Thursday, September 13, 2018

Remembering Canadian Great War Chaplains in the Hundred Days

The text below is from an email sent by my friend and colleague, Dr. Duff Crerar, author of Padres in No Man's Land (McGill Queen's 1995, 2nd ed 2014).   Duff regularly sends Canadian chaplains these emails to tell us what our predecessors did on certain notable dates, and thus to remind us of our legacy.  MP+

Canadian Chaplains and breaking the Drocourt-Queant line.

German Wire - Part of the Drocourt-Queant Line Fortifications

By 17 August, the Canadian Corps had clawed deeply into German lines at Amiens. As the push ground down in the maze of old 1916 trenches, General Currie and Third Army Commander Rawlinson pushed for a relocation of the Canadians to where the Germans would not expect an attack. British Commander Douglas Haig concurred and persuaded the Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch to agree. Currie’s force was transferred to General Horne at Arras. Here the Germans had fortified a strong belt of defences, thirty kilometers deep, as far back as the partially-drained Canal du Nord. Behind it lay Cambrai. If the Canadians could break in here, the German defences southwards would be turned and the whole front opened for exploitation.

The Canadians had to work fast: Currie had two divisions in the line by August 23. They would jump off three days later, backed by the other two divisions and the 51st Highland Division. Twenty-six Brigades of Artillery and one British Tank Brigade joined in the attack. The first skirmishes at Neuville-Vitasse were over in minutes: hearing the Canadians were in the line, the German defenders were already evacuating the objective when the attack began at After great initial gains the offensive ground down in heavy rain, bogged tanks and accidental attack by friendly air forces. When the Canadians finally outran the range of their guns, it was time to pause.

On 30 August the First Division carried out a textbook breakthrough and capture of the critical launching points for the new attack and held them against heavy counter-attacks.  Currie planned a renewed attack for 2 September while his guns blasted fields of uncut wire. Altogether, over 101,000 Canadians and 47,000 British troops were under his command.

The breakthrough, once again, was sudden and decisive, and the advancing Canadians again outran their artillery coverage. German flank attacks hit the 15th and 16th Battalions hard, leading to hand to hand combat in the wire until tanks arrived. Heavy resistance occurred in the central area, though by the end of the attack the critical Mont Dury was taken and held. The D-Q line was cut, but Currie would plan a separate and final assault to cross the Canal du Nord. The Germans left in between the Canadians and the Canal banks were already streaming back to dig in on the other side.

Throughout these operations, the Canadian padres worked as they had at Amiens. Father F.L. French, Senior Chaplain, Canadian Corps, was able to have up to twenty of his priests flow between medical posts and stretcher parties. About twenty padres “jumped off” with attacking waves, while the artillery chaplains visited guns, wagon lines and manned burial parties.

George Taylor accompanied his Seventh Brigade battalion on the 28 August attack, which ended in Jig-Saw Wood. Snipers re-wounded men even as he was dressing them. Thirsty men greatly appreciated the coffee he had in two thermos bottles stuffed in his haversack. He rounded up about sixty German prisoners to carry stretchers, but heavy shelling made it so hazardous that he held off making a second trip until after dark. Then, assisted by the Medical Officer, he brought out the rest by moonlight.

German prisoners, possibly waiting to carry the Canadian on the stretcher to the rear.

G.A. MacDonald, taking over as Senior Chaplain, 4 Division from the wounded A.M. Gordon, reported that his padres were busy across the field meeting reinforcements with encouragement, writing letters to next of kin, assisting at RAPs. He had acquired a certain notoriety at Amiens by accompanying the 54th Battalion onto the final objective.  G.H. Sparks visited all the batteries in his care, and then reported to a Dressing Station, from 3:30 am to almost noon. In that time he wrote seventy-one letters while offering prayer for patients and with staff.

The Van Doos had lost their padre, Father Desjardins, to gas on 28 August, so Father Fortier took over, encountering a wounded Georges Vanier, who would lose his leg in the event. The Medical Officer offered alcohol to Vanier, but Fortier advised against it, to keep his head clear. Vanier took the padre’s advice. Fortier gave the future Governor General absolution before he was carried to the rear.

One of the most extraordinary deeds of courage was carried out by E.E. Graham, on behalf of the French Canadian unit, when in broad daylight he made repeated trips under fire to pluck half a dozen Van Doos off the barbed wire. Although recommended for a Victoria Cross, the Army chose to award the Distinguished Service Order instead. On 2 September he spent the day with the battalion as it attacked the D-Q “Switch”. Although in hospital at this time, Father Ambrose Madden, M.A., also was awarded the D.S.O. for his service at Amiens, where he received his third wound of the war.

