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Unit Chaplains

Unit Chaplains

The unit chaplain came to enjoy something of the position of the family doctor who is helped in his diagnosis and treatment by his knowledge of the homes and lives of his patients. The chaplain lived at unit headquarters. He often attended the Colonel's conferences and learned much of the inner life of the unit. In action and at other times he nearly always lived next to the doctor, and often the two became firm friends. When a new chaplain came to a unit he usually found a ready-made friend in the doctor, who could outline his work as it had been done by his predecessor and also give much wise counsel about the unit. With very rare exceptions the New Zealand doctors gave the chaplains the maximum of friendly help and advice.

The young platoon commanders took their commands and responsibilities very seriously, and often they enjoyed the chance of discussing their hopes and fears with the chaplain, expressing intimate thoughts which they would have hated brother officers to ear. It was inevitable that the chaplain came to know the officers well as he shared the same mess in all periods outside battle; and he also page 53 came to know what the men thought of the officers. A wise chaplain could do much to inspire the right spirit in a unit by judiciously expressing the men's point of view, and by reminding the men that even the officers had to obey orders and were not therefore personally responsible for every regulation and restriction.

On occasions the chaplain would approach the commanding officer direct on some aspect of unit life. Of course the sympathy of the Colonel was of crucial importance. An Eighth Army chaplains' handbook states this succinctly: ‘There may be two opinions but there is only one colonel. Go first to him, ask him what he wants, and work to that. No other plan can possibly work.’ Some colonels were not sympathetic, but they were rare exceptions. More frequently they were friendly but without much knowledge of organised religion, though some were good churchmen and thoroughly understood the chaplain's work and desires.

In the Navy, in the close confines of a ship, there is sometimes danger of the ‘lower deck’ looking upon the chaplain as the Captain's spy, but this danger was not apparent in the 2nd NZEF.

The chaplain had to make his position in a unit. Until he had proved himself and was known, his influence and preaching could not take full effect, but when he was accepted his power was considerable. In this respect notable service was given by Padre Spence with the 20th Battalion, Father Kingan with the 26th, Padre H. G. Taylor1 with the Divisional Cavalry, and Padre Palmer with the 5th Field Regiment. These chaplains sometimes presented a problem to the Senior Chaplain. He might want to give a new chaplain Divisional experience or else he might feel that a really successful chaplain ought to be rested for a time at Base. But the Senior Chaplain would only have to suggest such a change and he would receive a volume of protests from the chaplain concerned and from his unit, which did not want to part with him. Once or twice a Senior Chaplain in these circumstances made the mistake of asking such a chaplain what he wanted to do: would he like a rest? No man whether chaplain or combatant should be asked whether he would like a rest from the front line. Honour nearly always page 54 triumphs over common sense and the answer is usually an emphatic denial.

A good chaplain came to enjoy some of the freedom of the ancient court jesters, and at the right time would be no respecter of persons. A witty word of rebuke could often ease the strain and tension in a mess when tempers were running high, or some outright remark might break down smouldering jealousy or suspicion. On the other hand few chaplains would have dared to speak as Padre Taylor did on one occasion. Only a man with his record and personality could, in a Church parade, vigorously denounce those who, he considered, had succumbed too easily to nervous exhaustion in battle.

In spite of the need for denominational compromise, limiting as it did clear and direct doctrinal teaching, the life of a unit chaplain brought great rewards and many opportunities, and no finer title could be sought than that of being known as ‘Our Padre’. But that title had to be earned and its implications cannot be better expressed than by a certain formula in the same Eighth Army handbook: ‘The show was going long before you came. It is a close-knit family; when you have earned a place in it by humility, service, and worth, they will take you to their heart and back you through thick and thin. If it is not so YOU will normally be in the wrong.’