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Legion Magazine – November/December 2003 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – November/December 2003

Often a first-person book by a veteran from our army in WW II gets my nostalgia running but here I want to recommend highly a new book by a padre with the West Nova Scotia Regiment. What a padre he was! He had me flinching guiltily as his recall set me reviewing my own behaviour towards the several padres who served in our regiment in Canada and overseas.

The book by Laurence Wilmot MC is plain to a reader and succinctly put. It is titled Through The Hitler Line; Memoirs Of An Infantry Chaplain and was published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. His account made me return again to my own behaviour during the war in an armoured car regiment even though I was also realizing the much greater importance of the padre in infantry regiments with their high casualties in dead and wounded, quite aside from his role in brokering with authority the crises on the home front of the soldiers.

Wilmot pushes straightforwardly into such touchy matters as the morale and competence of the regiment and its companies. He is judgmental of battle planning when heavy casualties without gains ensue. He has the temerity to analyse afterwards the staff work for an attack at brigade and division. He makes clear the costly course of the West Nova Regiment and its fellow units of the 1st Division through his year in the field in Italy. He sketches the character and deeds of privates, non-commissioned officers and officers as he deals with them directly and notes their behaviour in and out of battle. He does not go on about the political aspects of the reinforcement crisis which affected our units in Italy so much in 1944 and 1945 but he gives witness of too few soldiers in the platoons in top shape for the tasks given them.

Clearly Wilmot was sharply aware of the morale and capabilities in each of the companies, illustrated in his descriptions of close-quarter experience with the battlefield. He was determined, well beyond what the regiment’s commanding officers wanted, to be with or near where men would be killed or wounded, rather than waiting at forward casualty stations during battles. There is nothing soppy in the humanity he must have radiated around him. He faced and worked through antagonism from some officers for his forwardness, until he was worn down by its strains and agreed to show more respect for his own life. This happened in the late winter of 1945 when both the regiment and its padre were very low.

The following quotation from Through The Hitler Line on the command situation in the West Novas at Christmas, 1944, illustrates the Wilmot frankness. “On Christmas Eve I held two services, after which there was carol singing in the regimental aid post for an hour or more. I then had a visit from Major John Cameron and Captain Rice, who both felt badly about recent changes in the leadership of the regiment. They were but two of a number of senior officers who felt that the commanding officer should have been appointed from among senior officers who had served through many months of bitter fighting, and several of whom were legends and would have had the full confidence of the men. Instead, they once again had a commanding officer who had never led men in battle, not even as a platoon or company commander, and they realized that the morale of the regiment was suffering. Unfortunately there was nothing that they or I could do about this and, as loyal officers of His Majesty’s service, they accepted the situation and supported the leaders they were given. After they had left I prayed at length for the regiment and its problem, including its new CO, Major Frank Hiltz, who, as second-in-command for the past year, had been prevented from gaining any practical experience in battle while waiting in the wings to be available if and when called to take over.”

Another, shorter critique came after a day full of frustrations. “In the past few weeks the regiment had been commanded by two untried officers and morale had quickly waned. We had also received a new medical officer. Standard routines and procedures were being neglected, and petty thievery had become common in the regimental aid post. I felt so disgusted with all the double-crossing going on amongst the ranks that in the evening I had a talk with the CO. We discussed the problems further when he took me with him on a reconnaissance to select the best route for our forthcoming move to Catacolica.”

Padre Wilmot prayed frequently, convinced on its usefulness in straightening himself and reaching men who would pause to join him. He always seems to have faced work and difficulties directly and without hesitation. He’d brace men from private to colonel on their faith and he put much enthusiasm into organizing hymn sings in the field, accompanying it with his accordion. He did not live for the perquisites of rank and the officers’ mess, except as they enabled to put more into his battlefield first aid and all the burial services he had to carry out. He has a talent for replaying a battle of regimental or brigade scope, factoring in the roles played by tankers, gunners, engineers, stretcher-bearers, and the providers from the rear echelons. He was rigorous in keeping himself organized and as scheduled as possible. He gave priority to writing to the kin of casualties and to visiting West Novas in hospitals. He was indefatigable at organizing letter-writing spots for men in static positions along the line and in remembrance visits to graveyards where comrades were buried. He is an Anglican and he never gilds any lilies in his descriptions of how bishops managed appointments and promotions in his own diocese in Manitoba. Through his story there is a thin but running line of awareness on the war as a whole and at home. Although he only had one full year as chaplain at the front, it was a year with a dozen or so tough engagements and regimental losses in the hundreds. He covers both his years as a minister in northern Manitoba and at various postings in the service in Eastern Canada and Britain before he got to the Mediterranean theatre and to the West Novas. He went north into France, Belgium and Holland from Italy.