Frank Buck’s work with the 46th Battalion in the opening days of September included several days at the RAP under heavy shelling. He led stretcher parties and went forward for a second day under fire as the Battalion advanced. For his work at Drury and St. Quentin he was awarded a Military Cross, one of several awarded to padres after the fight.  Military Crosses also went to S.E. McKegney (58th Battalion), Fathers C.A. Fallon (102 Battalion) and Thomas O’Sullivan (Engineers). They had exposed themselves to heavy fire locating wounded in open country, offering first aid, and seeing to their evacuation.

Coffee stall operated by the Canadian Chaplain Service during the Hundred Days fighting.   Note the hasty sign beneath the "Art Mun Depot Harcourt" sign. Photo courtesy of Dr. Duff Crerar.

There were casualties, as well. E.E. Graham’s charmed life was interrupted on 30 September, by leg wounds which forced him to the rear. Chaplains who were exhausted or winged by enemy fire had to be replaced in a hurry. Senior Chaplain Louis Moffit found one, an ordained Lieutenant in the 42nd Battalion who was recuperating from minor wounds after Amiens. He was taken on Chaplain Service Strength in October. W.G. Clarke, a Baptist, was given speedy ordination in England and taken on strength, as was J.G. Gibson, a Methodist minister in the ranks.

Father James Nicholson almost became a casualty when he and the Medical Officer plunged into a dugout full of armed Germans at Monchy Le Preux. The startled Germans surrendered to him instead. Cyrl D’Easum also turned up, after burying 78th Battalion casualties in the open, with another eight Germans who had insisted on surrendering to him. His reckless work with the wounded and dying while under machine gun fire was recognized by the award of a Military Cross.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Military Goats In Canada

Long time readers will know, and we hope, support, this blog’s devout belief that no beast of creature is more endowed with nobility, martial spirit, intelligence and good looks than the military goat.

Last month, while travelling on holiday with my son, we stopped at Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, and I was delighted to find not one but two goats.  Each goat was provided with staff, two smartly uniformed reenactors, who answered questions from the tourists.  The goats were too busy cropping the sward to reply to questions.


The day before, in Ottawa, my son John and I also saw the final changing of the guard on Parliament Hill for the summer of 2018, and while no goats were on display, there were plenty of red coats.   

One doesn’t wish to be overly jingoistic, but in a year where President Trump has been ratcheting up the pressure on us with his trade and tariff threats, and threatening the ruination of Canada, it was very reassuring to see Canadian pageantry - civil, orderly and just a tad understated - on display.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

In the Garden: A Sermon on the Song of Songs

Preached the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018, at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON,Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23; (First Reading) Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; (Semi-continuous First Reading) Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 15; (Second Reading) James 1:17-27 Song of Solomon 2:8-13




The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 


My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." 



Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done before as a priest.  I’m going to preach a sermon on the Song of Solomon, for several reasons.   First, as you may have heard me say a few times, I love theHebrew Scriptures,, which I don’t think we hear preached on enough in the life of the church.    Second, the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs or Canticles (I will just call it “the Song” in this sermon) is one of the strangest and loveliest books of scripture, a love poem which, because of its poetic and even sensual quality, sometimes seems out of place in the bible.


It seems a little random that we are hearing the Song as our first lesson this particular Sunday.  Why is that?    Well, all summer, as we followed one of the tracks of the schedule of readings known as the Lectionary, we have been hearing stories about King David.  Two Sundays ago we heard about David’s death and started to hear about his son and heir, King Solomon.   While he had his faults, scripture celebrates Solomon for his great wisdom, which it describes as the one blessing he asked of God and which God granted him (“I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” 1 Kgs 2:12).


Because of his reputation for wisdom, it was traditionally believed that Solomon was the author of the Book of Proverbs, which we will be hearing some of in September, and of Ecclesiastes.    There was a traditional teaching of the ancient rabbis that Solomon wrote the Song as a young man in love, Proverbs as a mature man who has traded love for wisdom, and Ecclesiastes as an old man, somewhat jaded and well aware of his mortality.    Biblical scholars tend to think that Solomon didn’t write all of these books, and that their actual authorship is much more complex.  However the fact that the Song and Proverbs are attributed to Solomon is certainly one reason why they show up on in the liturgy of the church.


