CHAPTER 9 — IN ACTION
WITH certain exceptions the chaplain went into action with his unit. In the First World War there were occasions when chaplains received instructions not to go into the front line, but in the 2nd NZEF the infantry and Artillery chaplains were right up forward with the men. Those posted to armoured regiments and certain Divisional units also appeared in the battle area, but only after the determination of individual chaplains had established a precedent; several stories were told of chaplains who carefully avoided their colonels in action in case they were sent back out of battle. When the Roman Catholic chaplains were attached to combatant units they always went to the Advanced Dressing Stations before action began so that they could keep in touch with the wounded and dying of their faith. They also frequently paid visits to the forward areas.
What was the chaplain expected to do in battle? Was he to retire to a secret place and pray for victory, or was he to advance with the leading men—an example of courage and carelessness of death? Until action had been experienced it was hard to see the problem in its true perspective. Many histories and war books have given a picture of battles which is quite misleading: of two armies clashing for several short hours, with thousands of wounded lying on the ground, and many an opportunity for deeds of daring. But in the Second World War battles did not take that shape. They would begin with an attack, certainly, but most of the time would be spent in holding positions and in being subjected to bombing and to shell and mortar fire, not for a few short hours but for long days and long nights.
The chaplain did not set out to be a shining example of courage He found it hard enough to find courage for his own routine duties. The regular visiting of front-line positions demanded much physical strength and all the physical courage he had, for unless he appeared calm and cheerful and helpful when he arrived his visit was worse than useless. In addition to his regular visiting the chaplain had to try to comfort the wounded in the Regimental Aid Post, steeling himself to remain strong in the presence of terrible wounds. He page 57 had also to bury the dead. The civilian clergyman frequently encounters death but no previous experience had prepared the chaplain for his duties in battle. Time and again the bravest of soldiers would not be prepared to do the work of the chaplain. They were ready to dig the grave and carry the body, but the chaplain himself had to make the identification, remove the soldier's identity disc hanging from his neck, and collect all personal belongings from his pockets, not forgetting to remove any watches. It was a hard job but it had to be done, and it was done though few realised how much it cost. In time a specialised battle routine was worked out for each arm of the service, and the newly appointed chaplain would learn from his predecessor or from others in the unit where his duties in action lay. In this respect the normal friendliness of the unit doctors was again invaluable.
With the Infantry
Few would deny that the infantry have the hardest and most dangerous life of any part of the Army. In battle they come to grips with the enemy, and often for long periods are pinned to the ground by shell and mortar fire. Out of battle their life is largely spent in a monotonous routine of weapon training, route marches, and digging. They have little transport of their own and no other unit suffers more hardship in regard to food and sleeping conditions. But for all that there is a glory in this life. They are the ‘common labourers’ in war, without whom no battle can be fought and no victory consolidated.
The infantry chaplain shared the same Spartan existence, often living far from his truck and his scanty equipment. No other chaplain had to face such physical hardships or such constant exposure to danger. No other chaplain had as many wounded to look after or dead to bury; and, in addition, after every action there was a constant stream of new faces in his battalion as reinforcements replaced the casualties. Under these conditions it was hard to build up a unit spirit and keep continuity. The infantry chaplain needed great physical and mental stamina and deep reserves of spiritual strength so that his contact with each stranger remained fresh and sincere. On the other hand, his battalion was seldom split up and he always had the bulk of his parishioners page 58 living all around him as companies were seldom dispersed more than easy walking distance away. In training periods his work was similar to that of most other chaplains but in action he had to evolve a special technique of his own.
Before an attack the chaplain usually left his vehicle and batman-driver at B Echelon and climbed on to the doctor's truck, where room was found for his blankets, spade, and haversack. Most of the Division's attacks took place at night and followed a well-defined pattern. First the rifle companies advanced and captured the position; a success signal would then be fired and the supporting arms moved forward, the doctor's 3-ton lorry among them. On arrival at the new Battalion Headquarters, the Regimental Sergeant-Major would lead the doctor to a place suitable for his aid post, where probably some wounded already awaited treatment. The chaplain would help to unpack the medical supplies and would then talk to the wounded before setting out on a short tour of the new positions.
The main impressions of a night attack were always the same. They began with a period of waiting for zero hour—a period of tension, nervous irritability, and last-minute preparations. Then the riflemen, with fixed bayonets, disappeared into the dark, while the infantry supporting arms lay in their trenches waiting for the success signal. Noise of shells, small-arms fire, and distant shouting would be heard, and bright flashes and fires seen. Presently one or two wounded would arrive back, usually with completely false stories of failure and calamity.
