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Looking Back

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Looking Back: A Padre In The Desert

From 1943

By the Rev. John Elder, MC, MA, SCF., 51st Highland Division

Wherever Scottish troops go in these days of war the Church of Scotland sends her ministers on their great mission of help and inspiration. You can see the padre in the Western Desert clad in his open-necked shirt and shorts. He is probably driving along some sandy track with clouds of trailing behind him, making his way to part of his scattered flock. Perhaps he has a bundle of magazines with him, maybe some extra cigarettes or a tin of sweets. Whether he has or not there is a glad welcome waiting him wherever he goes. Soon the men cluster about him and, if he and they are old friends, there is no shy silence. Confidences are poured out. What a variety of problems he has to tackle in a day’s journey – some troubles at home, a worry to be banished, a question to be answered! “When is our next service to be? Will you manage along on Sunday?”


If he possibly can, the padre does manage.

The services of necessity have usually had to be small in numbers, often with sentries posted, like the old conventicles on the Scottish moors. Early in the morning the padre starts and he goes from one service to another, sometimes seven or eight in a day. The men select their own Praise List. They may have a good choir with a violin or an accordion in place of an organ. The old Psalm tunes are asked for again and again – Wiltshire, French, Irish, along with the favourite hymns. The choice is limited, but when it is something the men know, the singing is grand. The echo of it goes drifting across the desert sands. There is a hushed silence, a silence you can feel when the padre prays for the dear ones at home. It is not only he who is praying but everyone. In the silence all join in and in some awed moment as if the loved ones far away are near after all. “God keep the safe. Give them courage.” Then the men settle down to listen while the padre talks shortly and simply about the things that matter most. The sermon does not last more than eight to ten minutes, sometimes not even that, but every single word is listened to and, yes, talked about often. “Do you agree with that, Jock, about what the padre said about Temptation or Courage or whatever it was?” After the service one or two wait behind for a few minutes. There are fresh problems for the padre to solve before he goes off to another service with another waiting group.

Perhaps as he moves about he is able to leave word about a Church of Scotland mobile canteen that will visit the Battalion or the Battery within the next few days. How the men love that canteen with the St Andrew’s Cross on it! The padre who drives it – and he has many a rough mile to cover – has done gallant service for the Scottish troops.


Such is the life of the padres in the Highland Division lived during the period of waiting and training before the great advance began.

When it started they shared all the discomforts, all the thrills, and all the perils too with their men. Some of them have just finished Eve of Battle Services. They are crouching in slit trenches till the signal comes. How slow the minutes drag till zero hour! A sigh of relief. Here it is. The shadows of the night are torn asunder by a vivid sheet of flame as the thunder of barrage rolls and crashes overhead. On they go quietly and calmly, walking slowly and steadily with the men. A strained face peers out of the gloom, smiles at the padre. An answering smile cheers him on. Someone is hit, then another. The doctor is on the spot, the padre with him. There are stretcher cases to be lifted into an ambulance. When he is busy doing that one padre is wounded. Word comes back about another who is hit in the leg.

Still the padres go.

(Extract from a longer article)

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