The following article first appeared in The Echo of Cantley Volume 32 no 5, November 2019. This article is made available for the enjoyment of others with the express permission of the Echo of Cantley.
Warning: this article includes graphic content that some readers may find disturbing.
How often have we heard the remark that our boys were so young when they went to war? Our Cantley boys were no exception. They were mostly young farm boys, teasing the neighbours’ daughters one week, then by the next, they had “signed up” and were getting fitted with uniforms to head off to training the following week.
Nothing in their lives would have prepared them for the horrors they would experience. Father Willie Doyle was at the Battle of the Somme, September 1916.
In a letter to his father he wrote:
“The first part of our journey lay through a narrow trench, the floor of which consisted of deep thick mud and the bodies of dead men trodden under foot. It was horrible beyond description, but there was no help for it, and on the half-rotten corpses of our own brave men we march in silence, everyone busy with his own thoughts. I shall spare you the gruesome details, but you can picture one’s sensations as one felt the ground yield under one’s foot and one sank down through the body of some poor fellow. Half an hour of this brought us out on the open into the middle of the battlefi eld of some days previous … Good God, such a sight! I had tried to prepare myself for this, but all I had read or pictured gave me little idea of the reality.” *
There are no words to properly express our gratitude for the devotion of the chaplains, the bravery of the medics and the kindness of the nurses who gave comfort to our young men so far from the loving arms of their families. A generation or two later, this spirit of selflessness lives on in the unfortunate wars we are fi ghting today.
Yet, the camaraderie our boys shared with their fellow soldiers, the ability to make fun when there was none to be found, and to see humour when all around them was death, was their great gift to each other.
An amusing story from World War II is of two Cantley brothers. Norman was an officer, Billy was not. He was, however, a life-of-the-party kind of guy. When he was on leave visiting Norman in London, Billy often borrowed his brother’s spare officer’s uniform to party at the mess along with his “fellow” officers. He was never reported of course. Fortunately, both brothers survived to tell stories of war including their tales of mischievous fun.
Most of our boys did return home to live happy, productive lives. For that, too, their descendants are grateful.
* Excerpt from “To Raise the Fallen, A Selection of the War Letters, Prayers, and Spiritual Writings of Fr. Willie Doyle, S.J.” compiled and edited by Patrick Kenny. In November 1915, Fr. Doyle was appointed chaplain of the 16th Irish Division. He was profoundly dedicated to his “poor brave boys” until he was killed in action at the Battle of Ypres on August 16, 1917.