Read the Anglican Journal’s Special Report on the Military Chaplaincy here
In September 1939, 18-year-old Sid Irwin had his bags all packed for divinity school at Bishop’s University. “But when war was declared, I went down and enlisted,” says Irwin, a retired archdeacon of St. James Manotick Anglican Church outside of Ottawa. He joined the first anti-tank regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery and shipped out of Halifax to England in December, dodging the age requirement for overseas service. “We felt it was our duty to stop Hitler.”
Faith and military duty ran in Irwin’s family. His father, who had been badly wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in WW I while fighting with the Black Watch Regiment, became an Anglican priest in Metcalfe, Ont. “We were raised on daily prayers,” says Irwin, now in his 92nd year.
As a young gunner, Irwin got to exercise his artillery skills in several war zones since his regiment was sent wherever needed to act as troops to thicken up defence and attack personnel on the ground. “We
had an abortive trip to Brest just in time for the fall of France, but we also fought in Sicily, North Africa and northwestern Europe,” he says.
In the thick of the tumult, the military chaplains he encountered made a deep impression on the young Irwin. “They were a very strong presence. They were all amazing men,” he recalls. One in particular dominates his recollections. “His name was Eldon Davis. He was a standout. He was fearless as a chaplain and as a man.”
As the Italian campaign dragged on, Irwin felt trapped in the doldrums, so he approached his senior chaplain, Padre Logan-Link, who happed to be a Presbyterian, and asked if there was any way he could
get transferred to the chaplaincy. “I wasn’t qualified and had no idea how I could serve, but I had been taking services and presiding at funerals,” he says. “And the officers would call me in to help deal with casualties and the relatives at home.”
The padre looked at him and wisely said, “I understand your boredom but, Irwin, have you considered how your men would feel if you switched?” So Irwin stayed put as an artilleryman. He never joined the chaplaincy, but the chaplains he met strengthened his resolve to become a priest after the war.
Clarence McFarland, now 85 and a retired forestry technician in Sussex, N.B., joined the militia with the 8th Princess Louise Hussars back in 1942 at age 16. He became a member of the active forces in 1944 with the 17th Duke of York’s Light Armoured Corps, part of the Montreal Royal Canadian Hussars. In the last winter of the war, 19-year-old McFarland arrived in England for field training and recalls an Easter Sunday service led by a Canadian padre in a paratrooper training field. “It was a drumhead service, with the drums piled up to make a makeshift altar, and the paratroopers were being dropped down all around us,” he says.
Later that spring, he arrived in Holland, a country beset by destruction and starvation. “I was amazed at what we hadn’t heard and didn’t know-the children eating out of garbage cans and 1,000 people a day dying of starvation.” In that context, the military chaplains were an essential force. “They came around and talked to us and were there when we needed them,” he says. McFarland continues to be a lay reader at Trinity Anglican Church in Sussex.