He was the padre who babbled poetry and ate potatoes out of his hat, but the First Division still remembers him as a hero who deserved a halo
I’VE HEARD men say he couldn't preach for sour apples; that as an entertainer at soldiers’ concerts behind the lines in France and Flanders he was, to quote an infantry corporal, “about as funny as a crutch.” And as for the poetry he seemed to be everlastingly turning out and wanting to inflict on men who would have found difficulty in scanning the metre of “Mademoiselle from Armentières”—well, the best that many of us could say was that the old canon meant well.
In those grim years of 1914-1918, Canon Scott, with his odd mannerisms of walk and gesture, his seeming frailty and an age that should have prohibited him from active service, looked incongruous in the trenches. With his weakness for jokes which might have seemed funny to schoolboys but which, had anyone else attempted them, would have been termed pretty feeble—with appropriate military adjectives— he could have been rated by older men as a bore.
And yet, then, and increasingly so as we view him from the perspective of maturity, there are thousands of Canadian War veterans who, when they think of Canon Frederick George Scott, senior chaplain of the First Canadian Division, are positive they have seen and been touched by the personality of a man whose indomitable spirit has inherited the stuff of which saints and martyrs are made.
Even then all who knew him respected him. Most of us loved him. Today, as another Armistice Day comes to the zero hour, and as the thinning lines of Great War veterans close ranks, we endow him with a halo. But as we do it we smile—for we know the canon would wear even a halo at a rakish angle. He is the sort of man who would make such a symbol of saintliness seem a homely and warmly human thing.
Secret of His Power
LOOKING back at those war-ravaged years, many First J Canadian Division men ask themselves wherein lay the profound yet elusive appeal of this artless old man—for even then he was old enough to have been the father of most of us. We admit he could contrive bits of harmless horseplay and quips to make us laugh and forget our troubles; but Red Newman and a score of others could do that, and do it vastly better. We liked his friendly informality, but there were others in officers’ uniforms who, when opportunity arose, could also treat us as something more than a number on an identity disc. Nor was it that we didn’t have other chaplains who, in their own ways, merited our respect. Athletic parsons, jovial parsons, ohso-earnest parsons—the brigades were well supplied with all of these.
What then was this magic by means of which that unimpressive old man overcame the barriers of indifference, even of hostility, toward the values in life for which he stood? For even during the War, most of us sensed pretty accurately the life purpose which actuated his heroism, his humanity, his unbelievable endurance. Scanning the letters from Canadian veterans which have made this article possible, it becomes apparent, either directly or by implication, that it was in his rarely voiced but unalterable conviction that every last man of us was infinitely worth while.
For to Canon Scott we were never those impersonal creatures known as “other ranks.” We were never condescendingly referred to by him as a “fine body of men.” Somehow, for him regimental numbers didn’t exist. We
were Jack-, with a wife and kids waiting in the far-off Peace River country; or harum-scarum Bill-, with an anxious mother in Vancouver; or Tommy-, of Woodstock, N.B., whose sister would be hoping for a letter.
Of course it was far from him to parade this all-embracing concern over our personal lives. In fact, he took highly elaborate precautions to hide the fact. We suspect that most of his extravagant jesting was camouflage to hide his solicitude concerning us. For we soldiers in our twenties fancied ourselves pretty tough customers in those days. The grim history of assault and defense along the Western Front had proved to friend and foe alike that the Canadian Corps was just about as hard-boiled an organization as any along either side of No Man’s Land. So obviously, even had he wanted to try it, the sob stuff was definitely out.
And yet, for Canon Scott, the truth that “he who lives a thousand lives, a thousand deaths must die,” was unescapable. No man knows, but some of us can guess, the travail of this gentle man as he trudged communication and front-line trenches and kept company with his thoughts. At night, in the eerie light of star shells, and under the brutish thud of trench mortars and the whip and snap of machine-gun fire, he went his never-ceasing way. What did he think of the stark tragedy, the grim enigma of mankind, as he hourly shared it with the boys he loved? What doubts, what torture of soul, came to this ambassador of the Prince of Peace as he plodded a tom countryside where many of the values he cherished were lying trampled in the mud of France and Flanders? All this no human will ever know, but we can wonder—and our wonder is tinged with reverence and awre.
