Father Duffy on the Wait Before the Big Fight

Published: 14 December 2023

By Mike Hanlon
via the Roads to the Great War web site

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It’s the middle of July, 1915.  The 165th Infantry (AKA the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth”) is in the line east of Reims. The Germans are expected to launch their fifth major offensive of the year shortly. The unit’s chaplain, Father Francis Duffy, is making the rounds with the boys:

At present we are not in the front line trenches, but in what are called the intermediate ones. The General’s idea is to hold the front line with a few French troops who will make themselves as safe as possible against the vigorous shelling expected and withdraw behind our lines when the German Infantry make their attack. Then our fellows are to have the task of keeping goal. It’s Going to bring the battle right down to our doors, as the battalion and company headquarters are only one or two city blocks from where the hand to hand fighting will have to take place.

I spend most of my time amongst the men and am very much interested in finding out how their minds react at the prospects of their first big battle. The other German drives against the British and the French have been so overwhelmingly successful that I was afraid the soldiers might think that whenever the Germans get started they were just naturally bound to walk over everything. I am delighted to find that these bits of recent history have not affected our fellows in the slightest. Jim Fitzpatrick of E Company expressed the feeling of everybody when he said: “Why would I be afraid of him? They’re just Dootchmen, a’int they? and I never in me loife seen any four Dootchmin that I couldn’t lick.”

I have often read statements by reporters about men being anxious to get into a battle, I never believed it. But I find now at first hand that here at least are a lot of men who are anxious to see Heinie start something. I tell them that I am desirous of getting into our first mix-up right here. This Division has started out hunting trouble and if we don’t find it here they will keep us sloshing all over France until we run into it somewhere.

They will have need of all their courage, for if this general attack is made it’s going to be a tremendous one. The opinion of the French General staff seems to be that  this line will not be able to hold. At any rate they have been making preparations with that contingency in view. The whole plain behind us is organized for defense with our other two battalions in rough trenches and the Engineers in reserve. I hear they are bringing up also a Polish Legion to take part in the support. They have Seventy-fives in position for direct fire on German tanks, and machine guns stuck everywhere with beautiful fields of fire across the sloping plain. Everything is so charmingly arranged, that I have a feeling that some of the people behind us have a sneaking hope that the Germans will sweep across the first lines so that they can be met by the pleasant little reception which is being prepared for them further back.

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