Sometimes I come across a book by accident that turns out to be more interesting than I expected. Such is the case with Through the Hitler Line: Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), which I picked up in the local library along with some other books. Some of the other books were disappointing. This was not.
The book was written by Laurence F. Wilmot, who served as an Anglican chaplain with the West Nova Scotia Regiment of the First Canadian Infantry Division as it fought its way northward through Italy during World War Two. His book clearly reveals the nature of warfare as seen through the eyes of the soldiers who took part in it. It also reveals attitudes and ideas very true to its time.
Wilmot felt called by God to be a military chaplain. He saw the war as necessary to defeat the evil of Nazism, a goal that he assumed God approved of. But he was no blind patriot. He also recognized that the battle of good and evil was being waged on a personal level in the lives of the men he ministered to. He called the men to whom he preached to personally commit themselves to God in Jesus Christ, recognizing that their lives were in danger, but also, more importantly, that their eternal destiny was at stake. He also showed deep respect for the beliefs of a pacifist stretcher bearer, who chose another path in the conflict and who lost his life while saving others. Wilmot did an admirable job of balancing his various responsibilities.
As an evangelical, I could quibble with Wilmot’s overly strong emphasis on the sacraments and formal church services. He was also a man of his age and his denomination in apparently holding postmillennial views, assuming that human beings could and would bring in the kingdom of God on earth.
But I cannot quibble with Wilmot’s deep devotion to Jesus Christ. I was challenged by his practice of spending up to 90 minutes a day in a personal quiet time with God, praying and reading the Bible. He recognized Christians of other denominations as his brothers, and I have no hesitation in recognizing him as my brother.
The book does a very good job of revealing the struggles that Canadian soldiers experienced in the war. Wilmot helped men dealing with fear and battle fatigue. He recommended compassionate discharges for men who had served for a long time and who had learned of family troubles at home. He offered advice on morale issues to senior officers concerned about the welfare of their men. He counselled atheists, offering the books of C.S. Lewis to those who had intellectual questions. He was awarded a Military Cross for his work with stretcher bearers rescuing wounded soldiers from a minefield at the risk of his own life. His duties included retrieving bodies from the battlefield, laying out cemeteries, burying the dead, conducting funerals, gathering the personal effects of the fallen, and writing letters of condolence to families at home.
The work of Wilmot and his fellow chaplains bore fruit. Over 600 men were received into the membership of various denominations after the chaplains conducted a joint church membership retreat. Some soldiers decided to enter the ministry as a result of the spiritual renewal they experienced during the war. Both of these developments helped set the stage for the rapid and unexpected growth of churches in Canada in the 1950s.
This book also had a personal resonance for me. One of my uncles served in the Italian campaign, although there is no evidence that he ever encountered Wilmot. Another uncle decided to become a Christian minister during his military service in World War Two.
The book is dedicated to the soldiers Wilmot served with, many of whom “gave their lives to rescue from oblivion such civilization as we had been able to achieve.” It is also aptly dedicated “To the glory of God at work in a world of chaos.”