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A First World War Soldier

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How often, in this war, has not one pitied the Army Chaplain! As a visitor to hospital, as a dispenser of charity, as the bearer of hospital comforts and gifts to sick men, as an indefatigable organiser of concerts, as the cheerful friend of lonely men, he is doing a real good work. But that is not his job, it is not what he came out to do.

And the padre, willing, earnest, good fellow that he is, is conscious that he is often up against a brick wall, a reserve in the soldier that he cannot penetrate. The fact is, that he has rank, and that robs him of much of his power to reach the private soldier. But he must have rank, just as much as a doctor. Executive authority must be his, in order to assert and keep up discipline. And yet there is the constant barrier between the officer and the man. Doctors know and feel it: feel that, in the officer, they are no longer the doctor. Now, however, great changes have been wrought and the medical officer likes to be called "doc," just as much as the chaplain values the name "padre." There's something so intimate about it. Such a tribute to our job and our responsibility and the trust and confidence they have in us.

The soldier is not concerned about his latter end; all that troubles him about his future, is the billet he yearns for, the food he hopes to get, the rest he is sure is due to him, his leave and the time when--how he longs for that!--he may turn his sword into a ploughshare and have done with war and the soldier's beastly trade.

Of course, in little matters like swearing, the padre is wise and he knows what Tommy's adjective is worth. He knows that Tommy is a simple person and apt to reduce his vocabulary to three wonderful words: three adjectives which are impartially used as substantives, adjectives, verbs, or adverbs. That is all. The earnest young chaplain at first gasps with horror at the flaming words, and would not be surprised if the heavens opened and celestial wrath descended on these poor sinners' heads. But he soon learns that these little adornments of the King's English mean less than nothing. For Tommy is a reverent person, he is not a blasphemer in reality; he is gentle, infinitely kind, incredibly patient, extraordinarily generous, if the truth be told. His language would lead one to believe that his soul is entirely lost. But when one knows what this careless, generous, and kindly person is capable of, one feels that his soul is a very precious thing indeed. And there is one way the padre can touch this priceless soul: that is, by serving in the ranks with him. Then all the barriers fall, all the reserve vanishes, and the padre comes into his own, and saves more souls by his example than by oceans of precept. There he finds himself, he has got his real job at last.

Among the South African infantry brigade, that did that wonderful march to Kondoa Irangi, two hundred and fifty miles in a month, in the height of the rainy season, were fourteen parsons. All serving in the ranks as private soldiers, they carried a wonderful example with them. It was their pride that they were the cleanest and the best disciplined men in their respective companies. No fatigue too hard, no duty too irksome. Better soldiers they showed themselves than Tommy himself. Of a bright and cheerful countenance, particularly when things looked gloomy, they were ready for any voluntary fatigue. The patrol in the thick bush that was so dangerous, fetching water, quick to build fires and make tea, ready to help a lame fellow with his equipment, always cheery, never grousing, they lived the life of our Lord instead of preaching about it.

For the padre's job, I take it, is to teach the men the right spirit, to send them to war as men should go, to assure them that this is a holy fight, that God is on their side.

He knows that Tommy, if he speculates at all upon his latter end, does so in the pagan spirit, the spirit that teaches men that there is a special heaven for soldiers who are killed in war, that the manner of their dying will give them absolution for their sins. And the padre knows that the pagan spirit is the true spirit and yet he may not say so. He may not suggest for a moment that sin will be forgiven by sacrifice, for that is Old Testament teaching; his Bishop tells him that he must not trifle with this heresy, but he must inculcate in sinful man that he can, by repentance, and by repentance only, gain absolution for past misdeeds.

And the chaplain knows Tommy, and he knows that he will never get him on that tack. He knows that any soldier, who is any good, looks upon it as a cowardly, mean and contemptible thing to crawl to God for forgiveness in times of danger, when they never went to him in days of peace. And I know many a chaplain who is with the soldier in this belief.

A little of war, and the padre very soon finds his limitations. To begin with, he is attached to a Field Ambulance and not to a regiment, as a rule. The only time he sees the men is when they are wounded. Then he often feels in the way and fears to obstruct the doctor in his job. So all that is left is going out with the stretcher-bearing party at night, showing a good example, cool in danger, merciful to the wounded. But that again is not his job.

First, when he laid aside the sad raiment of his calling, and put on his khaki habiliments of war, he thought that the chief part of his job was to shrive the soldier before action, and to comfort the dying. Later he found that the soldier would not be shriven, and found, to his surprise, that the dying need no comfort. Very soon he learnt that wounded men want the doctor, and chiefly as the instrument that brings them morphia and ease from pain. And when the wound is mortal, God's mercy descends upon the man and washes out his pain. How should he need the padre, when God Himself is near?

Early in his military career the young ministers of the Gospel were provided with small diaries, in which they might record the dying messages of the wounded. Then came disillusion, and they found the dying had no messages to send; they are at peace, the wonderful peace that precedes the final dissolution, and all they ask is to be left alone.

