"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Battle of Ortona

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We’re approaching the annual marking of the Battle of Ortona and the Moro Valley (December 21 I think). I knew a bit about the Hastings and Prince Edward Island Regiment’s history (mostly through Farley Mowat’s books, “The Regiment” AND “My Father’s Son”). I didn’t really read the history of that series of engagements until I was preparing to preach on the day of the commemoration in All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton. I was the associate curate (I think, church titles still confuse me) and as the token military guy on staff I got tasked to preach when the Loyal Edmonton Regiment came to call.

As a funny side-note, my boss told me the only limit on the event was that he would not permit the Regiment in the cathedral with ‘weapons’. For the commemoration day, the Regiment would march with it’s colours, and as is proper by tradition, the colours would be guarded. That usually means the colour party, but also a guard (quarter or otherwise). In the past the unit had brought rifles into the church proper, which is, in reality, a breach in tradition. When the colours pass onto consecrated ground, the church assumes responsibility for the protection. That’s subtle point that’s not really known any more (and military units hold churching parades much less frequently than in history). When I spoke with the RSM, he understood. In the end they left the rifles outside, but the colour party (I noted) all had swords. I was probably the only one who noticed, but I laughed to myself. It was a good one to put over the church on behalf of my fellow soldiers…

I preached a sermon, “Remembering Ortona – a West Canadian town” that day that attempted to mix the history with the call of the Christian.  It was in many ways the start of my quest to study the tension between soldiering and ‘Christianing’ (so to speak).  It might also have been the start of my time as a military chaplain, which was ultimately not to be.  That’s another story, but the vocational ‘NO’ that came back on that question was pretty clear, and left me in a bit of a mess.  My time in uniform was at an end in spades, but it was a real pleasure to honour the Loyal Eddies that day in December.

That sermon would make followers of the Anabaptist tradition of pacifism very unhappy.  I drew a parallel between the blood purchase of the world by Christ through Mary with the blood purchase of Ortona by the Canadians – something inspired by Rupert Brooke’s poem:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

It’s an idea that is offensive to a high degree to some of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  That was the image I was led to through my prayerful development of the sermon…the ideas aren’t usually mine, but gifts that come when the writing task is before me.  That’s the grace of God in the sermon-writing task.  It leaves me wondering if perhaps sometimes the goal of a sermon is to offend?

At a public talk today, this poem was brought up, and I was delighted to see the author was with the Hasty P’s – not so delighted to see he had died in Ortona at the age of 33.

Prayer before Battle 

By Major Alex Campbell

When ‘neath the rumble of the guns,
I lead my men against the Huns,
‘Tis then I feel so all alone and weak and scared,
And oft I wonder how I dared,
Accept the task of leading men.

I wonder, worry, fret, and then I pray,
Oh God! Who promised oft
To humble men a listening ear,
Now in my spirit’s troubled state,
Draw near, dear God, draw near, draw near.

Make me more willing to obey,
Help me to merit my command,
And if this be my fatal day,
Reach out, Oh God, Thy Guiding Hand,
And lead me down that deep, dark vale.

These men of mine must never know
How much afraid I really am,
Help me to lead them in the fight
So they will say, “He was a man”.

This prayer was written by Major Alex Campbell, during a lull in battle.  Major Campbell was O.C. of “A” Company, Hastings & Prince Edward Regiment. He was killed in action on December 25, 1943 at The Battle of Ortona in Italy.

Reading the poem, I’m pretty sure that it will inspire a similar response in some (as my sermon).  That a commander’s main concern before battle circles around one idea – don’t let me screw up!  That awful, horrific undertaken of humankind that we call war, and his first concern is a blessing on his task to lead men.

One thing I’ve realized is that there are diametrically opposed world views in collision around this topic, and much need for understanding and acceptance of opposing positions that we find distasteful.  What I will say as a soldier, is that I understand Campbell’s prayer exactly, and prayed similar ones myself many times.  I wasn’t under the stress of leading soldiers in combat, but that burden of leadership is almost independent of context, if differing in intensity.

My main concern was to lead effectively, so that one of our jets wouldn’t carry one of our pilots into a smoking hole in the ground.  My best was to enable people to do their best, because that’s the least we could do for those who fly.  With thanks to God, my three years on Squadron as chief engineer were free of Cat A, B, C or D accidents.

That was a stark contrast to my first three years of commissioned time on Squadron, as a junior engineer, that involved two crashes and deaths of pilots (Hollis Tucker and Rich Corver).  I wonder now how my boss, the chief engineer at the time, dealt with that (even though neither crash was due to maintenance malpractice).

I’m forever grateful to that same boss for working to form me in the tradition of soldiering, and I still remember the day when he told me that ‘rules were for the guidance of wisemen, and the direction of fools.’  Words to live by, and a reminder that the main task before a soldier is to use the available materials to achieve the mission – to ‘adapt and overcome’ as Gunny Highway said in Clint Eastwood’s role.


Written by sameo416

November 22, 2014 at 9:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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