CHAPTER 4 — GREECE AND CRETE
GREECE AND CRETE
WHEN the Division sailed for Greece, twenty-eight chaplains were with their units in the crowded ships. The minor problems of Base had been left behind, and it was hoped that the wide experience of a campaign would help the Department to evolve a harmonious and efficient routine, but the campaigns in Greece and Crete were too short and disjointed for many lessons to be learned. The great distances in Greece gave little scope for co-ordination or close contact, in spite of the efforts and constant travelling of Bishop Gerard, while the close fighting in Crete again made the chaplains' work difficult. But they learned much as individuals. They endured their baptism of fire, they tested their equipment and began to learn their place in battle, with its routine of constant visiting, the care of the wounded, and the conducting of burials.
The beautiful ruins in Greece and the many historic place-names aroused wide interest amongst the men, and the chaplains were kept busy answering questions. But there was little time for sightseeing or historical study as the Division had to make defence lines on two widely separated fronts. Unit Church parades became rare. If a chaplain wanted to hold a service he had to set off across country to visit small, isolated groups. Sometimes it would be a service with a battery or a company, more often with a troop or a platoon, and sometimes with an even smaller group. The Division had a large area to hold and this entailed much travelling for the chaplains.
Transport for Chaplains
Every chaplain in the Division was entitled to a vehicle in accordance with War Establishments, but in the first two years of the war transport was so scarce that the chaplain often went without. In Greece there were a number of the little two-seater cars specially designed for chaplains in the British Army, but these proved to be too small and when it came to desert travel, were quite inadequate. At different periods in the war chaplains were supplied with station waggons, staff cars, and trucks. On some occasions they had the page 22 use of jeeps, which were ideal for battle conditions, but perhaps the most useful vehicle of all was the 8-cwt., four-wheel-drive truck, known as a ‘pick-up’.
This type of truck had a comfortable cab with a tray and canopy on the back, and at first sight might have appeared too large for one man, but in practice was usually filled to capacity. Four large tins of petrol and one of water would take up much of the space, and room would have to be found for a ration box and a primus stove fitted into a benzine tin. In its load would be the blankets and personal gear of the chaplain and his batman-driver, boxes of hymn books, stationery, and the mixture of welfare supplies and library books which accumulated round the chaplain. Hanging from the roof and from various hooks outside would be all the other paraphernalia needed for life in the field—billies and kettles, hurricane lamps and respirators—and, when every bit of space was used, room would have to be made for the driver's rifle, a spade and a pick, a camouflage net, and sometimes, most bulky of all, a spare wheel. The back of the truck, when all the gaps in the canopy had been blacked-out, made an ideal little cabin for private interviews and correspondence.
In a mechanised age, with campaigns fought over great distances, it was natural that the soldier should become a nomad, and that his vehicle should resemble a gipsy caravan. But the chaplain without a motor vehicle was placed in a difficult position. Before each move he would have to seek help from the Adjutant or from some other busy officer. ‘Let me see,’ the Adjutant would say, ‘I think there is some room in the RQMS's1 truck, or you might try one of the Signals three-tonners.’ In the early days every truck was filled to capacity, and after some experience the maximum of comfort was obtained by carefully placing each piece of luggage and each passenger so that no one welcomed an extra man, let alone a chaplain. His timid request for space would be met with a kindly reply: ‘Right-oh Padre, I think we can find a bit of room for you.’ But this kindliness grew less marked when it was realised that carrying the chaplain also meant carrying his kit and his official luggage, not to mention the batman and his kit. This was always embarrassing for the chaplain, but it was much worse for his bat- page 23 man. It was not very easy to be rude to the chaplain, but there was nothing to prevent the plain unvarnished truth being handed privately to the batman, often in the most un-ecclesiastical language, to the effect that the truck had already been uncomfortably full before he came. In Greece the chaplains used their own vehicles or begged lifts, but inevitably when visiting troops they had to do much of their travelling on foot, carrying their own gear with them. Heavy articles, not strictly essential, were jettisoned and soon a certain uniformity might have been observed in the chaplains' packs, with space found for personal gear, official equipment, and some welfare supplies.
Church Services in Greece
The chaplain usually arranged his Church services by telephone from unit headquarters, or else on the spot as he travelled around. The officer in charge of the group would pick a suitable spot and the chaplain then handed round the twenty or thirty hymn books that he carried. The service usually lasted about twenty minutes, followed perhaps by Holy Communion. The setting of these services was often impressive—an olive grove, a green valley, or some spur on Mount Olympus with a glorious expanse of country spread out below.
After the service the chaplain would wander around and talk, and he had many opportunities to make himself useful. Perhaps there was a shortage of writing paper: he would dive into his pack and produce envelopes and paper, promising to get some more sent up with the rations. In addition he often carried tobacco, chocolate, and soap for free distribution, or took orders for boot-laces, razor blades, and a host of other articles not obtainable at the outpost.
But, quite apart from this, a visit from the chaplain was generally welcome as it made a popular break in the uneasy period of waiting for the enemy. The wise chaplain usually carried one or two paper-backed books and magazines, knowing that every man would read them in turn, and often he was asked for New Testaments. The chaplain also brought the latest wireless news, supplemented by his own special supply of rumours and unit gossip. Experience showed that the story of some undignified mishap page 24 suffered by a well-known unit officer would do more for morale than news of ten military victories in other parts of the world.
