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Under Fire

Under Fire

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.