07 May 1917

Archive Ref: IE IJA /J2/83_Letter to his Father_(131)(8/8)

B.E Force

7/5/17

My Dearest Father,

To take advantage I had to finish out my last letter hurriedly as I wanted to take advantage   of a few free days to make a little excursion to the dear good nuns at Arnetteo who were so kind to me on my first arrival in France. It was a trip of some 80 kilometers (about 50 miles)of a journey, but the weather was glorious, dry and not too hot, I thought little of it as I mounted my bicycle to trundle away my 20 odd stone of flesh bone and blood along the roads of France.

I went along leisurely, having plenty of time as I knew the sisters would put for the night and so made every little detour to visit some of the churches which are always interesting. I was rather amused in one to see behind the altar a very handsome stained glass of the nativity. The shepherds stand grouped at the back our Lady and St Joseph

 

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kneel on one side of the crib, while on the other, dwarfing every other figure, is the Curé himself in an attitude of prayer looking as if he had swallowed a pound of butter. The worthy man is evidently determined not to be forgotten when he books his passage to another world or to leave to posterity the task of erecting a monument to his memory, a hint which might be taken by our Rev clerical friends— Fr Toner. For example, would look real well as the Impertinent thief on Calvary.

At the bottom of the same church is a mortuary slab which reads as follows: –

“Erected by Monsieur X in memory of his dear wife Marie who lived 79 years 4 months 6 days; they were married 55 years ,9 months,2 days 7 hours, RIP”. There is nothing like being accurate, but possibly the unfortunate (!) man wanted to record that he had so much of his purgatory already done.

I reached the convent late in the evening after a short enjoyable and restful ride through the country, away from the din and the roar of war. The Sister who opened the door looked at me with all her eyes in a dazed, frightened sort of way“I remember you perfectly Father” she said “but I had better let the Mother know first”, and she vanished like a flash leaving me rather mystified. In a few moments, old Mother Hen with all her chicks came swarming

I reached the convent late in the evening after a short enjoyable and restful ride through the country, away from the din and the roar of war. The Sister who opened the door looked at me with all her eyes in a dazed, frightened sort of way“I remember you perfectly Father” she said “but I had better let the Mother know first”, and she vanished like a flash leaving me rather mystified. In a few moments, old Mother Hen with all her chicks came swarming in: “Mais mon Père” you are dead!

We saw in the paper that you were killed by a shell- Fr Doyle S.J. n’est-ce pas: “The same old ‘ oss, Madame, but as far as I know still very much alive” and then I told her about Fr Denis Doyle S.J. who God rest his soul, has got me so many masses and prayers by mistake. Thereupon we all fell upon each other’ s necks and wept, the weeping on the necks of the more elderly dames being of short duration to prevent jealousy alone. The convent larder was next emptied and, for a dead man I did remarkably well ending with a glorious sleep. I spent most the next day wandering round the country with a visit to the home and shrine of the “beggar-man saint, John Baptist Labre.

I often (think) he must be nearly mad with envy watching us in our trenches surrounded and walked on and sat upon by his “pets”, but from the same pets deliver us o Lord as speedily as may be, this coming hot weather.

On my way home I took in Noeux-les- Nimes and heard from the Curé (who by the way, looked very uncomfortable and made for the holy water when I appeared from the dead) the whole story of his church and our Lady’ s statue which I mentioned in my last letter.

On Passion Sunday, the men arrived with the box and asked him were he wished our Lady of the victories to be erected. As it was only a quarter of an hour before high mass he told them to come back later and then turned into his own garden, a few yards away to finish his office. The mass servers were playing outside the church. Which was empty the sacristan having finished his preparation had only left when a 15-inch shell fired from a German Naval gun, about the distance

of Skerries from where you are crashed through the wall and exploded in the sanctuary. As a rule, shells burst on impact. But this being an armour piercing shell came through the wall like paper and exploded inside with results impossible to describe.

When I went into the ruin I exclaimed to the Curé “Surely you have had fifty shells in here”“to which he announced,” only one the havoc you see is the work of a single shot”. Not a trace of the beautiful Altar, where I often offered the holy sacrifice remain. The carved stalls the altar rails benches + chairs are smashed to splinters

The roof and parts of the walls are stripped of plaster.

I have never seen such a scene of destruction, the explanation being that the explosion took place inside the church and the liberated gasses rushed a round like ten thousand mad animals wrecking and tearing all they must seeking for an exit.

The building is nearly as large as Kingstown church but from end to end it is a perfect ruin. Pictures, statues again all gone, the door of the sacristy blown in and the vestments torn to ribbons not a particle of the beautiful stained glass which filled the twenty large windows remains now

There is just one ray of comfort in this sad destruction – not one life was lost. Ten minutes later the church would have been crowded with civilians + soldiers few of them probably would have been touched by bits of the shell, but not a soul could have been left alive by the shock. I have seen men on the battle field sometimes a row at a time standing or leaning against a trench untouched by bullet or shrapnel simply killed by the force of an exploding shell; you can picture the result in a strong enclosed building.

Here as in so many places, God again showed his power in a wonderful way. Quite near the Altar stood a magnificent Calvary. One arm of the crucifix is torn off but imagine neither the figure or the arm are injured. Poor St John got badly smashed up and St Mary Magdalene has a bullet through her heart, the very thing she would have asked for, but our Blessed Lady with the exception of a slight scratch on one hand “ stands by the cross”absolutely untouched in the middle of all the horror and ruin

The shell you will remember fell in the sanctuary blowing the Altar to bits. After much search and digging among the debris the tabernacle was found whole and entire; inside the ciborium or sacred vessel containing the blessed sacrament was standing upright, not even the cover having been knocked off and the consecrated particles in perfect order, although the tabernacle must have been blown to the ceiling. This bit of news ought to make you quite happy. If. for example, you hear one day that I was last seen rapidly making for the moon don’ t be weary for I shall instantly come down again safely with the pious ejaculation  on my lips: “What Ho! She bumps!” Or should I vanish under 50 tons of bricks  posess your soul in patience for a week as it takes some time to lift a house or two off one’ s self and you will find that like Lazarus of old I am none the worse for a few days quiet in a tomb.

That ends my little stick of news. The weather thoroughly ashamed of its bad content has put on its best face and is pouring

sunshine on us for the last few days so that one timid green leaf has actually put out its head. The Boche is extremely good and well behaved  indeed causing us no trouble worth speaking  of until pushing off in fact seems anxious to meet our wishes in every way.

Yesterday he erected a notice board on his front line:” You can have a present of this trench on May 8th“. Wither that is his little joke or to mean to return we do not know, but we have not had such a quiet time for the past fifteen months.

I am sorry to hear that owing to the shortage of meat in Ireland poor Tim is to perform the “Happy Dispatch” at any early date. It is a sad ending to the life of a faithful hound who served his master well, but I should like to suggest that he be boiled for many hours before eating, for if I remember not, the said Tim is a tough old dog. What about the parrot? And have you ever tried “devilled rat à la trenché”?

Full stop God bless all

Ever dearest Father

Your own loving

Will.