In some ways this casual visiting was as important as the Church service. The two experiences common to every soldier on active service were fear and boredom, and it was the chaplain's duty to combat and alleviate both of them. The service and the prayers gave inward strength and purpose to a man, whether it was the lonely sentry peering nervously into the dark, the homesick soldier reading his mail, or the young officer acutely aware of his responsibilities; while on the other hand the whole group benefited by this friendly touch with the outside world, and especially by the little scraps of information and the personal messages which helped to bind a unit together. Many a veteran of Greece, recalling that unsatisfactory and uncomfortable campaign, must remember one or two of these services; perhaps it might be one held on Easter Day of that year, a few hours before the battle began, exemplifying a quality of life and a comradeship not often found in the days of peace.
When the battle began in Greece the chaplain had to revise many of his theories and readjust his outlook. Probably every recruit entering camp had wondered how he would stand up under fire. Books and stories of the First World War described conditions which appeared to be far beyond the powers of normal human endurance. It was a subject often discussed with the chaplains, who gave their opinions and sometimes outlined the Christian teaching about courage.
But there was a difficulty. Downright physical fear is a rare occurrence in modern life. Moral courage is always needed but the demonstration of physical courage is a rare bloom, lightly worn by the rock climber, the steeplejack, and the racing motorist, but outside the experience of ordinary citizens except on such occasions as a rescue from drowning or a fire, or the stopping of a runaway horse. Consequently, physical courage has come to be considered in the abstract—a subject lending itself to theories, half-truths, and errors. Many thought of it as a talent, an innate gift like music or page 25 the artistic temperament, a thing which one either has or has not, something not primarily directed or created by the will.
But in battle the truth became evident. Courage is a virtue, and it is as hard to achieve as honesty or unselfishness, and like them is the fruit of self-discipline. In war it was in constant and urgent demand and it was most desirable that the chaplain should understand this subject. But it is difficult, almost impossible, to speak sensibly on courage in action until a man himself has been under fire. In Greece and Crete the chaplains learned many important lessons, and gradually they were able to help in removing some of the misconceptions and point the eternal realities. The greatest mistake was to think of courage as the absence of fear instead of being the control of fear. Under shellfire or air attack all men were frightened; in action soldiers were frightened most of the time. The chaplains were frightened and often said so, though this surprised some of the men, who clung unthinkingly to the text: ‘Perfect love casteth out fear.’
Certainly fear varied in its intensity. Sleep, good food, warmth, and confidence kept morale high, while on some occasions intense concentration in a particular job, or the danger of a friend, would inspire an action which later might falsely be described as fearless. Fighting in a war was something quite different from the short, sharp excitement of a football match. It involved nights and days without sleep and long periods of agonised idleness in slit-trenches during artillery bombardments. Fear showed physical symptoms as pronounced and uncomfortable as seasickness, and the ‘two o'clock in the morning courage’ cannot be too highly honoured. But fear, though an evil, supplied a harvest of virtue for it placed physical courage in the high place it deserves, and when fear was shared and bravely met it supplied a bond of friendship among soldiers that is seldom found in other walks of life.
Dealing with Casualties
With action there came casualties, and of course the chaplain was expected to look after the wounded and bury the dead. Like all other clergymen he found his work easiest when dealing with men whom he knew, and here he reaped the benefit of the constant visiting which helped him to know many of his men and to become a well- page 26 known figure in a unit. The word of comfort and good cheer was greatly enhanced when this personal relationship existed. Unfortunately, in Greece and Crete the conditions were not favourable for any orderly systems, as there is seldom sufficient time in a withdrawal. The chaplains did what they could for the wounded and buried the dead whenever possible. But often the wounded and the unburied dead had to be left behind, and sometimes in burials it was not possible to mark a man's grave clearly or make sure of collecting all his personal effects.
In Crete the chaplains encountered two new problems. The first was the question whether they should bear arms. With parachutists landing on all sides and attacking by day and night, the chaplain, although legally protected by the Geneva Convention, was in considerable danger; on other occasions, too, when officers and men were few in number and a vital position had to be held, one or two chaplains seized rifles and took their place alongside the fighting soldier. When this subject was discussed in a chaplains' conference later it was agreed that there was no excuse for a chaplain to break an international agreement. Some said they were prepared to fight on occasions and that if they were captured they were quite prepared to forego any privileges reserved for protected persons in captivity, but it was pointed out that one infringement of this convention might unfavourably affect the treatment of all other chaplains taken prisoner. If the chaplain was prepared to go into action as such it was considered wrong for him to seek any other protection than a Red Cross arm-band and a Geneva certificate in his paybook. For the rest he should either be a permanent combatant or a permanent chaplain.
The other problem was that of going voluntarily into captivity. It is easy to picture conditions where a large number of wounded have to be left to the mercies of an advancing enemy. Perhaps a medical orderly or doctor would stay with these men, or perhaps they would be ordered to withdraw. In Crete, early in the war, it was not known how the Germans would treat prisoners and wounded, and some chaplains felt their duty demanded that they stay with the wounded until German medical authorities arrived.page 27
The wounded in Crete had already had a hard and exhausting campaign in Greece. They had experienced the first large-scale parachute attack in history and many begged the chaplains to stay with them. Four stayed and were captured. They were Padres J. Hiddlestone,2 H. I. Hopkins,3 W. E. W. Hurst4 and R. J. Griffiths.5
After several campaigns the chaplains came to the conclusion that each campaign seemed to be entirely different and that the methods found useful in one would not necessarily apply in the next. But those chaplains who went to Greece or Crete experienced action under very difficult conditions, and although they came back to Egypt with few new formulas or methods, all of them had grown in moral stature and knowledge. They knew only too well what a soldier felt like when he came back from a battle or a campaign, and they could speak with a certain authority about behaviour on leave without any risk of their advice being mistaken for the limited and restricted opinions of a ‘base-wallah’.
1 Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant.