A remarkable letter?

I saw a thing going round on Twitter the other day along the lines of what is your greatest achievement? 

I expect a lot of people my age would reply with having children of whom they are proud, who do them credit. That doesn’t apply to me because I do not have children. I am, however, proud of my friendship with my ex-husband, the fact that there is no bitterness between us, after growing apart and breaking up following thirty years of marriage.

I’m also rather proud of the fact that I overcame a fear of heights in order to be able to take up downhill skiing, a past-time I enjoyed for three decades (and I still hanker to give it one last go!)

So, as this is a blog centred on the Great War I thought I’d refer to the result of a piece of detective work relating to this envelope which really makes me proud.

The story goes:-

In 1919 Professor Alfred O’Rahilly published a biography of a military chaplain of 16th (Irish) Division, Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC.  I acquired a copy of a first edition from my partner, a collector of militaria, after I developed an interest in the Irish participation in the Great War. I skimmed through the first 400 odd pages of deeply spiritual material, then read all of the final section relating to the padre’s war service and death in the front line of the Third Ypres battlefield in August 1917. The biography is largely based on letters and diaries that Willie Doyle wrote throughout his life and I was enthralled by the engaging and often humorous nature of the quotations. I decided that I wanted to write my own biography of this complex man, except that it would largely concentrate on his war service.

The book, published in 2013, was the product of a writer who had ignored all advice and, despite good intentions to the contrary, tried to juggle too many balls; the book was far too large and wide-ranging. Nonetheless, there was a small audience for it (sold about 300 copies) and there was plenty to be proud about, including that it made Fr Doyle’s descendants happy.

What made me most proud was, firstly, tracking down Fr Doyle’s descendants. Two of Willie’s brothers had not married, one had an adopted daughter and no other children, one sister was also unmarried and I did not know the surname of the two sisters who had married, therefore my task proved difficult. As it turned out, only one of the siblings, Willie’s sister Lena, had gone on to have a large family.  Secondly, I discovered a letter written by Major-General William Hickie, Officer Commanding 16th (Irish) Division (1915 to February 1918), in a family archive of a descendant of Lena; the letter being an important part of Fr Doyle’s story.

I made the decision to write my biography Worshipper and Worshipped in 2007, at which point social media was in its infancy, I had not signed up for any such platform, nor did I subscribe to genealogy websites, so those were resources for which I had no recourse. If possible, I wanted to see the letters Fr Doyle had written home from the France and Flanders, instead of just quoting from the O’Rahilly book.  I started off by emailing all the institutions I could think of that might hold the letters. I drew a blank for each one, except that someone from Belvedere College in Dublin, where Willie Doyle had been a teacher, gave me a name and a phone number for Fr Doyle’s great nephew.

Here was a dilemma. I tried to work out how old and in what state of health (I needn’t have worried) this great nephew was likely to be. I wondered whether a phone call from me would be welcome. I was also hesitant about phoning because of the differences of accents. I used to have a lodger from Dublin and we communicated with no problem at all in person – but not so much by phone when one would often ask the other to repeat him/herself!

As it happened, I had already booked a research trip to Dublin (by now August 2009) and decided to seek out a phone directory to look for the address in order to write a letter to the great nephew. This was a successful exercise, albeit it meant I did not receive a reply until after I had returned home to south London. An invitation was proffered by the family in north County Dublin, and a visit duly took place.  I uncovered a treasure trove of documents and artefacts relating to Willie from early infancy (a lock of baby hair) onwards.

I now had access to the transcripts of Fr Doyle’s letters home from the war front, typed by one of his sisters as an extra (also easier to read) copy for circulation in the family. Turns out that the original letters had been passed to Professor O’Rahilly and never returned (they can be found in the Jesuit Archive in Dublin). I spent hours photographing those transcripts in order to type my own transcript. Some of the resulting photographs were too blurred to read in my haste to get all the pages done in the time available. As it happens, I ran out of time, and returned at a later date to finish the task, which also gave me the opportunity to clear up any queries.

Amongst the paperwork was a hand-written letter on notepaper embossed 16th (Irish) Division Headquarters, within an envelope stamped as approved by the censor, dated 18th  November 1917, from Major-General William Hickie to his friend Brigadier-General Horace Kays at Kildare Street Club, Dublin. The General’s letter starts with the words “Father Doyle …” and was obviously responding to a query from the Brigadier.

Hickie tells Kays that the priest was one of the bravest men who had worked out there; he informs Kays that he had supported the recommendation of the Victoria Cross to Fr Doyle, killed by the explosion of a shell in the front line whilst trying to get a wounded officer to safety, Battle of Langemarck, 16th August 1917. Superior authority had not granted the VC but Fr Doyle was to be mentioned in dispatches. Hickie also tells about his pride in the men of his division. It was just as well I had been left alone in the archive room, a little used back room in the house, as this discovery made me cry!

N.B. Interestingly, Hickie ends the letter “I suppose we are halfway through the war now” i.e. the opinion of a general at the end of 1917; the subject of the perceived timing of what would be the end of the war at the time has been covered by historians such as Peter Hart in his book The Last Battle.

What amazes me most about the discovery of this letter is the largely lukewarm reception I get whenever I have posted images of the letter and the envelope on social media, compared to the “Wows!” others get for their Great War discoveries. (Apologies to those who have actually said or indicated Wow!)

I’m posting here the four page letter from Hickie to Kays, preceded by a transcription.

Finally, Worshipper and Worshipped is so titled to reflect the fact that Fr Doyle worshipped his God and the men of his flock worshipped him. I intend to publish a shorter version of this biography next year, possibly under the title of Chaplain and Correspondent.

My dear Kays,

Father Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here. He did his duty (and more than his duty) most nobly and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death – August 16th – he had worked in the front line and even in front of that line and appeared to know no fatigue. (He never knew fear.) He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge. I hope to be allowed when things settle down and we can get a party there to do it, to move his remains to the Convent Garden at Locre and to put them in a grave beside that of Willie Redmond. 

He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his C.O., by his Brigadier and by myself. Superior authority however has not granted it, and as no other posthumous award is given, his name will I believe be mentioned in the Commander in Chief’s despatch. If I had known his father’s address I would have written to him to congratulate him upon having had such a son, and in the name of the Division I would offer him my thanks for the work of the Priest, and in my own name as Commander I would offer my own for the spirit he infused into all he came into contact with – officers and men, and for his very glorious example. I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men – and even among them Father Doyle stood out. 

All goes well. I am prouder than ever of my commands. I suppose we are halfway through the war now.

Yours ever W.B.Hickie

The image of Fr Doyle is my photograph of a large photo portrait of Fr Doyle in his chaplain’s uniform situated in the archive room of his great nephew’s house

2 thoughts on “A remarkable letter?

  1. A remarkable letter and a remarkable book. Willie Doyle and Tubby Clayton truly understood their fellow men ,and put their faith into action both at the front and behind the lines.

    Liked by 1 person

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