Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Fr. William Doyle, SJ, who fell at Ypres

Ypres in 1917

For Memorial Day, "Good Jesuit, Bad Jesuit" has this letter from Fr. William Doyle, SJ to his 86 year old father written a few days before Fr. Doyle was killed during the Fourth Battle of Ypres in 1917.  Fr. Doyle was chaplain to the 16th Irish Division.

An excerpt:

August 10th.—A sad morning, as many men came in dreadfully wounded. One man was the bravest I ever met. He was in dreadful agony, for both legs had been blown off at the knee ; but never a complaint fell from his lips, even while they dressed his wounds, and he tried to make light of his injuries. . . . The Extreme Unction, as I have noticed time and again, eased even his bodily pain : "I am much better now and easier—God bless you !" as I left him to attend a dying man.

British and Imperial soldiers passed through the Menin Gate in great numbers on their way to the Ypres salient, a low-lying, muddy bulge in the British line exposed to German fire from higher ground on three sides.   300,000 British and Imperial soldiers would be killed there.   After the war a memorial was built at the Menin Gate, and on its arches are inscribed the names of 55,000 of these soldiers whose remains were never found, having been blasted to bits by the endless rain of shells.   The memorial also has a short inscription written by Rudyard Kipling which begins with the Latin phrase "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam" ("To the greater glory of God").   By coincidence, that is the motto of the Society of Jesus, the religious order to which Fr. Doyle belonged.

Some found the Menin Gate memorial obscene.  In his poem, "On Passing the New Menin Gate" Siegfried Sassoon claims that the dead of the Ypres Salient would "deride this sepulchre of crime". Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer, by contrast, applauded the simplicity of the memorial, calling it "more impressive than any triumphal arch or monument to victory that I have ever seen."    Perhaps even Sassoon would agree that the 300,000 lives which were sacrificed at Ypres for 24 square kilometers of boggy ground deserved a monument of some kind for having "struggled in the slime."  If not the dignified, simple memorial built by the Empire for which they died, then what?

Perhaps Fr. Doyle had begun the fittest memorial, on the battlefield itself, in the midst of the fight, when he celebrated the sacrifice of the Mass on an altar of boxes he had built himself.   As Fr. Doyle wrote to his father: "I had to be both priest and acolyte, and, in a way, I was not sorry. I could not stand up, so I was able for once to offer the Holy Sacrifice on my knees. It is strange that out here a desire I have long cherished should be gratified —namely, to be able to celebrate alone, taking as much time as I wished, and not inconveniencing anyone."

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