CHAPTER 3 — ARRIVAL IN EGYPT
ARRIVAL IN EGYPT
SEVEN chaplains stepped ashore with the First Echelon in Egypt. On their arrival at Maadi Camp six of them were posted to units, and Padre E. B. Moore,1 who had been a combatant officer in the First World War, was appointed Senior Chaplain at Divisional Headquarters and acting Senior Chaplain to the Forces. To this group fell the task of laying the foundations of the Chaplains' Department, 2nd NZEF.
Maadi Camp was the New Zealand Expeditionary Force Base throughout the war, and in time it became extremely well equipped with good roads, adequate buildings, and splendid recreational centres. It lay on the edge of the desert and was subject to sandstorms, glare, and heat. It was within easy reach of Cairo with all its unsurpassed facilities for leave, such as sightseeing, cinemas, restaurants, and well-stocked shops. And yet few soldiers enjoyed being posted to Maadi. After a campaign its comforts would be appreciated for two or three weeks only, and the bright lights of Cairo would be an attraction as long as the soldier's surplus money lasted, but then the monotony of camp life made itself felt, and the climate of the Nile Delta would take its toll of nervous energy. After a day spent on the camp training grounds one would feel too tired to explore the nearby places of historic interest, and it was easier to look for a good meal, drinks, and a cinema; but even this simple programme was made distasteful by the army of street urchins, pavement salesmen, and touts who fastened relentlessly upon the soldier as soon as he set foot in a Cairo street.
And there were other problems. Beer was usually in short supply and the only substitutes were often potent, nasty, and dangerous. Organised vice was an integral part of Cairo life and the soldier was often accosted in streets and cafés. Under these circumstances life for any long period in Maadi Camp was difficult and often led to a rapid deterioration in morale. But alongside the difficulties and temptations there lay many opportunities for healthy recreation. It was the chaplains' duty to encourage the full use of these opportunities.page 12
The chaplains themselves had the free use of an excellent club in All Saints' Cathedral, where in quiet comfort they could meet their colleagues from every armed force in the Middle East. Members of the British community in Cairo, and other nationalities as well, went out of their way to befriend the soldier on leave. Many supplied hospitality in their homes, while others ran first-class clubs, notably the Maadi Tent and ‘Music for All’. Sporting clubs made their grounds available for troops and there were fine facilities for tennis, golf, and bathing.
The civilian churches, too, were not behindhand. Soldiers were made welcome at their services and time and again they packed them to overflowing; in fact it became the custom to run Army transport from Maadi Camp on Sunday evenings to these services, and many went to All Saints' Cathedral, to St. Andrew's, and to the Methodist and other churches. There was something essentially civilian and refreshing in going to a real church after the dusty heat of a military camp, and great pains were taken to make the services helpful for soldiers. In addition, the churches put their halls at the disposal of the troops and often supplied refreshments and arranged concerts. In the same way, many New Zealanders attended the little civilian churches in Maadi and Helwan, and the Roman Catholic Convent at Maadi extended an open invitation on Sunday afternoons.
But Cairo contained many other forms of Christian life which were well worth investigating. There were many little-known Christian denominations of great antiquity which performed their old traditional rites in lovely churches built many centuries ago, and in addition the chaplains made contact with many Christian missionaries working among the Moslems. All these influences found expression in the chaplains' sermons and in casual conversations, and when men showed interest it was easy to organise a visit to some ancient church or missionary hospital.
Influence of the GOC
One circumstance dominated the life of the Chaplains' Department and was instrumental in solving all difficulties. This was the continued and active sympathy of the General Officer Commanding, 2nd NZEF, General Freyberg. He attended an early chaplains' conference and let it be known then, and on many subsequent occasions, that he wanted his chaplains to have all reasonable help, and moreover, that they were to consider themselves free at any time to approach him either personally or through the Senior Chaplain. The Senior Chaplain often reported how constant was the GOC's interest, and this powerful support had a far-reaching effect. When a chaplain met man-made difficulties or felt that he was receiving unfair treatment, he realised that he always had a friendly source of appeal and could, if necessary, bring a reprimand upon some officer. On one occasion at least the Senior Chaplain ‘brought down the wrath of God’ upon some offending commander, but generally the knowledge of the GOC's sympathy was sufficient in itself. For the chaplains would put up with temporary obstructions, being confident, and rightly confident, that under such leadership in the 2nd NZEF common sense was eventually bound to prevail.