A man so sensitive, but without some inwardly fortifying power, could never have borne the tragedy and suffering he shared vicariously. And yet the strange, the all but
incredible, part of it was that while he did care—cared tremendously—he could still make every day a victory.
“Look After These Boys”
NO PERSONAL exj>erience of a Canadian veteran better illustrates Canon Scott's passionate but carefully guarded concern for the men entrusted to his spiritual charge than does this account from a former member of a first brigade unit.
“It was one night in Arras, early in 1918, that I really got on the inside track with the canon,” this veteran writes. * “Some time after midnight he came down into the cellars ■where we were lying after coming in from a working party. The old bunch had suffered heavy casualties recently, and most of the new draft were not much more than kids. Canon Scott talked and joked with them for perhaps half an hour, every now and then trying to get a rise out of me. But I didn’t feel much like joking that night. I felt all in, sort of lonely.
“After a while the old boy gets up and says he’s on his way to our number two company, and being that I’m an old hand and know the layout, he wants me to guide him there. I was tired and sort of grumpy, but I put on my puttees and tin hat, and away we went.
“The odd thing was that, once outside in the square, he seemed to forget all about wanting to find that other company. He starts walking me up and down, describing the architecture of the old buildings—or what was left of them. I remember him giving me a long song and dance about how the Moorish influence was shown in the shape of the arches over the doorw ays. Then he began peddling me a line about how the old knights must have clattered through this very square on their way to the Crusades. It was a misty night and moonlight, and I dare say he painted quite a pretty picture of those old days. But Fritz
was slamming the odd heavy into the square, and all this fanciful stuff left me cold.
“Then pretty soon his manner changed. I le’s been walking me up and down, arm in arm. but now he gets his long arm across my shoulders. He’s holding me pretty tight. Then he begins talking about the kids in this new draft.
“ ‘You’re one of the older fellows in the company now,’ he said. ‘Look after these lx>ys. They are only boys, you know.’ He describes their homes, the farms or small towns they might have come from, and the folks back there who thought the world of them. 1 can feel his hand that’s gripping my shoulders sort of tremble with the intensity of his emotion. He wasn’t glib. Don’t think what he had to say came easy to him.
“ ‘They’re good boys wonderful boys. Set them an example. Fry and keep them straight.’ He might have been my own father, or my mother, more like. ‘You will, won’t you? Ah, 1 know you will.’
“By now' 1 couldn't trust myself to S[x*ak. and I don’t think he could either. So he gives me a quick, strong hug, and the next thing I know he’s hurrying away in the grey moonlight and I’m headed back to that crummy cellar with plenty to think about.”
The following morning it would have been possible to have seen this grand old crusader of a more modem day in quite another of his many roles. With his twinkling eyes and the lean face of a Shakespearean actor, he was the centre of an amused group of khaki-clad figures on a street comer of war-battered Arras, and could easily have been mistaken for nothing more than a jovial and pleasantly ineffectual old gentleman.
For somehow the canon had a way of drawing people to him. One recollection persists of the old man waylaying a big artillery gunner en route from one estaminet to another in drab Bruay, while the latter, with thirst enough for an entire battery, had to stand for twenty minute and listen to the canon reciting his own poetry.
Those who saw it remember the scene as the perfect dramatization of that verse from “The Ancient Mariner,” which goes:
"He holds him with his glittering eye—
The wedding guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child.
The mariner hath his will.”