When the supporting arms reached the new positions they found a scene of intense activity and confusion. A group of prisoners crouching disconsolately in some hollow sheltering from the fire of their own troops; the Colonel speaking on the telephone with Brigade Headquarters or sending messages to his own company commanders; the signallers running out wire in every direction; the machine gunners and anti-tank gunners digging gunpits.
After seeing the wounded sent back to the Advanced Dressing Station the chaplain would set out on a trip round the company areas. The time would be about midnight; often a bright moon page 59 lit the scene. Here and there a line of slow-moving white dots would signify tracer bullets from enemy machine guns, while from close at hand came the explosion of mortar bombs. The boom of our own field guns in the rear would be followed by the scream of their shells as they passed overhead for the target just a few hundred yards away. It was an eerie walk, and it was obviously important that it be made in the right direction and not too far.
Presently the chaplain would hear the unmistakable sound of New Zealand voices and see a number of figures ahead. He would find the company commander absent-mindedly giving small and unimportant instructions while he concentrated on making sure that his company was in touch with the other companies on either flank. The platoon commanders could be heard urging their men to get their defences dug and their weapons into position. But the men were disinclined for work. It was as though they had just finished playing in an exciting football match. They were tired and excited; they wanted to stand around and discuss the attack. Their first fears had passed, but their new positions, perhaps only several hundred yards farther forward than the previous ones, seemed strange, exposed, and dangerous. And in addition there was one other powerful emotion: nearly all of them wanted to have a quiet look around for some loot in the abandoned enemy trenches.
Out of the gloom a voice and figure would appear. ‘How are you, chaps?’ it might say, and one of the soldiers would suddenly exclaim, ‘Why, it's the old Padre!’ and they would stop for a moment and talk. The chaplain could feel the sense of strain and weariness in their quick, nervous speaking, and tried with calm and friendly talk to relax the tension for a moment. Then he would probably hand round some cigarettes or chocolate and move on to the next group.
Arriving, after about an hour, back at Battalion Headquarters, he would dig a trench and, in spite of the noise and discomfort, would fall asleep immediately. Just before dropping off to sleep he would often see the Colonel setting out on his tour round the companies, a tour which took much longer than the chaplain's and was not necessarily his last duty for the night. Infantry colonels had to work hard.
Early next morning the whole scene looked different; the excite- page 60 ments and horror of the previous night would appear at first to have been nothing more than a nightmare. Battalion Headquarters was now completely organised with a telephone line out to each company and one back to Brigade Headquarters. Before daylight the cooks' trucks would come up from B Echelon with a hot breakfast and fresh information about the attack.
After breakfast the chaplain considered his programme. First he had to see about burials. There might be one or two bodies lying near the Regimental Aid Post and others in the company areas, while there were bound to be several farther back—men who had been killed during the advance. Conditions in every battle were different, but frequently it was possible to have some movement in daylight round Battalion Headquarters, and the chaplain could arrange some burials. He would find a suitable place and get some graves dug and the bodies carried to them. Each had to be carefully identified and the personal possessions collected. He would open the shirt and remove one of the two coloured identity discs, cutting off the red one and leaving the green, as he unconsciously murmured the aid-to-memory, ‘Red for registration, green for grave.’ He had to check the name on the disc with the name in the paybook; then he searched each pocket and put everything he found into a parcel. Later these parcels were handed to the orderly-room sergeant when he came up from B Echelon.
When the bodies were ready for burial the chaplain would have a word with the Colonel. Perhaps it would be possible to fetch one or two of the man's friends and a time for the burial would be arranged. Often these burials had to wait for nightfall, and sometimes they were interrupted by shellfire. No respect for the dead justified the risk of one man's life. The little group stood round the grave as the chaplain read from his prayer book, but before the earth was piled on the blanket-covered body, a tin or a shell case containing a paper with all particulars would be placed in the grave. This was necessary because identity discs were made of a material which quickly rotted underground. The Germans and Italians more sensibly used metal discs.
The chaplain had to see that the grave was well marked and all page 61 particulars—name, rank, number—carefully recorded in his notebook. Rough crosses would be made and inscribed, and a map reference for the grave obtained from the Intelligence Section. This map reference, with a small sketch map of the grave, would later help the Graves Registration Unit. From each paybook the chaplain copied the name and address of the next of kin, and later in the day would transfer this information to the special burial form, complete with sketch map on the back, which would then be handed with the parcels of personal belongings to the orderly-room sergeant.
If there was a quiet period in the day, or alternatively so much shellfire that the chaplain was forced to stay in his trench, he might start writing his letters to the next of kin. They would not be very good letters, written under such conditions, but the chaplain always had to consider the possibility of being killed himself and no letter written at all. Months later the next of kin often wrote back and from these letters the chaplain learned what kind of information they wanted. In response to many requests chaplains always tried to get photographs taken of the graves. Relations asked whether there had been last messages but this hardly ever happened. A man was either killed outright or so seriously wounded that morphia was administered, and death was usually preceded by deep and peaceful sleep.
