Despatches from the Field: Father Doyle

Jim from Boomba provides this ‘Desptaches from the Field’. It is an account of a brave man and Catholic priest who died 100 years ago last Wednesday on the Western Front.


Last Wednesday marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Father William Doyle SJ. He was killed in action at the Battle of Langemarck during the Third Battle of Ypres, near the Frezenberg Redoubt (a strong German position about 5 km East of Ypres – an area very familiar to Australian troops who fought on the same battlefield).

Fr Doyle, a Jesuit priest, was appointed as a Military Chaplain to the 48th Brigade of the 16th (Irish) Division on 15 November 1915. The three battalions within the Brigade were the Dublins, the Rifles and the Inniskillings.

He served in that position until the day he was killed in action – 16 August 1917.

He served with his Division through all the hellish months between that date and his death nearly two years later, including the murderous hell of the Somme offensive.

The 16th Division, over the two weeks it was in action in this final battle for Fr. Doyle, lost about 4,600 men.

Fr Doyle had gained a reputation as a tireless chaplain who would immediately attend to the killed and wounded whenever it was necessary, regardless of time of day, weather or personal exhaustion.

To quote from Fr Doyle’s biography:

… the next day, the 15th (August 1917) when once more the Irish troops were moved up, through and beyond Ypres. Here on the dawn of Thursday 16th August 1917, the front line from St. Julien to the Roulers railway station south of Frezenberg was held by Irishmen waiting for the order to advance. Every insignificant rise in the undulating Flemish farmlands in front of them was crowned with a German post; there were several strong ‘pill boxes’ (concrete block houses) and in the middle of the line of attack a spur (Hill 35) dominated every approach. It was these redoubts – especially Borry Farm Redoubt with its sixty expert machine gunners and five machine guns – which frustrated all attempts of the Irish infantry. Moreover, no supporting waves came up, for no living beings could get through the transverse fire of the German machine guns.

And so when the German counter-attack was launched in the afternoon, the Rifles, the Dublins and the Inniskllings had to retire, taking with them what wounded they could.

Many groups were surrounded and cut off, or had to fight their way back in the night.

Fr. Doyle was speeding all day hither and thither over the battlefield like an angel of mercy; his words of Absolution were the last words heard on earth by many an Irish lad that day, and the stooping figure of priest and father, seen through blinding blood, filled the glance of many in their agony. Perhaps once more some speechless youth ebbing out his life’s blood, kissed his beloved padre, or by a silent handshake bid farewell to the priest.

“Ah, Father Doyle … Father Doyle.”  “Is that the priest? Thank God – I am alright now”  “Ah, Father, is that you? Thanks be to God for His goodness in sending you; my heart was sore to die without the priest”.

From a war correspondent:

“All through the worst hours, an Irish padre went about among the dead and dying giving Absolution to his boys. Once he came back to headquarters, but he would not take a bite of food or stay, though his friends urged him. He went back to the field to minister to those who were glad to see him bending over them in their last agony. Four men were killed by shellfire as he knelt beside them, and he was not touched – not touched until his own turn came”.

(Fr Doyle had escaped death by millimetres on numerous occasions: just two days earlier, on hearing the shriek of an approaching shell, he ducked down and felt the wind of the shell as it passed by his head. The shell exploded just in front of him. Although not wounded by shrapnel, he was left reeling for some time by the blast. His account of this incident is one of the final entries in his diary).

Fr Doyle’s Death

Fr Doyle had been engaged from early morning in the front line, cheering and consoling his men, and attended to the many wounded.

Soon after 3pm, he made his way back to the RAP (Regimental Aid Post) which was in the charge of CPL Raitt, the doctor having been required to go back to the rear some hours before. Whilst here, 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, PTE McInespie and another, LT Grant.

Some 20 minutes later, McInespie staggered into the Aid Post and fell down in a state of collapse from shell shock.

CPL 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!”

Then bit by bit the whole story was told. Fr. Doyle had found the wounded officer lying far out in a shell crater. He crawled out to him, absolved and anointed him, and then half dragging, half carrying the dying man, managed to get him within the line.

Three officers came up at this moment, and McInespie was sent for some water. This he got and was handing it to Fr. Doyle when a shell burst in the midst of the group, killing Fr. Doyle and the three officers instantly, and hurling McInespie violently to the ground.

Later in the day, some of the Dublins when retiring came across the bodies of all four. Recognising Fr. Doyle, they placed him and a PTE Meehan, whom they were carrying back dead, behind a portion of the Frezenberh Redoubt and covered their bodies with sods and stones.

Fr. Doyle’s body was subsequently lost – he has no known grave.

Fr. Doyle’s bravery is beyond question. He had already been earlier recommended for the Military Cross for his bravery during the assault on the village of Ginchy and the DSO for similar bravery at Wytschaete some months earlier. But the Irish uprising had occurred at Easter 1916 – the triple handicap of being an Irish Catholic Jesuit priest proved insurmountable under the circumstances.

The Words of Fr Doyle’s Divisional Commander:

The Commander of the 16th (Irish) Division was MAJGEN Sir William Bernard Hickie, KCB.

In a letter to friend a few months after Fr. Doyle was killed, he wrote:

“Fr. Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met, and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here. He did his duty, and more than his duty, most nobly, and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten.

On the day of his death, 16th August, he had worked in the front line, and even in front of the line, and appeared to know no fatigue – he never knew fear. He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day, and was buried on the Frezenberg ridge … He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his Commanding Officer, by his Brigadier and by myself.

Superior Authority, however, has not granted it, and as no other posthumous award is given, his name will, I believe, be mentioned in the Commander-in-Chief’s despatch … I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men; and even among these, Fr. Doyle stood out”.

 May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.


Author: Jim From Boomba

Jim from Boomba is a grumpy, old, white man and contributes to with 'Despatches from the Field' - regular contributions that poke fun at the insanity unleashed on the world by philosophers from the Left...

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