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Daytime in the Front Line

Daytime in the Front Line

On the morning after an attack it was seldom that the chaplain had time to write letters or even complete his burials. Periodically he would go to ground as shell or mortar fire became heavy. He might hear shells landing in one of the company areas, from which presently a message would come telling of several casualties. If possible the wounded were brought in by stretcher or Bren carrier, and the doctor would attend to them at once. Under favourable conditions they could be evacuated in daylight by ambulance, but frequently they would have to be held in the Regimental Aid Post till dark. Slit-trenches would be dug for them, and the chaplain tried to comfort them as they lay in pain, often in considerable danger. Sometimes a long carry on a stretcher was possible to some point where an ambulance could come in safety. At other times they would be carried by jeep.

Frequently no movement in daylight was safe, and the wounded, if brought in, were attended by a crouching doctor and orderlies. At most times it was dangerous to walk about, even if hidden by some land feature, and everyone not working felt a strong desire to lie all day in a trench. Because the chaplain made his own timetable he was strongly subject to this slit-trench attraction. It was so easy to put off activities till later in the day, and it was so difficult, when shelling and common sense demanded safety in a trench, to decide when to leave it.

If the shelling was really bad, of course, there was no doubt, but at other times the chaplain suffered much mental indecision. Ought he to try to do a bit of visiting, or would it be as sensible as it was desirable to get into the trench for a while? Often it would be possible to visit one of the companies without much danger of drawing enemy fire.

The long day would pass and with night came great activity. The trucks arrived with the evening meal and perhaps the mail. There would be more burials, or word of another attack that night, or some patrols. If there was no attack the chaplain would visit a company. He would ask a signaller for the correct telephone line,
black and white photograph of soldiers standing for service

Church service at El Djem Theatre, 1943 Maadi

black and white photograph of soldiers sitting for service

Church service—Rev. H. G. Taylor and the Divisional Cavalry Maadi

black and white photograph of priest with children

Rev. Father J. L. Kingan (in front) with Italian orphansCastelfrentano

black and white photograph of chaplain harper

Rev. A. C. K. Harper, killed in action, 22 February 1944

black and white photograph of chaplains

First Moral Leadership School Group, 22 June 1945 RiccioneSecond row from bottom (third from left): Lectures, Revs. H. S. Scott, H. F. Harding, J. S. Somerville, E. O. Sheild, and A. Gill. YMCA Secretary

black and white photograph of chaplain constructed by soldiers

Interior of chapel at Stalag VIII B Prisoners of war made the furniture Lamsdorf, Upper Silesia

black and white photograph of soldiers taken for burial

The cortege of a prisoner of war at Stalag VIII B

page 63 and then, holding it lightly in his hand, proceed like a tram to his destination. Seldom did he manage to get round the whole company. His visit would be interrupted by the evening meal, the reading of mail, or shellfire, and soon many of the men would be snatching a few short hours of sleep before their turn came for picket duty. It is hard to imagine a more gruelling life with its scanty sleep, poor meals, and constant nervous tension. Only in moments of great activity was the danger forgotten or the mind at rest; and, in addition to the danger and the hardships, there was a good deal of heart-break as one fine man after another was killed or wounded.

It was never the custom for infantry chaplains to go back to B Echelon, which was usually well out of range of shellfire, at any period while the battalion was in the line. The chaplain stayed with his men, and when eventually the battalion was relieved he was just as tired as anyone else. Each day had taken its toll of physical stamina and mental strength; each day it had become harder to walk around calmly and speak in a quiet voice. No doubt a chaplain living at B Echelon, with regular meals and good sleep, could have found opportunities to come up to the front line on most days, and on this basis would, perhaps, have been braver and more cheerful company, but he could never have felt that he really belonged to an infantry battalion. The sharing of everyday experiences was part of his calling, and although this front-line life does not lend itself to graphic description, yet it represented the most valuable and the most glorious part of his work. The tragedy was the extreme weariness of the chaplains as they came out of the line, for that was the time when the men were most receptive to the consolation and teaching of the Christian Gospel. Memorial and thanksgiving services would be held, and perhaps the weariness of the chaplains enhanced their message. Every chaplain who served with the infantry felt conscious of many missed opportunities but none of them would deny their pride in having lived and suffered with such fine men.