The infantry chaplain found these letters especially difficult to write when he had not known the man he had buried. All he could do was describe the funeral, give some information about the death, and then endeavour to get more personal information from the man's friends. Often the chaplain would encourage these same friends to write letters of condolence, helping them in the writing, for the ordinary man has little experience in this difficult task.
Letters to the next of kin were a difficult but important part of the chaplain's work, but fortunately they were not the only letters he had to write. He kept in touch with his men in hospital and those who were prisoners of war. Frequently, too, he had to write to authorities in New Zealand about the domestic problems of soldiers. But the happiest letters of all were those that he wrote about the page 62 living, for the sheer love of it, writing to fathers and mothers about men he had seen in Church services or knew well.
Daytime in the Front Line
On the morning after an attack it was seldom that the chaplain had time to write letters or even complete his burials. Periodically he would go to ground as shell or mortar fire became heavy. He might hear shells landing in one of the company areas, from which presently a message would come telling of several casualties. If possible the wounded were brought in by stretcher or Bren carrier, and the doctor would attend to them at once. Under favourable conditions they could be evacuated in daylight by ambulance, but frequently they would have to be held in the Regimental Aid Post till dark. Slit-trenches would be dug for them, and the chaplain tried to comfort them as they lay in pain, often in considerable danger. Sometimes a long carry on a stretcher was possible to some point where an ambulance could come in safety. At other times they would be carried by jeep.
Frequently no movement in daylight was safe, and the wounded, if brought in, were attended by a crouching doctor and orderlies. At most times it was dangerous to walk about, even if hidden by some land feature, and everyone not working felt a strong desire to lie all day in a trench. Because the chaplain made his own timetable he was strongly subject to this slit-trench attraction. It was so easy to put off activities till later in the day, and it was so difficult, when shelling and common sense demanded safety in a trench, to decide when to leave it.
If the shelling was really bad, of course, there was no doubt, but at other times the chaplain suffered much mental indecision. Ought he to try to do a bit of visiting, or would it be as sensible as it was desirable to get into the trench for a while? Often it would be possible to visit one of the companies without much danger of drawing enemy fire.
Church service at El Djem Theatre, 1943 Maadi
Church service—Rev. H. G. Taylor and the Divisional Cavalry Maadi
Rev. Father J. L. Kingan (in front) with Italian orphansCastelfrentano
First Moral Leadership School Group, 22 June 1945 RiccioneSecond row from bottom (third from left): Lectures, Revs. H. S. Scott, H. F. Harding, J. S. Somerville, E. O. Sheild, and A. Gill. YMCA Secretary
Interior of chapel at Stalag VIII B Prisoners of war made the furniture Lamsdorf, Upper Silesia
It was never the custom for infantry chaplains to go back to B Echelon, which was usually well out of range of shellfire, at any period while the battalion was in the line. The chaplain stayed with his men, and when eventually the battalion was relieved he was just as tired as anyone else. Each day had taken its toll of physical stamina and mental strength; each day it had become harder to walk around calmly and speak in a quiet voice. No doubt a chaplain living at B Echelon, with regular meals and good sleep, could have found opportunities to come up to the front line on most days, and on this basis would, perhaps, have been braver and more cheerful company, but he could never have felt that he really belonged to an infantry battalion. The sharing of everyday experiences was part of his calling, and although this front-line life does not lend itself to graphic description, yet it represented the most valuable and the most glorious part of his work. The tragedy was the extreme weariness of the chaplains as they came out of the line, for that was the time when the men were most receptive to the consolation and teaching of the Christian Gospel. Memorial and thanksgiving services would be held, and perhaps the weariness of the chaplains enhanced their message. Every chaplain who served with the infantry felt conscious of many missed opportunities but none of them would deny their pride in having lived and suffered with such fine men.
The Maori Chaplains
Throughout the war the Maori Battalion had its own Maori chaplain, and for the last three years there was a second chaplain who worked with the Maori troops at Base. A special church service page 64 book in Maori was produced, with hymns and an order of service based on the Book of Common Prayer, for owing to the unusual denominational ratio, the five Maori chaplains were all members of the Church of England. Padre Harawira, who had gone to the First World War at the age of sixteen, was the first chaplain, and he served in Greece, Crete, Libya, and Syria before being invalided home. His place was taken by Padre W. Rangi,1 a man of great spiritual force, well-loved and respected. He was once described as having the face of a New Testament saint and the fire of an Old Testament prophet. He was not young for infantry work, having three sons serving with him in the battalion, but he made little of age and was giving splendid service up to the time when both his eardrums were burst by an exploding shell at Alamein.
Padre N. T. Wanoa2 served with the battalion from Alamein to Tunis, after spending the first three years of the war as a combatant, during which he rose to the rank of lieutenant after good service in Greece and Crete. He had been a vicar before the war and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1942.
Padre Wi Huata3 arrived in the Middle East in 1943 and served throughout the Italian campaign. He was a young man with many talents. Life, vitality, and enthusiasm flowed from him at all times, whether he was living in the front line or taking a choir on tour round the Base hospitals. Energetic in all things affecting the welfare of his men, he showed great courage and proved himself a worthy representative of a great battalion. He was awarded the Military Cross for his fine work with the battalion in Italy. His religious duties were performed with sincerity and love, and he presented over a hundred men for confirmation.
It was right that the Maoris should have chaplains of their own race for they had many characteristics which deserved real know- page 65 ledge and sympathy. In battle they won respect for their fiery courage and their most light-hearted contempt of danger. They did not bother much about minor regulations and red tape, and many a time everyone, save Authority, smiled at some ingenious interpretation of military law. Like all New Zealand soldiers they grew restive in the monotonous routine of a Base camp, and sometimes this boredom led to trouble. But the crimes of a few individuals could not tarnish the record of the battalion in action nor disguise the fact that as a race they have an interest in spiritual things which is often deeper and more natural than that of the pakeha.
Every morning before daylight in the front line prayers would be taken by the chaplain, but if he were absent an officer or private would always step forward to take his place.5 They took a real interest in their Church services and made them beautiful with their singing. Sometimes in big services at Base the Maoris would sing an anthem in their own language. There was one occasion on a hot. sticky, dusty day, when some two thousand soldiers attended a service in a cinema in Maadi. The Church parade seemed formal and uninspiring until the Maori contingent stood up and sang. Then the war and the dust and the heat were forgotten in a moment. Something of home and of beauty was brought very near, and the glorious unaccompanied harmony brought new life to the listeners, as refreshing as rain in the desert. Time and again a small group of Maoris separated from their battalion would attend a pakeha Church parade and sing a hymn in Maori with the same wonderful effect, giving a fresh meaning to the words of Isaiah: ‘The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.’ The Maori chaplains were always popular members of the Department where they willingly took their share of all extra duties, and in the battalion they were worthy members of a race famed for its martial tradition and respect for the deeper things of life.
With the Field Regiments
The job of the Artillery chaplain was completely different from that of his colleague in the infantry. In action a much larger part page 66 of his parish could be visited. It was not possible in daylight to visit certain guns or the observation posts, but other guns were well within his reach. The members of a gun crew were tied to their gun, and only occasionally could one man get away to attend a religious service; even then men hesitated to go as they felt they were throwing extra work on their friends.
There was only one solution: the chaplain had to visit each gun. He would talk with the men, say a few prayers, or perhaps conduct a short service. His visit might be interrupted by the gun being ordered to fire or by enemy air attack, but his work was seldom delayed for long as there were always other guns he could call on. In fact there seemed to be too many, and the chaplain spent days on end going from one gun to the next. This made great demands on his stamina; physically it was very tiring; mentally and spiritually it was harder still.
The first few visits of a day would be easy. The chaplain would get into the gunpit, and after some general conversation and exchange of news and rumours, would say prayers or administer Holy Communion. Then perhaps he would take orders for the canteen or receive messages to pass on. As the chaplain climbed out of this gunpit he would feel that he had made a useful contribution. Then he would find his way to the next pit and start all over again.
The chaplain, like all gunners, had to endure the noise of his own guns, which, in addition, were one of the chief targets of the enemy artillery. Gunners often said that they could not hear enemy shells in action and were kept so busy that they had little time to think of them, but the chaplain must have had many a nervous walk from gun to gun. Fear and noise are both extremely tiring, and the Artillery chaplain was often a weary man by the end of his round of visits. After visiting the guns he would still have calls to make at the Aid Post and B Echelon, and perhaps make time to look in at a dressing station. And of course there were often burials, too, and letters to write.
Conditions in each campaign varied greatly. In Libya in 1941 Padre Buck, with the 4th Field Regiment, had to contend with the constant movement, the attacks and counter-attacks from every direction which marked this campaign. At other times—the static period in Alamein and the days before the break-through—the page 67 chaplain had a long and exhausting round of duties, looking after men who were taxing their physical strength to the utmost. Perhaps there were a few more comforts in serving with the Artillery but there was never any shortage of hard work or danger.
3 Rev. Wi Te T. Huata. MC, (C of E); Hastings; born NZ, 23 Aug 1917.