At an early date in 1940 the first chaplains' conference was held in the YMCA in Maadi. This came to be a regular weekly event in Maadi and also, when conditions permitted, a frequent event in the Division. All chaplains would attend, and the presence of the Roman Catholics supplied a solidarity and family spirit which must have been rare in other Empire forces. The meetings would begin with a period of silent prayer, the reading of minutes, and the weekly posting of chaplains to certain duties, such as visits to page 14 prisons or services for small isolated units. Problems of a general nature were shared and discussed, and many a chaplain was encouraged to find that his difficulties were not due entirely to his own incompetence but were common to all his brothers. Perhaps the greatest value of these conferences was the opportunity they supplied for the chaplains to get to know each other and become friends. The wide and friendly acquaintanceship so common in the 2nd NZEF found full expression in the Chaplains' Department. There were never more than fifty-five chaplains at any one time, and thanks to these conferences they became one friendly team, knowing each other by Christian names; and as time went by the mutual liking and respect increased. But this friendliness was not there ready-made: it had to be created, and it came through wise leadership and the satisfactory solution of some of the early problems. In addition to these conferences, the Senior Chaplain held regular meetings with the senior chaplains of the different denominations when matters of policy and posting would be discussed.
The principle of unit chaplains was adopted early in 1940 at the request of the GOC. This was a new development: in the British Army the chaplains were posted, primarily, to minister to their own denominations. But the unit chaplain was expected to be the friend and adviser of everyone in the unit and to conduct Church parades on an undenominational basis. There were great advantages in this system, for the chaplain became an integral part of the regimental life. He was known in the unit as ‘Our Padre’ and few more honourable titles can be imagined. He shared the common life of the unit with its experience of danger, boredom, and hardship. He came to know well a large number of individuals, including officials and senior officers; and, after satisfactory service in several campaigns, he had a standing and influence in the unit which could be of inestimable value in his work.
But the principle of unit chaplains had its dangers. Many soldiers imagined that the normal divisions of the Church could be lightly set aside in wartime, and some common form of Christianity laid down for the whole Army, with perhaps some special exceptions made for Roman Catholics. Those who held this opinion page 15 were usually those who knew least about the chaplains' work. The chaplains were sometimes treated as though they were a kind of extra welfare officer, useful for organising concerts and refereeing football matches, and some soldiers would have simplified Christianity till all its essentials were missing. Undenominational services and teaching could be very dangerous, introducing a form of religion without doctrine, worship, or vitality. Unfortunately many soldiers had been brought up with little knowledge of Christian teaching and practice. Their doctrine consisted of a vague ‘belief in the Lord’ and respect for the Golden Rule. They often carried a New Testament in their pocket, not so much for reading purposes, but as a kind of talisman, the traditional protection against the bullet, while their ideas of a liturgical service seldom rose higher than the informal Sunday night song service.
But the chaplains were accredited representatives of specific denominations. They had joined the Army on the definite understanding that they would minister as adequately as possible to their own Church members. While it is obvious that in battle niceties of denominational distinction can be forgotten, the fact remained that only a small proportion of a man's army life is spent in action; and of course it was unlikely that the fifty-odd chaplains in the 2nd NZEF, most of whom were comparatively junior in their own Churches, would find an easy solution to the divisions of the Church, a problem which has baffled the finest theologians for many years. To the outsider these problems of denominational relationship may have appeared trivial in time of war, but they were real problems and they caused much heart-burning to the chaplains. The principle of unit chaplains was made to work and to work well, but it took three or four years, with many trials and errors, before a satisfactory solution was reached in which there was the maximum of co-operation and sound religious teaching.