When you read it, you might well be surprised that the Song is even in the Bible, because it doesn’t seem very, well, biblical.    The Song isn’t even a Song, really, but is best described as a kind of play in which there are two characters: the two lovers, the Man and the Woman, and then a group or chorus that comments on what is going on.     It’s not a long book, just eight chapters, so it can read in one sitting, but depending which translation you are reading, it can be difficult to follow.   The voices of the two lovers entwine, like a love duet, with expressions of desire and praise for the other’s beauty.  The Song ends, much like our first reading today, with an expression of desire and a longing to be together:


"Make haste, my beloved,

and be like a gazelle

or a young star

upon the mountains of spices!” (SgS 8:14)


In the rest of this sermon, I would like to focus on three things.   The first is how the Song reminds us of the importance of earthly, human love, something the church has not always been good at understanding.  The second is how the Song describes love not just from the man’s point of view but also from the woman’s point of view, which again is something the church hasn’t been good at.   Finally, I will talk about the importance of nature in the Song and how it connects our human world to the natural world as part of God’s creation.


The Song is, as I said, sensual in parts, even erotic, though the language is highly poetic in the language and images of the day.    As the man and woman praise the beauty of each other’s bodies, there are some passages that wouldn’t make the greatest pickup lines today, as when the man says to the woman “Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies” (Sg 7:2).   That might not go over too well, like the man’s praise that “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1).  On the other hand, verses such as “your kisses [are] like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth”, well, those work just as well now as they did then.  There are times where the Song just crackles with longing.


If you are wondering why the church saw fit to keep this book in the bible, that’s a good question.    For a long time, well into the middle ages, the Song was read spiritually, so that it could be interpreted along the lines of the man being Christ and the woman being the church.   However, the fact that someone would want to read the book this way, as opposed to just taking it literally as a love song, says something about the church’s long and tortured history with human sexuality, which goes right back to the story of how the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin, and which continued for centuries in celebrating chastity as godly and the human body as a source of temptation and evil.   In such a worldview, marriage was a necessary evil, good only for the procreation of children.


The Song reminds us of the artificiality of this dualistic theology which celebrates spirit at the expense of body.   It reminds us that real flesh and blood people lived in biblical times, just as they did today.  It reminds us that human desire is natural, even beautiful, and that our bodies and our sexuality are gifts that are part of God’s creation.   Our own Book of Alternative Services reminds us of this in the marriage liturgy, when it begins by describing marriage as “a gift of God” in which the partners may “know each other with delight and tenderness in acts of love” (BAS 528).   The editors of the Serendipity Bible, designed for small groups in evangelical churches, uses the Song as the basis for a bible study on marriage and intimacy.   The Song reminds us that our faith speaks to all areas of life, and that intimacy, trust, and affection can be part of our lives as Christians.


This realization is made more remarkable because the woman is a full and equal voice in the Song of Songs.   If you heard the sermon that Jenn, our theological student, gave last month on the story of David and Bathsheeba, Jenn noted that Bathsheeba is essentially voiceless and powerless.    She is merely a beautiful object that David wants and gets, however immorally he does so.   In contrast, the woman in the Song is an equal partner in the duet.   She speaks with as much poetry and passion, she relishes her lover’s beauty as much as he does hers, and her longing is just as strong as his:


Awake, O north wind,

and come, O south wind!

Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits.” (Sg 4:16)


The Song reminds us that men and women are equal and full participants in God’s creation.   


The final thing I would point out about the Song is the importance of nature and natural images.   In the passage from our first lesson, the woman describes her lover as being like “a gazelle or a young stag” (2:8) or elsewhere as an “apple tree”.  Likewise the man describes the woman elsewhere as being a “dove”, a “mare”, and the woman describes herself as a “rose of Sharon” and a “lilly of the valleys”.   The entire Song is full of references to animals, and one scholar has counted twenty four plant species.    Biblical scholar Elaine James calls the Song a very green poem, written at a time when humans lived much more closely to the natural world than most people do today.    The Song reminds us that the natural world, which appears to be changing and disappearing at a frightening rate, is part of God’s creation, and reminds us of our obligation as stewards of creation to care for that world.


So while the Song is in many ways a very sensual poem, full of natural images of the earth and of human desire, it is also a very spiritual poem.  The idea of the earth coming back to life - for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone - is also an image of redemption and salvation.   One commentator I read this week noted that today’s passage would be a great scripture reading for a wedding where one or both parties had experienced a divorce or the loss of a spouse.   Likewise, even for those of us for whom the youthful fires of love might have died down a bit, there is in the Song a powerful affirmation of human love as something that is powerful and wonderful.


Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm

For love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave.   

Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. (Sg 8:6)


For those who carry the memory of a love and life well lived, or who nursed and cared for a loved partner through sickness and old age, the Song speaks to them as much as it speaks to young lovers.   The Song of Songs is one of the great gifts of scripture, a reminder that God is with us even in the earthiness of our lives.    The Song of Songs would make a great extended bible study, perhaps one day when I am brave enough to lead it, and some of you are brave enough to join me.




Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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