When I think of Father Willie Doyle, a quote comes to mind, “Older men declare war. But it is the youth who must fight and die.” Willie Doyle was both an older man and joined the company of younger men on the front to die.
In 1914, at the start of the apocalyptic WWI, like many men in Europe, Willie Doyle, although a Jesuit priest, immediately volunteered. However, being a priest, he was different from most. Willie had just turned 41 years old and left a successful professional routine. Due to his education and profession, he was given an officer rank and appeared to be headed for a war away from the front.
Nevertheless, after a short period away from the action, Willie requested a transfer to the front. He desired to accompany the men headed to battle. Despite his senior officers vehemently opposing it, Father Willie was firm. He ultimately told them that he chose the most challenging option because he believed that these men needed his guidance during battle. As a civilian, he had lived a life of discipline and sacrifice which he knew was compatible with life in the trenches.
In 1915, Willie landed in France with the 16th Division of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. His presence filled the infantrymen with confidence. And his boyish sense of humor kept their spirits up. His maturity and soon-to-be-seen daily sacrifice for others were immediately noticed by all.
Trench warfare quickly became a stalemate. Either side could overcome or outflank the other. The opposing trench lines were separated by a killing zone named appropriately, “No Man’s Land.”
Men Were Amazed at How He Had No Apparent Regard for His Safety
Father Willie Doyle would refuse to listen. When the men would go over the trenches shelling would start. Willie Doyle would disregard his safety, race out, carry, and remove soldiers from harm’s way, regardless of whether they were English, Irish, or German. In fact, in April 1916, during the German gas attack in Hulluch, he raced out without his mask and saved several men.
Life in the trenches was horrendous. Nevertheless, Willie refused the officer’s perks. He remained in the same conditions as his men.
One evening, lying near one doctor, he noticed he was shaking and felt feverish. Both were lying in the rat- and lice-infested cold wet trench. Willie instructed the doctor to lie on top of his body to remove him from the cold wet ground. The doctor was reluctant but agreed and slept the entire night on Willie. In the morning he was better rested and able to treat the many wounded.
Willie was often the last face many of the dead saw. Under fire he would attempt to dig shallow graves, preparing them for burial.
Father Willie Doyle Died Helping the Men He Loved
On August 16, 1917, Willie was called to headquarters. But on his way back, shelling began. As was typical, he raced into the killing zone to save several wounded. While he was helping bring them to safety, an enemy shell landed on the men. None of their bodies were ever found. Willie Doyle the Good Shepherd was dead.
Father Willie Doyle who selflessly raced numerous times onto the killing zone, providing sacraments to men of all faiths and enabling a proper burial for many, is currently buried in a communal makeshift grave. As an Irishman, he was eventually awarded a military cross and recommended posthumously for the Victoria Cross. He was proposed for canonization as a saint in 1938 but that remains open.