On April 8, 1917, Canon Frederick George Scott was preparing a service of Holy Communion to celebrate Easter Sunday in a YMCA hut in the French town of Ecoivres. The floor of the hut was covered with sleeping soldiers from the 1st Canadian Division, and it was with difficulty that he cleared enough space to set up an altar.
Attendance at the two morning services was modest. The soldiers of the Canadian Corps were enjoying their last day of rest before heading up the line to engage in final preparation for a long-planned assault on an escarpment overlooking the Douai Plain, not far from the village of Vimy.
“We could not do much in the way of observing the great feast,” Scott recalled years later in his 1922 memoir, The Great War As I Saw It.
“It was a time of mingled anxiety and exhilaration. What did the next twenty-four hours hold in store for us? Was it to be a true Easter for the world, and a resurrection to a new and better life?”
Scott, a 56-year-old Anglican priest and poet from Quebec City, had arrived in France with the first battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in early 1915. He had survived the Second Battle of Ypres, and later, the bloodbath at the Somme.
But the war had taken a personal toll: he had said the funeral liturgy for his own son, Captain Henry Hutton Scott, only a few months before celebrating communion at Ecoivres. Henry had been cut down by a German machine gunner during the Battle of the Ancre Heights. As Scott prayed over the stretch of mud in which his son had been buried, sniper bullets whistled around him.
Still, he believed in the cause of the war. As he saw it, “The fate of civilization was at stake.”
During his years on the front, Scott had gained a reputation among the troops and officers of the 1st Canadian Division for being a brave and good-natured man of God.
Chaplains, at that time, were expected to stay well back from the action, near the field hospitals. But Scott made a habit of spending his time with the men on the front lines, giving last rites to the dying. He often courted death to be with the soldiers, whom he saw as “his boys.” Though he was commissioned as a major, he frequently went in the trenches wearing a private’s uniform with his clerical collar so as to mingle with the men more freely.
And so, true to form, Scott rose at 4 a.m. April 9, and made his way through the village of Ecoivres to a hill facing Vimy Ridge. In the darkness before sunrise, he watched the luminescent minute hand on his wristwatch tick closer and closer to 5:30. The dawn light had just begun to spill over the land when the half-hour struck and every single one of the Canadian Corps’ field guns opened fire on the German defences. The Battle of Vimy Ridge had begun.
In the 100 years since, the events of April 9 have taken on a mythic quality for many Canadians.
Never before had all four divisions of the Canadian Corps served together, and the operation was a model of strategic level-headedness in a war marked by crude, outdated tactics that often led to a shocking loss of life. Canadian troops gained a reputation for being methodical, disciplined and tough, one that caused them to be given an increasingly important role among Allied forces in the last 18 months of the war.
And yet it came at a cost. More than 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. It was the most devastating loss of life Canada was to suffer in a single day in the whole war.
In his memoir, Scott paints a stark picture of the scene of the battle: following in the footsteps of the Canadian advance, he describes a shattered landscape that “looked as if a volcanic upheaval had broken the crust of the earth.”
But for Scott, an ardent supporter of the British Empire who believed deeply in the justness of its cause, the battle was also a moment of unparalleled glory.
“In spite of the numbers of wounded and dying men which I had seen,” he wrote, “the victory was such a complete and splendid one that April 9th, 1917, was one of the happiest days in my life.”
One hundred years later, this kind of jingoism is somewhat muted in the official commemorations of the battle.
A prayer written by Scott’s spiritual successor, Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces Guy Chapdelaine, emphasizes the tragic dimension of war, rather than the glory of the victory.
The prayer, which will be offered as part of the official remembrance ceremonies at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, blesses the fallen and remembers those who returned “changed forever by what they had seen and done, those who lost limbs, sight, hearing or reason; those who for years would keep silent, never sharing with family or friends the horrors they faced.”
When asked about the significance of Vimy Ridge and Scott’s work as a chaplain, (ret.) Bishop Peter Coffin, former Anglican Bishop Ordinary to the Canadian Armed Forces, is likewise skeptical of the mythology that has been built up around the battle.
“Vimy has been touted as [the occasion or moment] when we became a nation…I think that part is nonsense. But it certainly helped shape our nation,” he said in an interview with the Anglican Journal.
Of greater interest to Coffin is the impact Scott had on the chaplaincy, and his ultimately frustrated attempts to bring home to Canada some of the lessons he learned on the battlefields of Europe.
At the beginning of the war, chaplains were viewed as being little more than organizers of recreation, according to Coffin. Scott believed it was the duty of the chaplain to share the hardships and dangers of the war with the men, and he made sure the chaplains under his charge were present wherever the soldiers were—even when this meant disregarding direct orders from his superiors.
Later, when the war was drawing to a close, Scott was one of a group of Anglican chaplains who attempted to circulate a letter to the Anglican Church of Canada highlighting some of the ways they thought the church should change, based on their experience working with soldiers.
These changes involved everything from updating the prayer book to fostering greater ecumenical co-operation, from committing to work on social justice issues and care and support for veterans returning home.
“Out of their experience of war, chaplains tried to turn the church around, back home,” said Coffin. “The message to the church [was]…‘We have fought for a new dominion, so our country needs to act like the kingdom of God.’”
The House of Bishops was less than enthusiastic about this, however, and they refused to allow the chaplains to circulate the letter. The chaplaincy was dissolved after the war, not to be resurrected until the Second World War, at which point it became a permanent feature of the Canadian Forces.
Scott, however, did not see his responsibility to the men he served with ending at the armistice. In 1919, he travelled to Manitoba to stand in solidarity with the Winnipeg General Strike, behind which some returning veterans had thrown their support.
“His feeling was, ‘I looked after these boys overseas, so it is really important that I make sure they get a fair deal when they come home,’ ” said Coffin.
Ultimately, Scott was arrested by the Militia District Commander and sent back to Quebec City, where he continued to serve as priest at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church and write poetry until his death in 1944.
Scott could not have imagined on that long-gone Easter Sunday morning how Canada would change in the coming century, and it is likely he would find many things about the modern nation unrecognizable. But the mark he left on the chaplaincy endures, and in the years since his death, many of the causes he championed—from prayer book reform to greater ecumenical co-operation—have been adopted by the church he loved.