There stood the gunner, embarrassed, half resentful, his legs spread, his hat over one ear, burning with desire to consume yet another café royal or tin blanc with an abandon which must certainly lead to a clash with the military police. And there stood the canon, holding him with a friendly if not a glittering eye. as he recited choice bits about birds and bees and flowers. Observers across the street noted the gunner’s false starts, the gulps, the excuses for hasty flight which somehow failed to register with the lanky chaplain. Then
they saw the old man draw the now subdued gunner into a near-by café and stand treat for a rousing round of—café au lait!
THE following letter, contributed by an original member of the 16th Canadian Scottish now living in Hamilton, Ontario, testifies to the affection for the old chaplain which will endure as long as former wearers of the old Red Patch live to put it into words. The writer, only a youth at the time the first Canadians made history at the second battle of Ypres, relates impressions that obviously have influenced his attitude to life for twenty-three years, and for him Canon Scott “will always he a hero.”
“I was a member of No. 3 company, 16th Canadian Scottish,” this Canadian writes, “and when the second battle of Ypres started we were out of the trenches for a rest and were billeted just outside the town. When Fritz used the gas, we were
told to fall in and were held ready for action. Orders came just at dusk to move up toward St. Julien, and while we were proceeding along the road amid confusion, other troops, artillery, etc., were passing us on the run. Just as a battery was passing us—it was now pitch dark—one of their drivers called out, ‘Where are we going? Does anybody know?’ And Canon Scott, who was walking beside me at the time, replied: ‘That depends on what kind of a life you have led, m’boy.’
“Later that night, we were joined by the 10th battalion and were formed up for an attack on the Pilken Woods, and Canon Scott was still with us, armed only with a walking stick. When I remarked about it to him, he replied that he didn’t need a gun as he wasn’t going to shoot anybody, but was going to help those who were shot. No amount of coaxing could persuade him to go back. He insisted that God would take care of him. Just before we made our attack on the woods a shell dropped among us and three of our boys were wounded. We left Canon Scott to look after them, and that was the last time I saw him until I returned to Canada.
“I will always be proud of the fact that I knew Canon Scott. To me he was a fearless, God-fearing man, ready to do his job as he saw it, no matter what the cost. To me he will always be a hero. I was just eighteen years old at that time, and an opinion formed at that age, and under those circumstances, will be hard to change.”
Canon Scott was indeed fearless, and it was not the fearlessness of the unimaginative man. He knew fear, but obviously he had conquered it, not by some grim effort of the will, but by putting something greatly creative in its place.
Recalling the Somme offensive of 1916, a stretcher-bearer writes:
“We had been held up on one of our return trips to the dressing station by overhead shrapnel and cross machine-gun fire. We took temporary shelter in an old German trench, and were crouching pretty low when we heard somebody shouting from the top of the trench. There was our old friend, the canon, half of one side pocket shot away, his tin hat on sideways, stick in hand and covered with mud from head to foot.
“We followed him without a word. As we went along with the shrapnel flying thick as ever, we heard him shouting, ‘It’s all right, boys. They won’t get us because God is with us.’ We got in without a scratch, and got all out in quick time.”
An Outstanding Incident
TT’S ALL right.” With Canon Scott, if
the motive was right, nothing seemingly could matter. His courage was never of the showy kind, and since, presumably, predestination was not among the tenets of his denominational inheritance, many men used to wonder what prompted him to take what seemed like needless chances. Didn’t he care if he got killed? Or did he actually believe that so long as his boys needed him, nothing could harm him? More than once these questions were debated in dugout and billet.
An experience related by a corporal of a First Division unit certainly does nothing to solve them. For in this instance, so far as the canon knew, he was out of sight of human eyes. There was none to be strengthened by his indifference to danger. Nor was he on duty bound. And yet, with all the serenity of a philosopher walking in his cloistered garden in the cool of the evening, he was seen to stroll into the very jaws of death and emerge, unruffled and half smiling, without a scratch.
As the corporal recalls that evening in the line on the Avion front, he and his officer were en route to the front line from battalion headquarters. There was no particular hurry, and when the pair found that German Minnerwerfers were strafing the communication trench, the officer halted, produced cigarettes and, leaning against the trench wall, waited for the strafe to end.
