Church Parade at the Front
by Stanley Scislowski
Perth Regt, 5th CDN ARMD DIV, 1943-1945
Somewhere in Italy -- Whenever I attend a church service, especially a Remembrance Service, I can't help but let memory take me back to those days so long ago now, during the war, when, as a Private in an infantry regiment, I listened to our Padre conduct church services. Most of the time these Services weren't held within the sanctity of a place of worship beneath soaring vaults, and surrounded by the icons of Roman Catholicism. They were, through circumstance and necessity, held behind the bomb-shattered and the bullet-scarred walls of any building that would serve the purpose. At times, whenever possible and prudent, they were held in the open in a ravine or valley out of sight of the malevolent eyes of the enemy artillery spotters who, we could be sure, would have soon unleashed their hate upon us.
Wherever the service was held, we listened intently to the sermon as delivered by our beloved Padre, Crawford Smith. We were closer to God than we'd ever been, unlike so many services held in Canada and in England when other things were on our young minds. We sang the treasured hymns, amongst them the most treasured of all, 'Abide With Me'. Never had a hymn meant so much to us as it did in those unlikely places of worship. We sang with uncommon reverence, drawing on the power of those moving words to bring forth out of our inner selves whatever courage was there that we needed to ease the rising fear within our hearts. We would need this courage in abundance to face the terrors we knew soon would come.
On this one occasion that memory brings to mind, we stood, crowded upon each other in the battered, draughty and dusty interior of what had once been a commercial building a mile or so from the front line, paying heed to what the Padre had to say. Only a couple of hours earlier we'd been put on notice that at first light the next morning the Regiment would put in an attack on the strongly-held enemy positions in and around the next village down the road. And then the Service came to that part where we sang 'Abide With Me'. The expressions of faith that made up this beautiful hymn crossed my mind, and as we sang, I found myself inserting my own feelings between the lines, feelings that harboured the fear that perhaps I might not be coming back at battle's end.  Now, so many years removed from that worrisome  moment, I can't remember exactly what those thoughts were that my mind inserted between each line of the first stanza, but I think they went something like this, or close to it:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide
God, tomorrow we make our big attack.Take care of me, God, I'm afraid to die
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
The Sergeant says not to worry, everything'll be okay, but I'm still afraid
Help of the helpless, oh abide with me.
God, I don't want to die so young.
And after we'd sung the next two stanzas, I couldn't help but let my mind take me back home, wondering how my mother and family would take it when the telegram came saying I'd been killed in action. At this point, in an unspoken prayer to God, I asked Him: Oh, God, if I should die, give my mother the strength to accept my death with the same courage and strength she has shown me all the days of my life.
These might not have been the exact same words which went through my mind as I sang the hymn and then offered up the short prayer. The originals were probably a lot simpler and less dramatic, but they are more or less of the same sentiment. Whether God did walk with me through the days that followed, leading me through and around the incomparable hell going on all around us, I can't begin to say. It's infinitely beyond my reasoning power to understand the mysteries and miracles of prayer - of how God chooses who should live and whose time it was to go and by what manner his death should come.
Why death for Them and not for me? No answer has ever come.

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