From the Archives: WWI army chaplain's letters

POST BY RSomerset

Fr Denis Doyle, Army Chaplain. Killed in the War, Aug. 19, 1916.
Fr Denis Doyle, Army Chaplain. Killed in the War, Aug. 19, 1916.

To commemorate 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916, the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain remember a Jesuit Chaplain, Fr Denis Doyle SJ (1878-1916), who as part of the 2nd Battalion, Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment served and died there.

Fr Doyle had been the Minister at Manresa before joining the Leinster Regiment in November 1915, and a number of his letters home appeared in issues of Letters & Notices from early 1916, alongside those of other Jesuit Chaplains serving on the Western Front and in the Middle East. 

Fr Doyle’s letters demonstrate his love and devotion to the men in his care, alongside unflinching descriptions of the conditions:

“A few days ago we suffered a great bombardment. I went along the communication trench and was told one of my boys wanted to see me. I hastened on and met him carried on a stretcher. He opened his eyes and said: “Oh, Father, Father!” The stretcher was put down and I put my crucifix to his lips. He raised his head and kissed with intense devotion, and as I drew it away he exclaimed: “Oh, no, - again, again, Father!” Then his act of contrition, the Last Sacrament, and he was carried off: - a bit of his foot had been blown away, leg shattered, arm badly damaged, a small hole in the head, and a mere boy of 18. His devotion to the Crucifix brought tears to the eyes of the stretcher-bearers –all Protestants-and of two of my own men”.

Elsewhere, despite displaying the stoicism so associated with that conflict, Fr Doyle briefly betrays the toll exacted on him by the unending slaughter of the Front:

“From our trenches took place one of the engagements you have read of in the papers. At 9.30pm I went round the trenches, heard confessions and gave Communion to those taking part. Those remaining behind suffered most from the bombardment. – First news was, ‘Lance-Corporal Shea killed, Father’. Poor boy! He was an excellent man...- Then, ‘Sergeant Parsons badly wounded, Father’. He, one of my Eastertide converts, a good fellow really, but grown cold and indifferent till touched by grace at Eastertime. So the list increased till I walked away and said, ‘If anyone is very badly wounded, tell me; if not, they will find Fr Wolferstan (S.J.) at the nearest dressing station a mile or two behind’. Thank God, only one other needed the Last Sacraments. At times it gets more than one can stand”.

Whilst Fr Doyle’s battalion was not present at the start of the Battle of the Somme, by the end of July they were within miles of the battlefield and soon to move into position on the line. By the second week of August the 2nd Battalion Leinster Regiment was involved in preparations ahead of an attack on the village of Guillemont, due to begin on 18th August.  On the 7th August Fr Doyle wrote to Rev. Mother Prioress, Haywards Heath:

“Times are too strenuous and exciting to write at length. Besides, events are not clear in my own mind yet. Thanks for the (Sacred Heart) badges. They were gone in five minutes. I am longing for more. Will you also send some Brown Scapulars, Agnus Deis, and if possible Rosary Beads? There is a great cry for them at present, and I have none just when I need them. You can guess the reason why we need them so much now. –Pray hard for us all especially during the coming week.”

The attack on Guillemont began at 3pm on 18th August and, following the failure of the initial attack, Fr Doyle’s battalion were sent forward to hold the forward trenches against a counter-attack, until they were relieved at midnight.

Fr Doyle was killed hours later, in the early morning of August 19th, whilst getting tea for his men. A shell had burst close to them, killing or wounding everybody within reach. He survived until the evening, and was ministered to by Fr B. Booker, before succumbing to his wounds.

His good-nature, faith, and extraordinary courage were acknowledged by all, and, alongside his letters, a fitting tribute was paid to him by an American artillery officer serving in the British army, who had the fortune of meeting him:

“Of late I have been shooting over an Irish regiment who (an ancient privilege) have their own chaplain. Fr Doyle is his name, an English Jesuit, and in the two or three nights that we have spent together, I have howled with joy over the tales of the Catholic side of the case...Every morning he says Mass for the reserve company behind the trenches...Every evening he says the Rosary in the front line trench for the whole battalion, and at the end administers general Absolution to every man there...Quite as often as not he is cut down to two or three decades by hostile shelling, and once, at least, men have been killed and wounded by German fire while the Rosary was being said...[I]n time of strafing, this intrepid priest goes straight to the front lines and absolves the wounded and the dying, and you have a picture of what the Church can mean to men of faith in the midst of sudden death” 

From a letter by Lieutenant Henry A. Butters, Royal Field Artillery, to his sister in California. Lieutenant Butters was killed on August 31st, twelve days after Fr Doyle. 

The above extracts were taken from letters published in Letters and Notices vols. 33 and 34, which can be accessed in the reading room of the Archives of the British Jesuits.

For an article by Jack Mahoney SJ in which he discusses the memorial erected for the Jesuit army chaplains killed in action, including Fr Denis Doyle SJ, click here.

William Man, Archives Assistant