Letters from Irish Jesuit priest who served in Battle of the Somme found after 100 years
Rosary beads belonging to an Irish Jesuit priest and letters he wrote about his experiences on the battlefield during the Somme have been discovered after almost a century.
Fr Willie Doyle from Dublin was chaplain with the 16th Irish Division and was famous for his courage on the battlefield. He was killed in action in August 1917 during the First World War.
More than 500 letters he wrote have been discovered along with several boxes of objects from his war service. The items had been kept in Irish Jesuit archives.
Some of the letters, which were sent to his loved ones in Ireland, describe his eyewitness accounts of the horror on the front line for Irish troops during the conflict in France.
In one powerful letter he talks about two gas attacks by the Germans and how men were found dead with ripped clothing where they had tried to pull off their clothes to breathe.
During the Battle of Loos, Fr Doyle was caught in a German gas attack and for his conduct was mentioned in dispatches.
General Hickie, commander-in-chief of the 16th Irish Division, described him as “one of the bravest men who fought or served out here”. He was presented with the parchment of merit of the 49th Irish Brigade.
Two of Fr Doyle’s great nephews were shown his letters and personal possessions for the first time during a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, due to be broadcast next week. Voices 16 – Somme explores the events of 1916 through the testimony of the people who witnessed it and their families, using authentic documentation from the time.
Great-nephew Mark Cumisky reads an extract from one of Fr Doyle’s letters detailing how as he administered the Last Rites to the dying the words stuck in his throat and his tears splashed on their bodies.
“It’s incredibly powerful to read and see something like that and to try to imagine what they were going through,” Mr Cumiskey said.
“The scale of horror and sheer brutality of it.”
Another great-nephew, Hugh Cumisky, describes his emotion as he holds his great uncle’s Rosary beads.
He said: “It’s utterly moving. Just holding the Rosary beads he actually held.”
The documentary also features eyewitness testimony from stretcher-bearer Jack Christie, a west Belfast man who enlisted not out of patriotism but to escape from his life as a mill hand.
Edward Friel, a Derry man who joined up at the age of 40 leaving behind his wife, three children and a well-paid job, is also remembered in the documentary.
Source: Irish Jesuit Archives