IN wartime the chief purpose of the soldier is to fight and the chief purpose of the chaplain is to look after the spiritual health of the soldier. But, as the soldier overseas spent only a small proportion of his time in action, it follows that a chaplains' history is largely concerned with the periods between the campaigns. The Libyan campaign of 1941 lasted a short month for most of the Division but it was preceded by three months' training in the desert at Baggush. This was a chaplain's paradise. He could lead a settled life in the heart of his own unit. The one difficulty was lack of buildings. In daytime this was no hardship as the weather was always good enough for open-air services, but large open-air meetings at night were almost useless because of the need for a blackout.
Because of the danger of air attack units were spread over wide areas, and each company or battery formed a happy little community of its own. In many places the ground was soft enough for the men to make dugouts, and these were fitted with lights, cooking arrangements, and other comforts. Every night the chaplain would choose a company area and pay a number of calls. He would meet two or three men in each dugout and in time got to know them well. This was far easier than walking into a crowded hut at Base; and the chaplain was welcome. Since there were practically no evening amusements the men stayed ‘at home’ at nights and looked forward to a visitor, provided he entered by the door and not through the flimsy roof—a mistake that was easy to make in the dark.
Sunday services were usually held on a company basis, four or five in a morning, and there was a warm, informal, civilian atmosphere about them. The early morning celebrations of Holy Communion or Mass were made impressive by the clear, cool freshness of a desert morning as the men stood or knelt round the back of a truck with the tailboard acting as an altar; it was the same at night when the darkness was pierced by the shaded light of an electric torch as the chaplain read from his Prayer Book or Bible.
Every night in the desert with the coming of darkness the same miracle happened. The harsh glare and heat of the day gave place page 35 to the kind of peaceful gloom that might be expected in a great unlighted cathedral. At times there were sandstorms and rain, but the peace of these Sunday evening services remains in memory. Congregational singing was confined to well-known hymns which in the darkness could be sung from memory, but on occasions when a soloist could be found he would use a small light to read by.
Perhaps this was the finest type of singing ever experienced in Army services. A soldier writing home once said of it:
I have just come back from an evening service, although it's a Friday. I wonder if I am too easily impressed; it seemed a very impressive thing to me. The sun had set and the night had fallen by the time we gathered round. There was no moon at this time and you could see the dim forms of men standing round in a half circle. I think most of the squadron must have been there. The Padre opened with ‘Abide with Me’ and I had the privilege of holding the torch for him. I wonder what it sounded like a few hundred yards away. I know that it was rather wonderful to hear that old hymn sung unaccompanied—the singers all hidden from one another in the darkness—and it was sung very well…. After that there were more short prayers; then the Padre spoke on the first petition of the Lord's Prayer. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. He spoke very simply, and just for a few minutes, then pronounced the benediction. It all turned my thoughts to home, to all you dear people, what you are doing. the thousand and one things we think out here.1
In out-of-action periods the Roman Catholic chaplains often worked in teams of two or three and this passage written by Father J. L. Kingan2 recaptures magnificently the solid work achieved and the spirit in which it was done:
As often as possible when not in action, Fathers Forsman,3 Henley4 and I would meet together. From the group gathered for Confession individuals would peel off and enter the bull ring. There before the whole world would three priests and three penitents pace up and down in three different directions, setting page 36 things right with the Three Persons that count most in the lives of us all. Meanwhile enquiring eyes from all quarters would look puzzled, and questions would be asked…. However, this sort of thing was soon almost as much taken for granted as lining up in the mess for meals, and would be summarily dismissed with the casual remark: ‘Oh, the Doolans are at it again’.
The men were happy at this time. There was hard and interesting training during the day, with opportunities for glorious bathing at lunch-time or in the late afternoon. The YMCA open-air cinemas began their magnificent work and functioned when air raids permitted. The food was good and canteen supplies plentiful. Football was firmly established and the Division played it from Cairo to Tunis. Many trucks carried a ball, and during the short halts on a long desert journey the men would start punting it about and stretching their cramped limbs. The Maoris won the Divisional championship: the story is told of an irate Maori company commander in one campaign going back fifty yards over a rise and ordering two or three men to stop playing football and to come and get on with the battle.
Many chaplains played too or helped to organise and referee matches. In the test match at Baggush in November 1941 against the 1st South African Division the referee was Father Kingan, once sports master at St. Patrick's College, Silverstream, and the New Zealand team was trained by Padre Frank Green,5 a former South Island representative.
The weekly chaplains' conferences were held in, or just outside, Bishop Gerard's dugout at Divisional Headquarters. Services were arranged for those units without chaplains, and guarded information given about the next campaign. On Friday, 7 November, Bishop Gerard held a confirmation service in a small marquee and a few days later the Division moved towards the Libyan frontier.