When the recruit goes into camp he is ordered about from morning till night. He is told when to get up in the morning, how often to shave, and what to wear. On the parade ground he is controlled by a petty dictator and often humiliated in public. He is marched to the dentist and the doctor and has to submit to their examinations and treatment. He is given patriotic addresses by politicians and endless instructon by experts—and by others not so expert. At first his life seems to be one long round of duties, fatigues, and irritating restrictions, but in time he begins to discover that there is a reasonable routine and a sensible explanation for many regulations.
The trained soldier still has to perform many distasteful duties and seldom volunteers for extra fatigues, but he does not find Army life nearly as bad as his conversation would suggest. The grousing of a soldier must be taken with a grain of salt. It is a natural and traditional form of self-expression, and muttered fulminations against a sergeant or a regulation do not always give a true picture of a soldier's feelings.
Often there was grousing when a Church parade was ordered, but this was levelled more against the preliminaries than against the service. At the beginning of the war there seemed to be a tradition that the Church parade should be the chief ceremonial parade of the week, with great emphasis laid on ‘smart turn-out’ and drill. Some commanders argued that it would be showing disrespect to God if the Church parade was the poorest military manœuvre of the week, but few privates could view their precision on the parade ground as an act of corporate devotion. Sometimes the Church parade was considered as the Regimental Sergeant-Major's own parade—the one day in the week when he could drill the whole unit as he wished before handing it over to the Adjutant. In the early days a soldier was often drilled and marched about for almost page 93 an hour before he was allowed to sink on to his seat in Church with emotions far removed from religion.
If the service was held in the open air the soldier had to put up with even more drill. A whole series of commands would produce the formation known as a ‘hollow square’, which in point of fact was three sides of a square with the fourth side left open for the chaplain. Each side would be meticulously dressed from every direction, and then the Adjutant would take over. He would fall the officers out in front, give a few commands to show his authority, and then turn smartly to the Colonel; he in turn would stand the men at ease and hand the parade over to the chaplain. The chaplain would then announce the number of the first hymn, sometimes singing it as a solo.
It is easy to make fun of these Church parades and almost impossible to exaggerate some of the silly formality which preceded them, but as the war continued much of the stiffness dropped from them, and troops were marched to the service with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally an old-fashioned sergeant-major survived and set about the laborious business of forming a hollow square. Alas, he was often sacrificed for the general good, and the chaplain, with a gesture worthy of Montgomery, would destroy the beautiful precision and the formal atmosphere by blandly uttering some mild request: ‘Would you chaps mind getting out of those straight lines and coming in a bit closer so that I can speak to you without shouting?’
This over-emphasised preliminary drill accounted for much of the complaint about Church parades. But another side of Army life must be appreciated before the advocates of compulsory services can be understood. Nearly everything in the Army is done by orders and commands. It is often stated that King's Regulations covers every event that can conceivably happen to a man, and the Army in its long life has produce a mass of regulations which prevent, discourage, or punish the mistakes common to soldiers. Experience has shown that all men are lazy in looking after their health. Very well: the Army will compel men to be healthy by regulation. They will be under the close care of a doctor, they will have frequent lectures on health and hygiene, and penalties will be inflicted on those who break the medical laws. The soldier has ben proved page 94 untrustworthy in regard to security, so his letters will be censored, his conversations with civilians reported, and he will have frequent lectures on the subject. Under these conditions the civilian soldier often felt that he had returned to the conditions of his childhood when his every action was supervised by an anxious parent.
This system of life by regulation tended to destroy individual initiative, but the soldier came to see that there was wisdom in its pedestrian routine, although he still reserved to himself the right of complaining and grousing.
The Army dealt with religion in the same matter-of-fact way. Statistics showed that the great majority of recruits claimed to be Christian, so Christian chaplains were supplied and regular times set aside for services. Religion was important, and so the soldier would have to parade for religion in the same way that he paraded for the dentist. Most civilians would benefit by a system of compulsory dental inspection and treatment, for though they admit the importance of dental health they find many excuses for avoiding the dentist. People often treat religion in the same way; and so it will be seen that there were certain justifications for the Army's system of compulsory Church parades.