As far as possible each denomination was represented by its own chaplains who were appointed on the ratio of Church membership in the 2nd NZEF. At the outset the denominational figures were based on information taken from the men's attestation forms, but after conscription came into force the denominational ratios page 16 were calculated on the normal civilian religious statistics, which in 1942 were as follows:
|Church of England||44.25|
The final establishment of chaplains in the 2nd NZEF was fifty, excluding one with the Forestry Group in England, and the denominations were represented as follows:
|Church of England||20|
After many trials and experiments the establishment for the 2nd New Zealand Division was fixed at twenty-six chaplains, leaving twenty-four for the various duties at Base, in the hospitals, and in Line of Communication units.
In New Zealand camps it was often possible, with the help of civilian clergy, for all the larger denominations to be served by their own clergy, but overseas with the Expeditionary Force this was impossible, and, when the principle of unit chaplains was adopted, the posting of chaplains still had to be arranged on a wide denominational framework, which needed great care in preparation and much tolerance in working. For instance, when brigades had four chaplains, it would have been easy to appoint one from the four largest denominations, but this would have still left great inequalities. The smaller denominations would have had no representation at all, and the Church of England chaplain would have had more than five times as many Church members as the Methodist chaplain. However, a system of posting was evolved in which each large military group had Church of England, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic representation, while the Methodist chaplains and those of the other denominations were distributed as widely as possible.
There were two divergent views which might be said to represent page 17 the opinions of Bishop G. V. Gerard,2 the first Senior Chaplain in the 2nd NZEF, and his successor, Padre J. W. McKenzie.3 They both admitted that the Roman Catholics should have complete freedom and independence, but for the rest the Bishop looked for the continuation of denominational teaching while the Presbyterian believed that much compromise would be justified in wartime. Bishop Gerard could not accept the principle of inter-communion and he wanted a system in which Church of England men could receive the sacraments of their Church, instruction for confirmation, and the liturgical services of the Book of Common Prayer. He favoured frequent denominational Church parades. Padre McKenzie readily admitted that the Church of England has certain exclusive teachings and practices, but he felt that the denominations should be almost interchangeable, so that each chaplain could give full religious ministration to every man in his area. The Bishop was thinking of the ever-present danger that the Christian Gospel should be over-simplified until its vitality was killed, while the Presbyterian realised that the Chaplains' Department could never succeed unless there was complete understanding and co-operation amongst all the chaplains.
Towards the end of the war many opportunities were found for giving denominational teaching, while unhealthy denominational rivalry was avoided by the strong friendship and mutual trust inside the Department for which Padre McKenzie himself had been largely responsible.
The four ‘other denominations’ who had chaplains were the Salvation Army, the Baptists, the Church of Christ, and the Congregationalists, and where possible two of these chaplains were posted to the Division. At first, Roman Catholics were posted to units as unit chaplains but this did not work satisfactorily. Roman Catholic chaplains had a very extensive task in serving all their page 18 Church members in the brigade groups, which meant that their units saw little of them. If they were fulfilling their duties correctly they could not hope to act as normal unit chaplains. Accordingly Roman Catholic chaplains were posted to Field Ambulances as the centre of their sphere of work; later they were posted to the different Brigade headquarters and this proved a satisfactory arrangement. In action they worked at the Advanced Dressing Stations.
The Western Desert
In August 1940 the New Zealand force, still consisting of the First Echelon, moved to Maaten Baggush, some twenty miles east of Mersa Matruh. Much has been written about the Egyptian and Libyan deserts, and adequate mention made of the vast distances, the featureless expanses, the flies, the lack of water, the fiery sandstorms of summer and the surprising cold of winter; and yet, with all these hardships, the British soldier began to find an almost indefinable attraction in this Bedouin existence. Polar explorers have described the fascinating changes of colour in a land covered by snow and ice, and the desert, in its own way, had a richness of colour and variety in comparison with which the life of the Nile Delta seemed fussy and ignoble. The desert was vast, and quiet, and clean, and its austere simplicity satisfied some deep human appetite. It is significant that St. Paul sought the desert for his three-year period of spiritual training and discipline after his conversion; and it was the Early Christian anchorites in Egypt with their experience of desert solitude, who initiated the whole system of Christian monasticism. Deserts change little through the ages and the twentieth-century soldier was still subject to their spiritual influence. In fact his military life made him specially susceptible to such influences, for unconsciously he was practising monasticism and largely fulfilling the threefold vows of a monk in his life of chastity, poverty, and obedience. The vast distances, the silences, and the loneliness purified his thinking, and introduced into Army life a friendliness that discounted hardships and a nobility that softened the horrors of battle.
