CHAPTER 7 — SYRIA
THE Division's route through Palestine to Syria ran by the Sea of Galilee and through Damascus, and on all sides there was an immediate quickening in interest in the history of these places and the general background of the Bible. This interest continued in Syria. There were many signs of previous civilisations which demanded attention: the huge ruins of Baalbek and Palmyra, the fortified villages, the Crusaders' castles, and the giant water-wheels were all objects of discussion and inquiry.
The three months in Syria provided the chaplains with many opportunities for Bible instruction. but it was difficult to give full and precise teaching about every place and many a chaplain thought wistfully of his books of reference and maps at home in New Zealand. The bulk of the Division was stationed round Baalbek: quarters varied from Nissen huts to tents, sometimes close to a village or the main road, or perched on some almost inaccessible hilltop.
There were few facilities for leave in Baalbek and the intense cold of the early weeks kept most of the men at home in the evenings. The main work of the Division was digging defences, and after long days spent with pick and shovel the men needed some mental relaxation and activity. The chaplains set to work to provide it.
The first difficulty was accommodation. The YMCA and the Church Army equipped a number of canteens where the men could play cards, write letters, or listen to the wireless and have a cup of tea. The value of these canteens would have been lost had they been cleared frequently for lectures or debates. Often the chaplains were allowed to use the mess huts or the mess tents, which had the advantage of already being supplied with tables and forms, but the chief problems were lighting and heating. The pioneer platoons in various units would usually provide some form of wood stove, but lighting was more difficult. The obvious solution was petrol power lamps which gave a very good light, but these had to be paid for.
The Patriotic Fund financed all the work done by the YMCA and the Church Army, and the money was put to excellent use. In addition, a weekly grant of £1 was made to every chaplain for out-of-pocket expenses, such as sending cables, buying comforts for the wounded, and helping the needy. This grant was extremely useful and the chaplains found many ways of spending it. Usually it was not sufficient for all the professional calls on a chaplain's purse, but in action the allowance mounted up and would later be used for some larger project outside its intended scope. But when this allowance had been used, and the chaplain had spent what he could afford of his own money, there was a further source of help –Regimental Funds.
Various bodies such as the NAAFI were continually paying money into unit Regimental Funds, and the GOC issued an order that these funds should be spent, keeping in hand no more than about half a crown a head: i.e., if there were 800 men in the unit, its Regimental Fund should be kept down to about £100. The spending of the money was controlled completely by the commanding officer. Some colonels found this responsibility a great burden and were so afraid that they might waste the money that they hardly spent it at all. It was very annoying for a chaplain to have his request for money from Regimental Funds to buy power lamps, and perhaps tea, sugar, and biscuits–all necessary for evening activities–turned down by a CO2 who was metaphorically sitting on some large sum, often approaching four figures, specially intended for the soldiers' welfare. Most commanding officers agreed that sports equipment was a justified expense from these funds and, in addition, wireless sets were bought, but at this period of the war quite a number of them would not authorise use of the funds for other matters.
Boredom is one of the most common evils in the Army and the biggest enemy of morale. It is a problem that will grow as popular education spreads. One solution is reading, but that depends upon page 46 an adequate supply of books. Some commanders made grants from Regimental Funds for unit libraries; others refused to do this and the chaplains had to use their allowances, their own money, and make a collection among the men. They would then go off to Cairo, Alexandria, or Beirut, where they would spend say £50 on some two or three hundred books. These would form the foundation of a unit lending library, often with a different box for each company.
Wastage in books was heavy: paper-backed books, unless reinforced, had a short life, while many were not returned or came to a grimy end in the bottom of some truck. And yet, allowing for this wastage, which often necessitated two or three libraries being bought in a year, the books were worth every penny spent on them. It was difficult to get them in sufficient quantity and variety, but once they were bought they were read continuously; and even when they were not returned officially they were still being passed from hand to hand. In Syria the unit library idea was comparatively new, and a grant from Regimental Funds was seldom forthcoming.
The chaplains organised many evening activities in Syria, but it is necessary to point out that the good chaplain thought of himself as a Minister of Religion first and foremost and never allowed welfare duties to overshadow his real work. He spent his day with the men as they worked, and in the evening wandered around the canteens and the huts where the men lived. In this way he got to know his flock and his visiting would lead to private interviews, small voluntary services, and classes for religious instruction. But of course religion and welfare are closely bound together, and the chaplains were always eager to help anything that promoted mental and spiritual health, though they objected strongly when too material a view was taken of their calling.
Advanced Dressing Station, 4 September 1942, battle of Alam Halfa
Desert burial, Divisional CavalryEl Agheila
PADRES AT MAADI, June 1943 Back row (l. to r.): D. D. Thorpe, J. J. Fletcher, S. C. Read, R. F. Judson. H. B. Burnett, H. G. Taylor. L. P. Spring, J. F. Henley, J. T. Holland, J. M. Templer, F. J. Green, J. S. Somerville, A. C. K. Harper. E. A. ForsmanCentre row: H.S. Scott, F. O. Dawson, P. C. S. Sergel, W. J. Thompson, M. L. Underhill, H. W. West, V. D. Callaghan. J. W. Rodgers, C. G. Palmer Front row: R. Hannah, W. R. Francis, W. A. Mills, F. H. Buck. J. W. McKenzie. G. V. Gerard. T. E. Champion. R. T. Dodds
Rev. J. W. McKenzie plays his violin as accompaniment for an evening service in the desert, July 1942
For the whole period in Syria there was always one brigade on the Turkish border with its headquarters in Aleppo. This city supplied many civilian comforts and interests, and many of the civilian Church authorities were helpful. The official brigade services took place in the Armenian Baptist Church, which had been lent for the purpose; these services were attended by British troops and sometimes were taken by a British chaplain.