But were these reasons strong enough to receive the approval of the chaplains? Compulsion in religion is quite contrary to our national tradition. What did the chaplains say?
The chaplains said very little at first. They came into the Army as recruits and found a well-tested organisation which it was unwise to criticise till judgment was fully formed. The compulsory Church parade gave them a large congregation every Sunday, with an opportunity of introducing themselves to the unit and proclaiming the Christian message in the comradeship of arms. There were some obvious advantages. The civilian going into camp found himself in a completely different world, and it was important for the chaplain to state emphatically at the beginning that this new world contained just as many opportunities for the practice of religion as there were in the old. These Church parades showed the recruit what importance the Army attached to religion. The chaplain was aware of these advantages; but did they justify compulsion and the attack on the religious liberty of the individual?
There was a further advantage. A war takes the cream of one page 95 generation of men to distant parts of the world. It uproots them from their civilian work and studies, removes them from their homes and that whole elaborate fabric which is known as the New Zealand, or British, ‘way of life’. The restraining influences of home are left behind and many spiritual dangers have to be faced. Surely, some chaplains would say, if the Army takes so much trouble in looking after the bodies of its soldiers it should also supply safeguards for their souls.
For example, imagine a young New Zealander, brought up on a backblock farm, finding himself suddenly in Cairo, a city whose spiritual dangers are clearly shown by the military statistics for crime and venereal disease. Surely, say these same chaplains, the soldier should be compulsorily armed and prepared to meet these dangers, and who could do that better than the chaplains?
The critics return to the attack. We admit all that, they say. We see quite clearly the need for religion and sound spiritual teaching, but we object to this compulsion. Surely a good chaplain will have a great influence in a unit, and by dint of faithful visiting and splendid sermons attract a large congregation comprising most of the unit; and volunteers will receive his message much more eagerly than men pressed into attendance.
This argument is indisputable but it does not cover all the facts. It presumes that a new system will be introduced into the Army in which voluntary services will take the place of compulsory ones. The chaplain will have to begin with a small band of faithful churchmen and expand it until it includes the whole unit. How long will this take, Will the war last long enough? It presumes that times will be set aside for voluntary services. Men can go to Church if they like, or stay away if they like. It will mean an optional period on Sunday mornings. That period can therefore be filled by other optional activities. The unit football committee can hold a meeting, provided the majority do not want to go to Church, while the quartermaster might even consider it a suitable time to issue equipment. As soon as that period of the morning becomes optional a host of other alternatives will appear, and did appear when the system was tried.
These difficulties are not insurmountable and with wise leadership they could be avoided, but how long would it take the chaplain to page 96 get a system of voluntary parades well and firmly established? In the Division a chaplain was attached to a unit and, if he was any good at all, he could always count on loyal and friendly support; but this came after the men had got to know him. Some chaplains were popular preachers with an immediate appeal to troops, but many did not find preaching easy and it was not until they had proved themselves by their courage and unselfishness that the men would listen with appreciation to their services. Any chaplain of average ability could command the respect and support of a unit if he was given reasonable time.
In the battle area no Church service was compulsory and many Divisional chaplains dispensed entirely with compulsory Church parades. But the Division was quite different from the Base camps or the training camps in New Zealand. Outside the Division the chaplain was usually dealing with troops in transit, and he did not have time to prove himself or to become known; it has been pointed out elsewhere how the spirit of the Division differed from that of a Base camp, where a strong case for compulsory Church parades can be made. The emphatic statement of Christian principles was more important here, and no one needed it more than the man least likely to attend a voluntary service. But the critic still complains about compulsion. Is it probable, he asks, that the man least likely to attend a voluntary service will profit from a compulsory one? A man can be forced to listen, but can he be forced to pray? Of course a man cannot be forced to pray, and if this argument was pressed to its logical conclusion there would still be a good case for turning compulsory Church parades into compulsory Bible Classes, in which straightout ethical and Christian teaching could be given with the reading of appropriate passages from the Bible. But the critic presumes that compulsory Church parades caused a feeling of rebellion and disapproval quite different from the grousing connected with route marches and extra fatigues, and that under such conditions no Church service could achieve its purpose. Such criticism, however plausible in theory, was not true in fact.