Christmas on the Front

From the biography of Fr. William Doyle S.J. by Alfred O’Rahilly, 1920

Christmas [1916] itself, Fr. Doyle had the good luck of spending in billets. He got permission from General Hickie to have Midnight Mass for his men in the Convent. The chapel was a fine large one, as, in pre-war times, over three hundred boarders and orphans were resident in the Convent; and by opening folding doors, the refectory was added to the chapel and thus doubled the available room. An hour before Mass, every inch of space was filled, even inside the altar rails and in the corridor, while numbers had to remain in the open. Word had in fact gone round about the Mass, and men from other battalions came to hear it, some having walked several miles from another village. Before the Mass there was strenuous Confession-work.

We were kept hard at work hearing confessions all the evening till nine o'clock," writes Fr. Doyle, "the sort of Confessions you would like, the real serious business, no nonsense and no trimmings. As I was leaving the village church, a big soldier stopped me to know, like our Gardiner Street friend, ‘if the Fathers would be sittin' anymore that night.’ He was soon polished off, poor chap, and then insisted on escorting me home. He was one of my old boys, and having had a couple of glasses of beer—‘It wouldn't scratch the back of your throat, Father, that French stuff’—was in the mood to be complimentary.

‘We miss you sorely, Father, in the battalion,’ he said, ‘we do be always talking about you.’ Then in a tone of great confidence: ‘Look, Father, there isn't a man who wouldn't give the whole of the world, if he had it, for your little toe! That's the truth.’ The poor fellow meant well, but ‘the stuff that would not scratch his throat’ certainly helped his imagination and eloquence. I reached the Convent a bit tired, intending to have a rest before Mass, but found a string of the boys awaiting my arrival, determined that they at least would not be left out in the cold. I was kept hard at it hearing Confessions till the stroke of twelve and seldom had a more fruitful or consoling couple of hours' work, the love of the little Babe of Bethlehem softening hearts which all the terrors of war had failed to touch.


The Mass itself was a great success and brought consolation and spiritual peace to many a war-weary exile. This is what Fr. Doyle says:

I sang the Mass, the girls' choir doing the needful. One of the Tommies, from Dolphin's Barn, sang the Adeste beautifully with just a touch of the sweet Dublin accent to remind us of 'home, sweet home’, the whole congregation joining in the chorus. It was a curious contrast: the chapel packed with men and officers, almost strangely quiet and reverent (the nuns were particularly struck by this), praying and singing most devoutly, while the big tears ran down many a rough cheek: outside the cannon boomed and the machine-guns spat out a hail of lead: peace and good will—hatred and bloodshed!

It was a Midnight Mass none of us will ever forget. A good 500 men came to Holy Communion, so that I was more than rewarded for my work.

On Christmas Day itself all was quiet up at the front line. The Germans hung white flags all along their barbed wire and did not fire a shot all day, neither did the English. For at least one day, homage was paid to the Prince of Peace.

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