A man of peace among men at war

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 14:36 02/03/2014

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OPINION: They also serve who only counsel the terrified, comfort the wounded, bury the dead, and conduct church services. A company of padres, about 150-strong from all denominations, tended to the emotional and spiritual needs of New Zealand's fighting men in World War I.

They were non-combatants. Yet their courage under fire was recognised with the award of 13 Military Crosses and other decorations. Their role has received scant mention in the plethora of books on the conflict of a century ago. Yet the men they served held them in high regard.

Herb Farrant, of Waipara, North Canterbury, has set about correcting this omission. As president of the NZ Military Historical Society, he instigated the publication of letters from the Western Front by Anglican chaplain Rev Clive Mortimer Jones, in book form.

Farrant has specialised in studies of the NZ Division on the Western Front from 1916 to 1918. He has made nearly 20 trips to Belgium and France, guiding tour groups through the battlefields. He was joined by historians Elizabeth Morey and Delysse Storey in editing the book and adding explanatory sections and illustrations.

Mortimer Jones, the popular young Vicar of Cambridge, Waikato, married his sweetheart shortly before leaving for war. He wrote home often and copiously. His letters to his congregation were published in the parish's monthly newsletters. So modest was he that his son, John, who was too young to read the letters, grew up knowing almost nothing of his father's war service.

The 25 letters in the book span Mortimer Jones's pilgrimage from leaving New Zealand, to training in England, to the trenches of Ypres and Passchendaele, to the final assault on Le Quesnoy and the march into Germany with the Allied occupation force.

The Canterbury connection comes through in his attachment to the 3rd Canterbury Battalion and his part in forging a lasting association between Cambridge and Le Quesnoy based around the exploits of Christchurch officer Leslie Averill. Mortimer Jones was much impressed by Averill's leading of the attack on the town by scaling ladders placed against the city's wall. He later oversaw the building in England of stained glass windows depicting the assault and their installation in St Luke's Church at Cambridge. His efforts led to Cambridge and Le Quesnoy forming a sister-city relationship.

Mortimer Jones's letters are carefully worded to avoid distressing his readers. As a censor of soldiers' letters, he takes care to avoid providing information that might help the Germans if they got their hands on his own letters. But references to the need to dig rapid shelter from enemy sniping, shelling and bombing and the tragic rate of casualties provide grim reminders that this was war.

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The padre's roles included finding and identifying dead bodies, burying them and erecting crosses with identification details so they could be exhumed later and interred in war cemeteries. Then began the task of writing letters to next-of-kin. Mortimer Jones said he could write four letters an hour and often spent four hours at a time doing this. At other times, he would help stretcher parties and medics with the wounded, often comforting dying men in their last minutes.

There were lighter moments, though. He writes of the general lampooning of New Zealand Prime Minister Bill Massey and deputy Joseph Ward who visited safe areas behind the lines and addressed the men. He contrasts this with the large and fervent turnouts at prayer meetings and communion services. He compliments ordinary French, and later German, civilians who provided billets away from the battles and extended generosity even in straitened times. Mostly, he marvels at the day-by-day heroism and stoicism of the Anzac soldier.

While colleagues received medals for rescuing wounded under heavy enemy shelling, Mortimer Jones claims he would never be brave enough for such distinction. He admits the shells, bullets and bombs flying around "put the wind up" him. He never suggests it might have terrified others too.

The effects of the terror men felt was often summed up in the statement: "There were no atheists in the trenches." Mortimer Jones does not address this claim. But it is clear that soldiers of all beliefs, and none, looked to the padres for someone to share their torture with, someone with an encouraging word, someone who might shed some light on the eternal paradox of a loving God who could allow these things to happen.

 

A Strong Sense of Duty, edited by Herbert H Farrant, Elizabeth MOrey and Delysse Storey, published by NZ Military Historical Society. Available from www.nzmhs.org.nz or phone Farrant on 09 357 647-. Price $48, includes post and packing. 

- The Press

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