Faith Under Fire
Fredrick G. Scott, Canada’s Extraordinary Chaplain of the Great War
By Alan Hustak
Véhicule Press, 2014
American historian David A. Bell once cautioned that “few subjects are more dangerous than war to discuss in a dry, abstract manner, without a sense of the human costs involved-without hearing the screams, seeing the bodies, and smelling the powder and the blood.” Faith Under Fire, journalist Alan Hustak’s unflinching account of Canadian Canon Frederick G. Scott’s frontline chaplaincy during the First World War, takes this caution to heart; its pages are replete with eyewitness tales of the horror of the war that was to end all wars.
Faith Under Fire is particularly notable because of the unique perspective and circumstances of Scott himself. Throughout Hustak’s narrative, Scott is revealed as a steadfast Anglo-Catholic, possessed of a love of poetry and a disarmingly self-deprecating sense of humour. (On more than one occasion over the course of his wartime chaplaincy, Scott suggested misbehaving soldiers be made to sit through the recitation of his poetry as punishment for their misdeeds.) The father of six children-three of whom would serve with him in the war, one of whom would not live to see the end of it-Scott maintained an unswerving loyalty both to Canada, the country of his birth, and the British Empire, of which it was a part. Scott, says Hustak, “was a product of his times…in which military conquest in the Queen’s name was equal to spiritual conquest in Christ’s name.” It was this belief in the right and righteousness of the British Empire, combined with a genuine conviction that it was his Christian duty to offer comfort and encouragement to the troops, that propelled Scott to volunteer as a chaplain in the Canadian Forces at the age of 53 in 1914.
Hustak is especially skilled at presenting Scott’s story free from the critique or judgment often made easily available by hindsight. In this way, the reader is able to form their own opinion of Scott’s actions as a husband, father, patriot and decorated military chaplain. It behooves us all to remember that war is not always simply the product of evil-minded individuals, but of the mistakes and misjudgments of otherwise good men and women. The impression of Scott created by Faith Under Fire is that of an admirable, courageous and thoroughly decent man who served his country and his fellow soldiers with dignity and grace, but a man whose mindset prior to the war nonetheless exemplified exactly the type of thinking that led to that catastrophic conflict in the first place.
Scott’s firsthand experience of the carnage of war left him a changed man. Says Hustak: “It made him sensitive to disability, injustice, poverty, and grief, and it made him angry.” Where once Scott had viewed war as a righteous crucible through which a nation’s true mettle might be revealed, he now “denounced the monstrous futility of war as a test of national greatness.” But on returning home to Canada, Scott did not lose the faith or idealism that had once propelled his bellicose patriotism. Instead, he channelled it into tireless support of veterans, workers-one of his sons, F.R. Scott, would go on to help found the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – and various other causes of social justice.
In this, Faith Under Fire and the life of Frederick G. Scott serves to remind us of the good of which people are capable, even after having experienced such inhumanity. It also offers a poignant warning of just how easy it can be for those same people to contribute to that inhumanity in service of entrenched and unquestioned beliefs-a lesson that we can ill afford to forget.