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Friday June 15 2018

Looking Back: Moderator in Palestine

An account of the Moderator's trip to the Middle East during the period leading up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.



The last of Dr. MATTHEW STEWART'S moderatorial tours took him to Egypt, Palestine and Germany. The following description of the tour comes from the Rev. JOHN A. FRASER, his chaplain.

IN an interesting year of office which included, in addition to the usual routine, not only a Royal Wedding but a Royal Silver Wedding, Dr. Matthew Stewart as Moderator undertook one tour of special significance. Accompanied by the writer as his chaplain, he left London on 16th March, in response to a request by the War Office that he should visit Scots Regiments and chaplains in the Middle East and in Germany.

Leaving Heath Row in a comfortable B.O.A.C. Dakota, we stopped the night at Malta, and had tea the following afternoon in Cairo. The Moderator was able to meet about forty members of the Scots Kirk the following morning.

Dr. Stewart made an extensive tour of the Canal Zone. While there were no specifically Scots units in B.T.E.*, the Army authorities had arranged a series of “rendezvous” where Scots of all ranks could assemble to meet theModerator. It was interesting and significant that the natural meeting-place was in every case the Church of Scotland Canteen. How heartening it was to come on these centres right out in the desert, where our gallant men and women are rendering such splendid service to our troops.

Germans in training for the ministry

Nothing was more impressive than the service conducted by the Moderator on the Sunday morning at Fayid (G.H.Q., M.E.L.F.**), on the shores of the Great Bitter Lake. Here a great company met to worship in St. Andrew’s Kirk, built by men of the Highland Division during the desert campaign.

Notable also at Fayid was the Moderator’s visit to the Theological School for German Divinity Students. But an event as interesting and unusual as any was his meeting with two Regiments of Basuto*** Christians. Here one could not but mark that Dr. Stewart’s address took an unconscionable time when translated into the native language. On enquiry the C.O. gave the answer. Our word “rations” when rendered in Basuto works out as “the expendable amount of food and drink provided by a higher authority for the consumption of a Basuto soldier in one day.”

Stopped by battle

Midnight on Monday, 22nd March, found us on the train at Kantara en route for Palestine. In the rapidly deteriorating situation the Army authorities had seriously considered cancelling this part of the tour. However, the presence in Palestine of three Scottish Regiments made out a strong case for carrying on, so it was decided to take the chance, hoping for the best.

Dawn next morning brought us a not very encouraging nor welcoming sight – the bridge of Rehovoth, blown up a few weeks earlier in retaliation for the destruction of Ben Jehouda Street, with the wreckage of the train alongside the track. But within the hour our hearts warmed at the welcome we received at Lydda from the 1st Argylls. Of them, as of the 1st Highland Light Infantry whom we saw in the old city of Jerusalem and the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers at Sarafand, we have two abiding memories – the abundant kindness and hospitality which they showered on us in such generous measure, and the altogether admirable courage and restraint with which they were fulfilling a difficult and hazardous role.

The Moderator’s first official visit was to Iona Hut at the British Military Hospital at Bir-Jacov – but that visit was never paid. En route, a friendly Arab halted our little convoyin an orange grove. From the edge of it Dr. Stewart, in full Moderatorial dress, had a grand-stand view of a battle, where an Arab raiding party were attacking the hospital’s armoury, with a view to collecting such arms and equipment as they could lay their hands on. As the noise of battle subsided, the Moderator, imperturbable as ever, was for carrying on, but authority in the person of a Scots Lieut. Colonel counselled our withdrawal to the security of Divisional Headquarters at Sarafand.

Easter in Jerusalem

During the next few days, the Moderator made an extensive tour of Southern and Northern Palestine. One day took us to Haifa, through which we threaded our way with difficulty, past road blocks, from Jewish quarter to Arab and back to Jewish quarter again, to reach the canter where a large gathering awaited the Moderator. He spoke to an eager audience, his address punctuated by alarming “noises off.” From the top of Carmel we viewed the apparently peaceful scene, south over the coastal plain, north to Acre. And so on by Megiddo to Nazareth and tea with the staff of the Edinburgh Medical Mission, and at the end of the day to Tiberias and our hospital by the Sea of Galilee, where Dr. and Mrs. Torrance bade us welcome.

Another day and were back along the uncertain route, never knowing what might await us round the corner, and up the road from Tel-a-viv through the Bab-el-Wad gorge, and past the remains of a Jewish convoy – destroyed but an hour before – to Jerusalem, a Jerusalem divided into security zones, barricaded, tense, with the rattle of machine guns and the pounding of the mortars seldom silent, a Jerusalem from which the British population was being rapidly evacuated.

Time would fail to tell of our reception by H.E. the High Commissioner, and General MacMillan, and of the Moderator’s Easter morning service at 1st Division H.Q. Let it be recorded that the Moderator, not only through his personal contacts and his addresses, so full of understanding and encouragement, but by his very presence in Palestine at such a time of chaos and danger, created a profound impression. Both in the Army and in our churches, canteens and institutions, where our gallant men and women continued to serve in a fevered and distracted land, it was felt that the Church at home had not forgotten them in a critical and dangerous hour.

 *British Troops Egypt

**General Headquarters, Middle East Land Forces

***Basutoland, now Lesotho, was a British colony from 1868-1966.

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