In an unmarked grave in those now silent fields of Flanders lies the body of an Irish priest.
Like so many caught up in the conflict that came to be known as the Great War, he was buried where he fell, without marker or tombstone; one more casualty amongst the millions. That should have been the end; it proved not to be the case, however.
If, after his death, the private papers, which he had asked to be burned, had lain undisturbed then, almost certainly, he would have been forgotten by all except those closest to him. Instead, the discovery, and subsequent publication of a biography in 1920, caused ferment.
Willie Doyle was born into a well to do Catholic family on March 3, 1873. His upbringing on the outskirts of Dublin was outwardly idyllic, but also one charged with the devout religious faith of that household. From this Christian home, four of the seven children was to enter some form of religious life. After being educated in both Ireland and England, Willie Doyle entered the Society of Jesus.
After many long years of study, he was ordained in 1907 and assigned to the Jesuit mission to parishes throughout the British Isles. From the start he excelled as preacher and confessor, and the crowds flocked to hear and be converted. Only after his death was the secret of such success revealed—penance.
Appearing at the start of the twentieth century, here was a figure like Irish monks of old. Night watches in front of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent use of the Discipline, immersion in cold lakes, nocturnal barefoot pilgrimages—all hidden from view, but, importantly, with the knowing approval of his Spiritual Director. Added to this was his less dramatic daily “war” on self. The “Butter Tragedy”—some days butter on his toast, others not, just one example of a constant spirit of mortification in everyday matters. It was to prove never-ending; and combined with countless invocations his waking hours were eventually to become a veritable litany of reparation and supplication to the Mercy of God.
The discovery of the papers that revealed this intrigued those who knew him, unaware until then of the intensity of the life he had led. To others, however, such practices appeared too extreme, too harsh; but this was no gloomy ascetic. Instead, a much loved, affable priest, constantly joking—it was perceptions that were mistaken. Nevertheless, like those called to perfection—and that remains all baptized Catholics—Father Willie Doyle had understood what clay we were made from, and so was under no illusions: the Battle for Heaven was one to be fought to the death of self. He could not have foreseen that for him at least this combat was to reach its conclusion in a very real battle in the European conflict then threatening.
When war finally did break out, Fr. Willie Doyle volunteered immediately. Behind this lay a desire to serve. Hours spent in the Confessional, he understood his fellow man. With thousands dressed in khaki on their way to meet death, he knew that someone had to be there with them as this was to be the definitive hour for such souls when all would be lost or gained, and for all Eternity. And so, he made straight for the Front.
Soon after, with the Royal Irish Fusiliers he landed in France. From then on, this new Chaplain was to march every mile alongside these soldiers—forgoing all privileges that his Officer rank afforded him. This, and later other Irish battalions, were now his “flock” and he had chosen to be their “shepherd.” In the end, however, it was not his ensuring that the Sacraments were available as Death stalked them; saying Holy Mass whenever, and wherever, he could; or his rushing through machine-gun fire to get to the dying—to Anoint and give Viaticum. Nor was it the hours spent at night ensuring that the dead had a Christian burial—often burying what was left with his bare hands; or his comforting the sick and wounded—some so badly so they no longer had faces. Nor staying, to the bitter end, with one recruit prior to being executed for desertion—before later having the unenviable task of writing to the man’s family. Nor simply his good humor and ready smile throughout. No, these battle hardened, if still fearful, soldiers loved him for just being with them through it all—often only partially aware of the mysterious Presence mediated through this Alter Christus.
For his bravery, evident to all who served with him, as well as being mentioned in dispatches, Fr. Willie Doyle was awarded the Military Cross—it should have been the highest award for gallantry possible: the Victoria Cross. That proved impossible, however, for he had a triple disqualification being Irish, Catholic and a Jesuit. Those in the military knew he had fallen foul of the politics of the time—needless to say, it meant little to him: his eyes were on an altogether different prize.
As if the dangers and privations of the Front were not enough, throughout he continued with his own inner “war.” When possible, in those flooded fetid trenches, with the sounds of Hell reverberating, the priest spent hours on his knees with a Pyx around his neck adoring the Prince of Peace—all the time offering up reparation, especially so for priests.
His letters home to his widowed father, both touching and inspiring, reveal the strain of it all—something hidden from those around him. For this was a sensitive man that felt every pain inflicted by war, both physical and mental. Nevertheless, to the last, he knew every minute counted, and that others were counting on him, engaged as he was in a very real “battle” for souls, and on that “front” no quarter could be given.
On they marched through the bloodstained fields, with names now synonymous with suffering—the Somme, Passchendaele…. Some of the experiences too hideous to imagine—the night the battalion walked over a field filled with fresh corpses. Still, their Padre was with them, a reassuring presence regardless of the “dark valleys” they passed through, and one that brought an unexpected peace to many. For, like them, he too had been shot at, shelled and gassed; narrowly missing being killed on numerous occasions; his only rest, when possible, in the same rat infested sodden trenches as they. Despite his brother officer’s pleas, he held to his post; determined to be with his “flock” throughout this living hell. And yet, just like the men around him, still clinging to the hope that—somehow—he might be allowed to survive the daily carnage, if all the while living in constant readiness to offer his life as a sacrifice for the saving of just one more soul.
And then, at last, that hour of Holocaust came.
On August 16, 1917, during the seemingly never-ending Passchendaele offensive, Fr. Willie Doyle encountered Death in the full heat of battle.
Dodging gunfire in the dreaded No-Man’s Land whilst desperately trying to drag a wounded comrade back to safety, the priest was blown to pieces by a German shell. Unlike the many to whom he had given a Christian burial, his remains were hastily interred in a makeshift communal plot whilst all around the battle raged on. The sound of shells exploding against the night sky as the wounded and maimed continued to cry out for someone—anyone—to hasten to their aid were to be his only Requiem.
Now, with the guns silenced, Fr. Willie Doyle lies waiting for a very different Reveille to sound across those now stilled battlefields. And when rising to meet the true General he served and for whom he gave his life, in the slain priest’s train shall surely follow the legions of his spiritual progeny, not least his fallen comrades, many of whom saved by that final Absolution just as the end drew near….
On the Western Front alone, some estimate that as many as 40,000 military personnel converted to the Catholic Faith, due in no small part to the Catholic Chaplains who gave exemplary service during the Great War—men such as Fr. Willie Doyle.
Today, unknown in Ireland and forgotten by the Order he served in, at that desolate Flanders field the mortal remains of this war hero await the only recognition he ever longed for, to hear those much desired and final words:
“Come … you did it to one of the least of these my brethren….”
Editor’s note: This essay is based on a short life of Father Willie Doyle by the author titled Father Willie Doyle & World War I: A Chaplain’s Story.