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The Western Desert

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.