But it takes time to see anything attractive in desert life, and in 1940 the New Zealanders had to learn the hard lessons of desert page 19 lore and submit to painful self-adjustment. The troops were widely dispersed because of the danger of air attack, and unit Church parades gave place to the more intimate battery and company services. This meant much more work for the chaplain, with five or six services a morning instead of one, but it seemed more attractive and valuable. The hard formality of the parade ground was absent, and in the evenings as he wandered around the unit, the chaplain found a welcome that had not been apparent in the crowded life at Base. With the dispersal the family life and individuality of units began to grow, and the chaplain found many fresh opportunities to get to know individuals and to play his part in the corporate life. The New Zealand welfare machine which was to give such outstanding service from Alamein till the end of the war was not yet completely organised, and many chaplains felt justified in spending much of their time looking after canteens and attending to the material welfare of the men. The culmination of all their work in that year was at Christmas with its special services and festivities —the first Christmas away from home, the first Christmas celebrated in the desert.
When the New Zealand transport units took part in General Wavell's Libyan offensive of December 1940, Padre V. R. Jamieson,4 attached to the New Zealand Army Service Corps, began that long saga of desert campaigning which ended in Tunisia with the award of the MBE for long and faithful service. His parish was always on moving wheels, and he had to travel enormous distances to keep in touch with his men. He was present in every action fought by the Division from 1940 till the end of the Tunisian campaign in May 1943, he was Divisional Senior Chaplain from Bardia to Tripoli (November 1942 - January 1943), and he watched the growth of the ASC until his work was shared by three additional chaplains.
The Second Echelon
In March 1941 the Second Echelon arrived in Egypt from the United Kingdom. Eleven chaplains, among them Bishop Gerard, who had been appointed Senior Chaplain to the Forces, 2nd NZEF, page 20 had accompanied this force to England; it had arrived there in June 1940 after Dunkirk and just before the fall of France.
While in the United Kingdom, units of this contingent were spread over a wide area in the southern counties, and this meant much travelling for the chaplains; fortunately there was a plentiful supply of transport. Civilian clergy gave all possible help, and often their churches were used for Church parades, while very friendly relations were established with village communities. On one occasion, to the embarrassment of some Wellington soldiers, the suggestion was made by a certain English vicar that it would be a happy gesture to rename one of the village roads ‘Taranaki Street’.
Padre L. D. C. Groves5 was left in England to look after the Forestry units, and throughout the war he worked hard to keep in touch with the New Zealanders there, visiting men at the New Zealand Post Office and Forces Club in London, and in the New Zealand Convalescent Home in Hampshire, as well as many others serving with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Preparations for Greece
On his arrival in Egypt in November 1940 Bishop Gerard took up his duties as Senior Chaplain. The arrival of the Third Echelon in September and the first section of the 4th Reinforcements in December brought the strength of the Department in Egypt to thirty-four. The weekly conferences were held, new postings arranged, and attention given to many problems of administration and personal equipment. The Department was growing into a team.
2 Rt. Rev. G. V. Gerard, CBE, MC,* m.i.d., (C of E); Rotherham, Yorkshire, England; born 24 Nov 1898; SCF, 2nd NZEF, 1 May 1940–Nov 1941; prisoner of war, Nov 1941; repatriated 26 Apr 1943; SCF, 2nd NZEF IP, 2 Apr- 3 Dec 1944.
* First World War.
3 Rev. J. W. McKenzie, CBE, MM,* ED, m.i.d., (Presby.); Auckland; born Woodend, Southland, 1 Jan 1888; in First World War served in New Zealand Medical Corps; SCF, 2nd NZEF, 15 Dec 1941–30 Apr 1944; Chaplain Commandant of the Royal New Zealand Chaplains' Department.
* First World War.