So is it to be wondered at, that men with imagination, men like Furze, the Bishop of Pretoria, saw in a vision clear that the padre's job lay with the living and not with the dying, that he could point the way by the example of a splendid life with the soldier, far better than by a hundred discourses, as an officer, from the far detachment of the pulpit. Thus was the idea conceived and so was the experiment carried out. And all of us who were in German East Africa can vouch for the splendid results of these excellent examples. For the private soldier saw that his fellow-soldier, handicapped as he was by being a parson, could know his job and do his job as a soldier better than Tommy could himself. To his surprise, he found that here was a man who could make himself intelligible without prefixing a flaming adjective when he asked his pal to pass the jam. Here was a N.C.O., a real good fellow too, who could give an order and point a moral without the use of a blistering oath; a man who was a man, cool under fire, ready for any dangerous venture, cheerful always, never grousing, always generous and open as a soldier should be, never preaching, never openly praying, never asking men to do what he would not do himself. Can you wonder that Tommy understood, and, understanding, copied this example?

When he saw a man inspired by some inward Spirit that made him careless of danger, contemptuous of death, fulfilling all the Soldier's requirements in the way of manhood, he knew quite well that some Divine inward fire upheld this once despised follower of Christ. Then lo! the transformation. First, the oaths grew rarer in the ranks and vanished; then came the discovery that, after all, it really was possible to conduct a conversation in the same language as the soldier used at home with his wife and children; that, after all, the picturesque adjectives that flavoured the speech of camps were not necessary; that there was really no need for two kinds of speech, the language of the camp and the language of the drawing-room.

And the process of redemption was very curious. All are familiar of course with the hymn tunes that are sung by marching soldiers, tunes that move their female relatives and amiable elderly gentlemen to a quick admiration for the Christian soldier. All know too that, could the admiring throng only hear the words to which these hymn tunes were sung, the crowd would fly with fingers to their ears, from such apparent blasphemy. Well, these well-known ballads were first sung at the padre, and especially at the padre who was masquerading as a soldier. And when the soldier saw that the padre could see the jest and laugh at it too, and know that it meant nothing, then he felt that he had got a good fellow for his sky pilot. Can you wonder that the soldier spoke of his padre comrade in such generous terms and that the whole tone of the regiment improved? The men were better soldiers and better Christians too.

There is one trap into which a padre falls when marching with a regiment. Provided, by regulations, with a horse, he is often unwise enough to ride alongside his marching cure of souls. It would, perhaps, do him good if he could hear, as I did, the comments of two Scottish sergeants in the rear. "Our Lord did not consider it beneath him to ride upon a donkey, but this man of God needs must have a horse."

"How is it that I don't get close to the good fellows on board the ship?" said a very good and earnest padre to me. "Why don't these fellow-officers of mine come to church? How is it that fellows I know to be good and generous and kindly are yet to be found at the bar, in the smoking-room, when my service is on? Why is it that the decent, nice fellows aren't professing Christians, and some of the fellows who are my most regular attendants haven't a tenth of the character and quality and charm of these apparent pagans?"

What could I do but tell him the truth? I knew him well and felt that he would understand. Most fellows, I said, don't come to church, because if they've good and decent characters, they hate to be hypocrites. Now you know, padre, in this improper world of ours, that many men are sinners, by that I mean that convention describes as sinful some of the things they do. What do you tell us when we go to early chapel in the morning? "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours and intend to lead a new life ... draw near with faith and take this Holy Sacrament ..." Well, then, can you conceive that such a state of mind exists in an otherwise decent man that he finds the burden of his sin not intolerable, as he should do, but that he hugs that special sin as a prisoner may hug his chains? That his sin, or let us call it his breach of the conventions of Society, is the one dear precious thing in his existence at the present moment. He doesn't want to reform or to lead a new life. Later, no doubt, he'll tire of this sin and then he may come to church again. But how could a man of character go to God's House and be such an infernal hypocrite? He cannot partake of the Body and Blood of Christ any more when he is in that state of mind. So you see, padre, it is often the honest men who won't be hypocrites, that won't go to your church.

Many the padre that used to drift into our hospital on the long trek to Morogoro, Church of England, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and those who look after the "fancy religions," as Tommy calls them. By that term is designated any man who does not belong to either of the above three. One such fellow came to our mess the other day, and in answer to our query as to the special nature of his flock, he answered that, though strictly speaking a Congregationalist, he had found that he had become a "dealer in out-sizes in souls," as he called it. He kept, as he said, a fatherly eye (and a very good eye too, that we could see) on Dissenters in general, Welsh Baptists, Rationalists, and all the company of queerly minded men we have in this strange army of ours. Later we heard that he had brought with him an excellent reputation from the Front. And that is not easy to acquire from an army that is hard to please in the matter of professors of religion.

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