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Looking Back

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Friday November 9 2018

Looking Back: Chaplains' Letters, 1918

A selection of the letters from Church of Scotland chaplains published in November 1918.

Our Naval and Military Chaplains.

The following are extracts from letters recently received:

“Our Battalion have had a strenuous fortnight, as we have formed part of Sir Charles Fergusson’s Corps, which has successfully captured the Dricourt-Queant Section of the Hindenburg Line. The line was thinly held, but it was bristling with machine-guns and had about 50 yards of barbed wire in front. Our lads steadily worked their way up to it – getting into shell-holes wherever possible, and then making short rushes. Our losses have been less than might have been expected. We had a pleasant interlude in the shape of a visit from Harry Lauder. He came right up to where we are lying, and gave us a concert on the spot which the Germans had held the day before” (J. R. Spence, C.F., France, 10/9/18).

“Since I came here – where there are four large General Hospitals besides and Officers’ and the Tank Depot and Reinforcement Camp and some smaller Units – I have had my hands full, as you may imagine, during the prolonged push. Our capacity is 7000 to 8000 beds, and we have been full to overflowing with continuous arrivals and evacuations. If the estimated number of casualties in the papers recently was correct we have put nearly half of them through here.” (A. H. Forbes, C.F., France, September 1918).

“In my old Casualty Clearing Station I had experience of the value of posters in cheering the wounded. It is no exaggeration to say that the Jocks were absolutely delighted with them, and more than once eyes heavy with pain were seen to light up as some well-known scene from home was recognised. One Peebles boy was in ecstasy over a picture of Neidpath Castle opposite his bed, while another lad, whose native scenery had apparently been overlooked by the painter, drew a smile from every one by his efforts to laud the beauties of Paisley. Love of our own countryside seems to be highly developed in us as a race, and a chaplain with good knowledge of Scotland has a sure way to the men’s hearts if he can talk familiarly of the hills – and news of their homes. He reaches thereby a very deep place in their natures, and the transition to things religious is easy thereafter, perhaps because most of us have seen our Maker first in the beauty of our own home-scenery.” (W. W. D. Gardner, C.F., France, 20/8/18).

“I have had two rather interesting and perhaps unique services recently – one, a Harvest Thanksgiving which seems remote enough out here, but the boys jumped at the idea, for many of the fields were golden as well as bloody. They gathered everything themselves – flowers, fruit, and grain, and I can tell you they spared no pains in making our humble tabernacle beautiful. The harvest symbols helped us to read the larger lesson of our mighty deliverance in the strife, to cultivate the recognition of God in it as in all things, and to exercise what is perhaps life’s hardest lesson – to be truly grateful.
“The other service was a Chinese Communion celebrated on an old-world battle-field. I mean, of course, our own Communion for the benefit of Christian Chinese. You can imagine some of the thoughts which such a service would suggest and inspire.” (J. C. Conn, C.F., France, September 1918).

“Marseilles is very lively, population at present over a million, and America very much in evidence. Many better-class Parisians are here to escape the air-raids and the attentions of Big Berthas. The most interesting services I have had were for Fijians, who are remarkably fine men physically and most pleasant to work with. They sing with great enthusiasm, and possess splendid bass voices. One of the officers is a graduate of Oxford. I told them I came from Orkney, and they expressed their sympathy that we were so cut off from civilisation!” (William A. Forbes, C.F., H.M.H.S. Valdivia, 26/10/18)


Remembrance Prayer
'Earthed and Realistic': the Scottish WW1 centenary commemorations

The life of Earl Haig
'The Horrors Stayed With Him': the extraordinary wartime story of a son of the manse
'There but not there': a timely art installation
Letters from the Front: a previous selection of chaplains' letters, compiled in 2015

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