"The minnies were whamming down at the rate of one or two every half minute," this N. C. 0. recalls. "Every so often Heinie scored a direct hit and chunks of the trench went skyward. Chancing to look ahead, we saw a lanky figure strolling through the clouds of smoke and dust just where a pair of minnies had bracketed the trench a few minutes before. The old fel low seemed only mildly interested in what was happening around him. Every time a minnie crashed he would look around with nothing more than what you might call a mild academic interest. I know if I'd had to go through that fire, I'd have run like a jack rabbit. "Th~n w~' noticed he was carrvin~ his
“Then we noticed he was carrying his shrapnel helmet slung over his arm like a market basket, and every so often he’d pick something out of it and munch it in a preoccupied sort of way. It was the weirdest exhibition of indifference to sudden death I’d ever seen.
"Yes, it was the old canon right enough. And it was cold French-fried potatoes he was eating out of his hat. He smiled, a bit embarrassed that anyone had seen him. But as usual he had his joke ready.
“ ‘Have you heard the news, boys?’ he asked. ‘Allenby has taken Jerusalem and I’m to be town major!’ ”
Y riting from Scotland, another former N. C. O. of the First Canadian Division pays this bluff tribute:
“I remember a sad incident at Poziers on the Somme in 1916 when the canon organized a stretcher party to bring in the body of his son (I may be wrong here but it was a relative) from No Man’s Land. When Fritz spotted the party he opened up, so the canon sent the party back to the trench for cover. He found a shovel, dug the grave and buried the lad, then read the burial service and finished by erecting a cross. I heard he received the D. S. O. for this.
“I don’t think that many of us were bothered by an overdose of Christianity in those days, but if any man could convert a hard citizen it was the canon, and I’ll bet he converted quite a few. To this day I raise my hat to him, and if the Church had a few more like him, who weren’t afraid to mix with the ‘scruff,’ then the Church would have a bigger following.”
T-TUNDREDS of old First Division men of all ranks could relate similar examples of Canon Scott’s invincible courage, but of his many acts, few equal the sublime self-sacrifice of the following:
On the historic night after Vimy fell to the Canadians, a runner who had gone forward with the third wave that morning, came upon Canon Scott dealing with a situation which to him must have been harrowing beyond all telling. But with that same passionate concern for the individual, he was attempting to do something which for unselfish courage and sheer endurance means more to the man who saw it than does the Vimy Memorial which, like most of those who took the ridge, he has never seen.
April 9, 1917, had been a cold, raw day with intermittent rain and snow squalls. After dark the runner was working his way back from the final objective toward brigade headquarters. Weeks of heavy shelling had churned up the sticky, chalklike mud, and a day of rain and melting snow had made the going worse. Close to the Nine Elms he heard someone calling through the darkness. It was Canon Scott.
Even then the old man was staggering as he supported a husky young private of the-til battalion.
“I must get this poor boy back to his company before he’s missed,” the old man panted.
The puzzled runner informed the canon that this particular company was dug in almost a mile away, ahead and to the left. In the darkness, shell holes and remnants of German barb wire made it seem sheer madness to attempt the trip with such a load.
“He’s a good boy; such a good boy,” the canon pleaded. “He was lying in a shell hole. They mustn’t miss him. He’d found a rum jar somewhere. He doesn’t understand what this will mean if they find out. He’s got to lie with his company by daylight.”
The runner, with a message to deliver, was unable to lend a hand. The boy was helpless, and the canon on the verge of collapse. Yet he had to stand there and watch the old man stumble away into the darkness with his—to him—precious load.
As the runner plodded on, he too came to realize the unquenchable love, the sublime qualities of this truly great man.
Is it any wonder that when Canadian veterans get together and the talk turns, as it so often does, to the qualities of “the canon,” a man here and there, remembering, finds himself with a strange lump in his throat and getting just a little moist around the eyes?