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Irish chaplain patrolled 1917 frontlines with a shovel, gave last rites and then buried the dead

The extraordinary bravery of Fr William Doyle is told in new exhibition at National Museum.

Father William Doyle
Father William Doyle
Image: National Museum of Ireland

IT WAS HELL caked in mud, a battle that raged on the Western Front in the middle of a war that seemed to have no end and no mercy.

There was a beacon of mercy for some of the soldiers bogged down in the muddy trenches during the Battle of Messines, which took place 100 years ago this month, three years into World War I.

That beacon was an Irish chaplain, Fr William Doyle, who refused the relative safety of the behind-the-line hospitals to tend to the spiritual needs of the dying on the frontline.

“There’s an account that Doyle went around with a shovel, gave last rites and buried soldiers that died,” says Lar Joye, curator of the military history collections at the National Museum of Ireland.

The museum at Collins Barracks has had an exhibition running this year to focus on the Battle of Messines – and a new section has just opened to look at what happened to the Irish soldiers who fought on the Western Front in 1917.

Fr Doyle saw it all.

This really is at the front end of the horrors of war and he was there the whole time.

“He brought a lot of peace to people who had been badly wounded. That’s why he was so popular, because he was out there on the front. He really was with the men when he could have easily stayed back in the hospital and done his job there,” says Joye.

“He insisted on being up the front and because of that the soldiers admired him.”

Fr Doyle was born in Dalkey, Dublin in 1873. He entered the Jesuit Novitiate at the age of 18. He volunteered for war duties in November 1915 and was later appointed chaplain of the 16th Irish Division, serving with 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 6th Royal Irish Rifles and the 7th Royal Irish Rifles.

Chaplains were never subject to being forced to join armies. Any chaplain that signed up did so voluntarily.

Fr Doyle was killed on 16 August 1917 after a day ministering to the wounded and dying on the battlefield at Ypres. His body was never recovered.

The horror of Messines

His story is not the only one told in the new exhibition. In 1917, two whole Irish divisions fought side-by-side at the Battle of Messines.

From its outbreak in July 1914, World War I had spread across the towns and villages along the Western Front, eventually destroying almost 80% of Belgium.

The Battle of Messines was launched on 7 June 1917 by General Herbert Plumer’s Second Army with the detonation of 19 underground mines.

The target of the offensive was the Messines Ridge, a natural stronghold southeast of Ypres, and a small German salient since late 1914. The seven-day attack led to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres (known as Passchendaele).

This battle ran from 31 July to 10 November 1917.

The 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) Divisions suffered terrible casualties in assaulting concrete forts amid the mud of an unusually wet autumn.

“What makes 1917 more horrific was that it rained heavily throughout that summer from the end of July. That’s how the battle got bogged down,” says Joye.

Ypres-destruction jpg2 The destruction of Ypres, Belgium during the Battle of Messines. Source: National Museum of Ireland

Through most of its brief existence, the 16th Division was commanded by William Hickie from Tipperary.

The 16th Division was seen as an Irish nationalist division and Hickie, a Catholic and supporter of Home Rule, was a popular commander. He tried to encourage his troops by awarding a special certificate to deserving soldiers.

In the summer of 1917, Hickie recommended Fr Doyle for the Victoria Cross, adding to the Military Medal that he had already won. The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the United Kingdom honours system.

However, he was eventually denied a Victoria Cross due to “the triple disqualification of being an Irishman, a Catholic and a Jesuit”.

_AU12580 Source: ictured, National Museum of Ireland

Part of Fr Doyle’s officer uniform is currently on display at the museum, along with his gloves, medals and a letter from General Hickie.

Also on display at the exhibition are items from John Hunt, a young Irishman who became an officer during the war, and a motorcycle used by soldiers on the front line – 30,000 of these had been built in the course of the war.

_AU29594 Source: National Museum of Ireland

Find out more about the exhibition here.

Read: From the front room to The Long Hall: The history of the Dublin pub

More: France to honour prisoners forced to work on Hitler’s secret weapon in WWII

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