In fact one of these chaplains was responsible for correcting an error in our services. In the 2nd NZEF it had been the custom for the troops to march to the church and file into the seats in good time for the service. Just before the service began a staff officer would give the command, ‘Brigade!’ on which the whole congregation would stand while the Brigadier entered. In the open air the senior officer is in command of the parade until he hands it over to the chaplain, but when the service is held in a building, that building for the time being becomes a church and should be treated as such. The commanding officer should walk in quietly and unannounced and the congregation should stand for the entry of the clergyman.
The peaceful life of Syria supplied the chaplains with opportunities for hard, steady, and useful work, but after two months of it many of them were beginning to feel themselves tired and uninspired. The Senior Chaplain, the Rev. J. W. McKenzie, at once took steps to put this right. He interviewed the Officer in charge of Administration (Brigadier W. G. Stevens) and then went to call on Dr. Bayard Dodds, the President of the American University in Beirut. The result was the first course held for chaplains in the Middle East. Nearly every New Zealand chaplain, as well as some from the British and Australian forces, attended one or other of the two courses held in Beirut. Comfortable quarters were supplied in the University, and there was a splendid team of lecturers from the staff, consisting of Americans, Syrians, Armenians, and page 48 Arabs who spoke in flawless English with an encyclopaedic knowledge. Some of the lectures were on the Middle East background and history of the Bible, while others of a more general nature included such subjects as the political situation in Syria, the history of the Arabs, the religion of Islam, and a description of the many different Christian sects in the Middle East. These courses were most successful. The chaplains were refreshed in mind and body, and their spirits were strengthened by the companionship of their colleagues and the regular periods of devotions.
About this time, too, the New Zealand Roman Catholic chaplains attended an excellent Retreat organised by the Royal Army Chaplains' Department in a Carmelite monastery in the village of Bechare, near the top of the Lebanon Mountains.
In later times further New Zealand courses were held for chaplains in Cairo, Tripoli, and Italy. The British Army, with the full approval of General Montgomery, also adopted this idea, and a permanent school, which was formed in Jerusalem, conducted a series of ten-day courses. This school was open to New Zealand chaplains, most of whom attended while attached to Base units. The syllabus included sightseeing trips as well as lectures, and the chaplains were provided with competent guides for tours of the city of Jerusalem and some of the other holy places in Palestine. It would be hard to overestimate the value of these courses for chaplains. The fresh knowledge, interest, and rest revitalised all their work.
The ordered life in Syria, free from action and constant movement, permitted a certain pastoral routine to appear in the chaplains' work. Church services were held regularly; sometimes a choir was formed, and often music would be supplied by a brigade band. A chaplains' conference was held every week in Baalbek, and on one occasion the speaker was the Deputy Chaplain-General of the British Army in the Middle East, who gave an interesting talk on the Royal Army Chaplains' Department. Hospitals and detention camps were visited regularly and religious instruction given to classes and individuals; and sometimes, following an accident or fatal illness, there were funerals in the picturesque village grave. page 49 yards, often with the co-operation and participation of the local clergy. Some Church of England chaplains took men down to Damascus for a confirmation conducted by the Bishop of Pretoria, at which the New Zealanders knelt beside British soldiers and South African native troops and listened to a service conducted in three languages. Once a party of Maoris, conducted by Padre K. Harawira,1 who set off by truck for a confirmation service in Beirut, was snowbound for a night on the top of a high pass. However, they found the Bishop next day and another service was arranged for them.
The three months in Syria provided a period of rest for the troops after the Libyan campaign and it gave the Division opportunity to absorb the large number of reinforcements which the Libyan casualties had made necessary. The hilly country, the green fields, and the cooler climate made a refreshing change from Egypt. But, for all that, morale was not particularly high. Six days in every week, for weeks on end, many units had to set out for the dull routine of a day's digging. At night as the men clustered round the wireless sets the news seemed to be uniformly bad, whether it came from Rome, Berlin, or London. The entry of the Japanese into the war made some think that the Division should be withdrawn to New Zealand, as it was known that one Australian division had already sailed for home. Many men were availing themselves of the cultural activities arranged in the evenings, but there was always a large percentage too tired, or too lazy, to set about entertaining themselves. These latter would frequent the little cafes and wineshops in the villages and in Baalbek, where the only drinks on sale were cherry brandy and arrack–at least those were the names given for raw alcohol slightly flavoured and coloured.
With strong drink, boredom, and idleness the existence of licensed prostitution proved a danger and a temptation to many. One enterprising effort to combat this problem was made by Padre J. T. Holland,2 attached to the ASC, who organised a debate on the page 50 subject. With great care he picked two teams and supervised their preparations; after the case had been well stated in ordinary language by both sides, the audience was allowed to join in the debate. The doctor and the chaplain were not in the official teams but they were present to answer what might be called technical questions on religion and health. Without preaching or emotion this debate calmly and vigorously asserted the medical problems and the Christian principles. The debate aroused such interest that the CRASC3 arranged for it to be held in each ASC company. Prostitution must always be a problem with armies and the only solution seems to be a happy, industrious life based firmly on Christian principles.
3 Brig. S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, Commander Royal Army Service Corps, 2nd New Zealand Division.