“Enlisted. January 25, 1943.” So begins my grandfather’s wartime diary. Rev. Capt. John E. Bell was a United Church minister and a chaplain in the Second World War. He died before I was born, but I recently had the pleasure of getting to know him through the small, brown leather notebook in which he recorded all of his overseas adventures, from the people he met to the people he buried.
His service took him to England, France and Belgium. He spent most days leading worship and communion services, visiting injured soldiers in the field hospitals, assisting medical staff and doing his best to keep up morale. At its most shocking, my grandfather’s diary describes a visit to Caen, France, on July 25, 1944, less than a week after British and Canadian forces recaptured the city in the hard-fought Normandy campaign.
“I saw pitiful casualties in hospital,” he writes in black fountain-pen ink. “Stretchers soaked with blood, piles of empty plasma bottles at rear of resuscitation tent. Seven bodies in the morgue; some terribly wounded chaps in surgical wards. I’ll never forget the destruction of villages, farm houses, the ruins of Caen.…I was about 4,000 yards behind the lines with heavy shells going over my head.”
The Allied victory in Normandy is considered one of the pivotal events of the Second World War. By the following March, Germany was under attack from all sides and the Nazis’ surrender seemed imminent. My grandfather, meanwhile, was sick with pneumonia in Belgium. “My days of service in a theatre of war are over.…I have done no fighting myself, but I have tried to inspire a lot of lads to quit themselves like men, to put their trust in God, and do all to stand in the evil day, and having done all, still to stand. I go back proud of our fighting Canadian boys. They are second to none.”
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It’s been 80 years since the start of the Second World War. About 1,400 Canadian chaplains served and more than 20 were killed, some while retrieving injured men from the battlegrounds or delivering medical supplies to field hospitals. They entered the fray unarmed, their mission to comfort the injured and the dying.
Reading my grandfather’s diary it suddenly occurred to me that at the time of writing, he wasn’t the old man I’ve seen in family photographs. He was the same age I am now. Like me, he was a spouse and a parent. Given the same circumstances, would I leave my family and risk my life for my country?
Thanks to thousands of Canadians who have stepped forward, I may never have to answer that question. But on Nov. 11, I will pause to remember my grandpa Bell and others who heeded the call, with deep gratitude for their service.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s November 2019 issue with the title “Heeding the call.”
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