17 August 2017

Casualties of Passchendaele: The Rev. William Doyle MC

Thursday 17 August marks 100 years since The Rev. William Doyle died during the Third Battle of Ypres. Here is more about the man who ministered to soldiers in the midst of battle, with a total disregard for his own safety.


The Rev. William ‘Willie’ Doyle MC

Army Chaplains' Department

Death: 17 August 1917

Aged: 44

William Doyle was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, on 3 March 1873, to Hugh and Christine Doyle. He was the youngest of seven children and his father, Hugh, was an official of the High Court of Justice in Ireland. William was educated at Ratcliffe College, Leicester, and after reading a work by Catholic bishop St. Alphonsus, he was inspired to enter the Jesuit Novitiate at the age of 18. William was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1907, and worked for the mission staff.

In 1914, aged 41, William volunteered to join the British Army to serve as a Military Chaplain. He served with a number of Irish regiments within the 16th (Irish) Division before being attached to the 8th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The Division crossed to France in December 1915, and his first experience of battle was during the German gas attack at Loos on 26 April. Here, William ministered to the soldiers in the midst of the battle, displaying a total disregard for his own safety. For his action he was mentioned in dispatches.

He served on the Somme in the battles of Guillemont and Ginchy in September 1916, winning a Military Cross (MC) for his bravery. He saw action again in June 1917 at the Battle of Messines, where the 16th (Irish) Division, formed mostly of Irish Catholics from the south of Ireland, fought alongside the 36th (Ulster) Division formed of men from the Protestant north.

William's concern for the men was apparent in 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."

In August 1917, William and the 16th (Irish) Division were back in action again, this time at the Third Battle of Ypres. The 16th (Irish) Division was brought into the line a few days after the start of the battle and prepared to make its own attack north east of the village of Frezenberg on 16 August.

The 8th battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was in support at the beginning of the attack which went badly. The assault battalions suffered heavily from machine gun fire from German blockhouses as they advanced, and were then driven back across the swamping ground to their starting lines by determined German counterattacks.

The following day the 8th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, was holding the line. William had been cheering and consoling the men, and attending to the many wounded when word came in that an officer of the Dublin’s had been badly hit, and was lying out exposed in no-man’s land. William, as ever, unchecked by fear ventured out to retrieve the wounded man. He brought the man back to the British lines, but was hit by a shell along with a number of officers and killed.

Father Willie Doyle was given a hasty battlefield burial behind the ‘Frezenberg Redoubt’, but after the war no grave could be found so his name is listed among the missing on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Panel 160.

On 1 September 1917, the Ulster Presbyterian newspaper 'The Weekly News' said this of Father Doyle in an obituary:

 "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."