaries. Just a few days before the Battle of Langemarck he wrote about some of the men of his Brigade whom he had seen die:

“My poor brave boys! They are lying now out 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; others stiff and stark with staring eyes, hidden in a shell-hole where they had crept to die . . . Do you wonder . . . that many a time the tears gather in my eyes, as I think of those who are gone?”

On the night of 6 August his life was spared by a typically unselfish decision to help out at a Dressing Station. A shell burst at the entrance to a blockhouse he’d been occupying and set off several boxes of Very lights which caused horrendous burns to the occupants. His diaries are full of stories of similar fortunate escapes. His very mobility providing some sort of guarantee of safety.

As the German shells found their marks during the extended front-line spell of the 16th much of his time was spent ministering to the wounded and burying the dead. He wrote on 7 August of reaching a group of smashed and bleeding bodies after one shell had done its work.

“The first thing I saw almost unnerved me; a young soldier lying on his back, his hands and face a mass of blue phosphorous flame, smoking horribly in the darkness. 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, not a little nervously as the place was reeking with gas, gave him a drink, which he begged for so earnestly and then hastened to the others.”

Later that night two more men were hit, Doyle cradled one of them in the darkness as he died, until a flash of gunfire revealed that the young dying soldier was his own servant. Doyle's empathy with the men in the line is clear from his writing, he suffered for them and he suffered with them. His inability to harden himself and set aside his own natural feelings of sympathy for the plight of others must have made his own torment even more intense.

Fr. Doyle’s last letter was to his father, telling him not to worry that he was safe and “my old armchair in heaven is not ready yet.” Before the later reached his father, he had been killed. There are disputes as to the details of his death but the most likely is that related by his orderly who saw him killed by an exploding German artillery shell.

The 16th Division was devastated by Doyle’s death. His courage, apparent invulnerability, his energy and his compassion had been an inspiration for all of the many thousands who encountered him. Capt. Healy of the 8th Dublins, who remembered Doyle arriving regularly with sweets and cigarettes for the men, wrote ‘If I had gone through the thousandth part of what Fr. Doyle did, or if I had run a hundredth part of the risks he ran, I would nave been dead long ago.’ Sgt. T. Flynn wrote to the “ Irish News”:

“He did not know what fear was and everybody in the battalion, Catholic and Protestant alike idolized him … Everybody says that he has earned the VC many times over, and I can vouch for it myself from what I have seen him do many a time.”

In fact Doyle was recommended for the VC but it was not granted, an omission which reflected no credit whatever on those responsible for the decision.

One of the most moving tributes came in a letter to the “Glasgow Weekly News” from a Belfast Presbyterian soldier who wrote that:

“Father Doyle was a good deal among us. We couldn’t possibly agree with his religious opinions, but we simply worshipped him for other things. He didn’t know the meaning of fear and he didn’t know what bigotry was. He was as ready to risk his life to take a drop of water to a wounded Ulsterman as to assist men of his own faith and regiment. If he risked his life in 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. …

After the establishment of the Free State the contributions of the Irish Regiments were usually overlooked, both the British and the Irish governments looking upon them as not their own. As the British war correspondent Sir Philip Gibbs said, “They were cast aside like old shoes.”

Here are some excerpts from Tom Johnstone’s Orange, Green, and Khaki: The Story of the Irish Regiments in the Great War. This is how some of the Irish regiments saw the end of the war on this day 85 years ago:

As 50th Division advanced, so did its Pioneer Battalion, 5th Royal Irish. For them there was no glory, only endless toil, often under shell-fire, remaking roads and building bridges without which the rapid advance could not be sustained. It was a task they knew supremely well. They followed the advance by way of Maretz, Le Cateau and Noyelles to Semouises. There they arrived on 10 November and halted.

The end of the war on the front of these particular battalions of Dublins, Munsters, Connaught Rangers, Innishkillings and Royal Irish is noteworthy. As a demonstration of the tenacity of the German machine-gunners. Warned during early morning that hostilities were to cease at 1100, 50th and 66th Divisions held their positions. On their front, German machine-gun fire continued all morning until about three minutes to eleven when it ceased, but not for long. ‘At two minutes to 11 a machine-gun, about 200 yards from our leading troops, fired off a complete belt without a pause. A single machine-gunner was then seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and turning about, walked slowly to the rear. Then all was silence.’

+ + + + +

2ND Leinsters crossed the water lines of both the Schelde and Le Grand Courant on the night of 8-9 November. By dawn they were in Espinois, where they were told the Germans had left the previous evening. 2nd Leinsters ended the war in typical ‘Forty-Ten’ style: ‘While we were on the march the Brigadier had galloped up and yelled out: “The war is over! The Kaiser has abdicated!” We were typically Irish, and never cheered except under adverse conditions, such as shell-fire and rain. Somewhat crestfallen, the brigadier rode slowly off to communicate his glad tidings to an English battalion who, no doubt, took the news in a different way.’

+ + + + +

That evening, Antoing was outflanked by the other battalions of the brigade on bridges constructed by 11th Hampshires (at the cost of a man drowned and another wounded). Near Antoing, 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers crossed and climbed the gentle rise from the Schelde where, on 11 May 1745, Marshal Saxe had positioned his reserve, the battalions of the Irish Brigade. Having captured Antoing, 16th Division was ordered to halt. On 11 November 1918 they lay upon the battlefield of Fontenoy. Had they been allowed to remain with their division, the almost knightly romantics of 16th (Irish) Division, who believed they had inherited not only the traditions of their regiments but those of the Wild Geese as well, would have rejoiced in that extraordinary coincidence.

Then lift the flag of the last Crusade!
And fill the ranks of the last Brigade!
March on to the fields where the world’s re-made,
And the ancient Dreams come true!

A final few lines, also from Johnstone, about events a few weeks later:

Four selected divisions occupied part of Germany before Christmas – the Guards, the 29th Regular, 15th (Scottish) and 1st Canadian Divisions. The Irish Guards crossed the frontier with their pipers playing ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, while the pipers of the Leinster Regiment played ‘Come Back to Erin. However, it was on the Rhine that a triumphal crossing was staged. The Canadians, Scots and Regulars were to cross Rhine bridges simultaneously. The Scots marched to ‘Scotland the Brave’ across a bridge of boats at Mulheim. At Cologne the Regulars, led by the fusilier battalions of 86 Brigade, which included 1st Dublins, marched to ‘The British Grenadiers’. Behind them in 88 Brigade the pipers of the effervescent Leinsters, their saffron kilts making a splash of colour, played the rollicking ‘Paddy Maginty’s Goat’. Later, the Guards Division made its imposing entry. And as the Irish Guards swung into the Hohenzollern Ring, fittingly their pipers played ‘Brian Boru’.

Couldn't finish without mention of the pipers, now could I?


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