Somme diaries of Irish priest found 100 years later

  • Battle of the Somme

Personal artefacts and the belongings of an irish priest active during the Battle of the Somme in France have been uncovered after 100 years. 

Fr Willie Doyle from Dublin was chaplain with the 16th (Irish) Division and was remembered for his courage on the battlefield. He died in August 1917 during the First World War. 

Over 500 letters he wrote at the time have been uncovered along with several boxes of objects he gathered during his war service. Some of the letters reveal his eyewitness accounts of the horror of the front lines in France. 

During the Battle of Loos, Fr Doyle was caught in a German gas attack and for his conduct was mentioned in dispatches. He was described as 'one of the bravest men who fought or served out here' by General Hickie, commander-in-chief of the 16th Irish Division.

100 years later, Fr Doyle's story has been revealed as part of BBC Northern Ireland's Voices 16 documentary series which will air this 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.'

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. 

Voices 16 will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland on Wednesday 29 July ay 9pm.