I would wager Wilmot has not been a doomsayer in the decades since the war. His Christian optimism is a wonder and as I read into it my now ancient skepticism gave ground. Here is a man who loves his fellow man, who cherishes and remembers the comrades, here or gone, who pulled together in a common cause.

At the close of his memoir Padre Wilmot, a captain with a Military Cross, has been appointed as second-in-command of chaplains chosen to serve with the troops Canada was preparing for the Japanese war…until the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancelled his assignment.

Let me close my respects for Padre Wilmot in explaining why there were twinges of guilt for me as I read it. Well before I joined the army in 1941 I had come to challenge Christian thought and sectarian religion. In short I became irreligious, stopping church-going and Bible-reading. Of course such a youthful rejection is not uncommon. I did have such rejection of convention in the army, and in acting it out within its discipline I often made it difficult for the several chaplains of our regimental wartime. I made it formally known by being paraded before the squadron CO, asking to be excused from attendance at church parades. There was somewhat of a discussion and I believe he was more amused than angered to find a trooper unusually familiar with both the Old and the New Testament. In any case, he partly went along, decreeing that I would not have to enter the place of worship but I must go with the church parade and my comrades to the door, outside where I would stand during the time of the service, not having to listen to it.
This happened twice, once in Canada, once in England, before the squadron sergeant-major, aware of the regimental joke my scruples over Christianity had become, looped it all very simply. On days of church parades, I was booked on latrine or kitchen fatigues. As the sergeant-major explained: “Fisher, you are hopeless as a marcher.”

Each of my postings at the doors of worship bothered the chaplains at the occasions; indeed it enraged the one in England. I think he felt my ploy mocked his role and encouraged a ridicule of Christian faith and practice. There was certainly no surfeit of religiosity in our regiment and considerable impatience at the trooper level with the padre and his work. And so an odd feud ensued between the padre and me, one I found lived on during a reunion a dozen years after the war. At it we met face to face and his animus exploded. Once such a response would have made me proud. It did not, and yet I sloughed off why this was so. But my quite juvenile antics as a zealous agnostic came flooding back to me while reading Wilmot’s memoir. As our padre had said at the reunion: “You have the insolence of the agitator.”

Padre Wilmot had his naysayers in the ranks and many of the men were set to ignore him. He simply persisted at spending time with them, getting to know why they were remote or critical. Usually, but not always, he succeeded. Some of this, I think, came because of his obvious respect for the equality of all men, whatever their rank in the military. And his story of war as he tells it illuminates so much about battle with its killing and wounding, its defeats and its victories. A superb and vigorous memoir!
I close with a short notice of a book wholly devoted to recounting a small, important battle now largely forgotten at which the forces in Canada repelled American invaders.
The title is A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle Of Queenston Heights, 1812. The author is Robert Malcomson, a military historian of note, and the publisher is Robin Brass Studio of Toronto. The Canadians won on their own ground, defeating American invaders, though losing their general, Isaac Brock.

I cannot recall a more thorough, detailed analysis of any Canadian battle, not even James Wolfe’s victory at the Plains of Abraham. The narrative is supplemented with 10 appendices on such matters as the orders of battle and comparisons of resources. There is also some 45 pages of endnotes and bibliography. In short, this is an organizational masterpiece by a good historian about a triumph significant in Canada’s continuance won against an invader whose numbers, guns, and supplies dwarfed those available to General Brock. Again Robin Brass has put out a book that is physically handsome.