A man badly wounded in the firing-line, Sir.’ Fr Doyle opened his eyes slowly. He had been dreaming of somewhere hot. One always dreamed of lovely hot places and things on these cold winter nights in the trenches – warm blankets, roaring fires and lots of steaming, hot food.
‘You’ll need to be quick, Father, to get him out alive.’ By this time, Fr Doyle had grasped that somebody was calling him, that there was a dying man who needed help, that perhaps a soul was in danger. He sprang from the waterproof sheet laid on the ground, on which he had flung himself an hour earlier in a bid to get much needed sleep. In a few moments he had pulled out his trench boots and was hurrying from his dugout.
It was 2.00am; snowing hard and bitterly cold. ‘God help the poor lads holding the tumbled-in ditch that is called the front line,’ thought Fr Doyle, as he felt the icy wind, ‘standing up to their knees in water and mud for hours and hours. God help the wounded soldier with his torn and bleeding body lying in this terrible cold, praying for help that seems endless in arriving.’
The first part of the journey was easy enough, except that the snow hid ruts and shell-holes into which Fr Doyle stumbled from time to time as he hurried along. Soon he came to a part of the trench that bore the ominous name of ‘Suicide Corner’, from the fact that the enemy had a machine gun trained on it, and at intervals during the night pumped a shower of lead on the spot, in the hope of knocking out some passer-by. As luck would have it, the rat-tat-tat of this gun began just as Fr Doyle reached the Corner. Even more unfortunately, a star-shell shot high in the sky, lighting up everything with dazzling brightness. On the other side of the exposed road was a dying man calling for a priest. Fr Doyle did not hesitate for a second. With a prayer for protection, he ducked low and ran across the open stretch. Overhead and on each side whip-whip, whizz-whizz went the bullets, tearing after one another in their willingness to find a billet. In that moment that seemed like an age, Fr Doyle was across, untouched, though more than one bullet buried itself in the snow beside him with an angry hiss. A few minutes later, he reached the place he had been directed to. The wounded man was not there.
‘The stretcher-bearers must have taken him away, Father,’ he was told. ‘They’re not that long gone and you’ll overtake them if you hurry.’
Fr Doyle hurried on again through slush and snow. Once, he tripped over a duckboard and went sprawling into a muddy pool, getting soaked to the skin. Once he missed his way and had to retrace his steps, thus losing precious moments. Nevertheless, these mishaps only made him press on faster and redouble his prayers that he would not be too late. At last, he caught sight of the stretcher-bearers ahead, moving slowly with their burden. He was soon by their side. When the men saw the priest, they stopped and gently laid their wounded victim on the ground.
Fr Doyle looked down at the poor man, lying pale and motionless in the snow and slush with the life crushed out of him by a cruel shell. He was a strongly built young, not much older than twenty, with fair hair and handsome features. His eyes were closed. He was deathly pale and, from his parted lips, at intervals a stifled moan. Fr Doyle knelt beside the dying young man and took his hand. He opened his eyes and a relieved look came into them when he saw the priest.
“Ah, Father Doyle,” he whispered faintly, “thank God you’ve come! I am so glad to see you.’
“God loves you too much to let you die without seeing a priest,” said Fr Doyle. “He has sent me to prepare you for Heaven. I am going to anoint you. Firstly, is there anything troubling you since your last confession?”
The stretcher-bearers withdrew a little when they saw the priest put on his stole and bend down to catch the confession that came faintly from the lips of the dying soldier. Then, while every head was bared came the solemn words of absolution - ’ Ego te absolvo - I absolve you from your sins.’
Immediately that soul was made worthy for the welcoming arms of the Saviour. Next, Fr Doyle took out the oil stocks and anointed the poor smashed body, and the Holy Unction seemed to ease the bodily pain, as occasionally he had noticed it do. The young man smiled gratefully and motioned Fr Doyle to bend lower as if he had some message to give him. As Fr Doyle did so, the young man put his two arms round the priest’s neck and kissed him reverently. It was all the poor lad could do to show his gratitude that he had not been left to die alone and without the consolation of receiving the Last Sacraments before he went home to God. The effort was his last. The next moment the shadow of death passed over his face. Once more Fr Doyle gave absolution and began the prayers for the dying. “Depart, Christian soul out of this world, in the name of God, the Father who created thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for thee; in the name of the Holy Ghost who sanctified thee, and may the Lord Jesus Christ receive thee with a smiling and benign countenance.”
As the angel of death hovered near, peace seemed to descend, for a moment, over the battlefields of Flanders. Not a sound broke the stillness; a silent star peeped out from behind a cloud, while, as if anxious to hide the scene, nature dropped noiselessly, her soft mantle of snow on the living and the dying.