A Newfoundland chaplain in the First World War
Newfoundlander George Whitefield Ridout may not be well known today. However, during the First Word War, he served as chaplain with the 38th Regiment in France.
Ridout was born in St. John’s in 1870. As a young man, he went to Boston, Massachusetts, and was educated at Temple University. He served as professor of theology at Upland, Indiana.
Following the war, he accepted the chair of theology at Asbury College, where he remained until 1927. He then entered religious work and travelled extensively in Japan, China, India, Africa and South America. He was a member of the British Philosophic Society and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. He died in 1954.
Ridout wrote several books, including “The Cross and Flag: Experiences in the Great World War.” He wrote it, he says, “because of what the cross means to me as a Christian, and what the f lag means to me as an American.”
Published in 1919, so soon after the end of the war, it reads with a keen sense of immediacy.
“While on our way to the front,” he writes, “the Germans were putting across another great offensive and Paris was once again put in great danger. Once our train was diverted and word came to us that we had to go to the defense of Paris. Once, while the train was held for further orders, word was passed on to the troops that we may have to go into action at once. War was coming very close to us now. But the enemy was held, and instead of going to Paris we were ordered on toward Chateau- Thierry.
“We derailed at Conde, and that evening the distant hills were covered with the smoke of bursting shells and burning villages and towns. Just think, France lost 240,000 houses during the war. Conde was now being emptied of its inhabitants because of shellfire. Evidences were on every hand visible of the awfulness of war. Bombers had done some deadly work there.
“That night I slept under fire for the first time. Our battalion was located in the woods of a fine old chateau. We slept on the ground, but though we could hear the roar of distant artillery all night, no harm befell us and I had my first night’s rest under fire without any mishap or losing any sleep.
“The next morning all was hurry and congestion. The roads were lined with all kinds of traffic. The French and American troops were together. I ate my breakfast with a ‘merchant’ YMCA from St. Louis. Our ‘table’ was a fence railing, but we ate our bacon and hard tack and drank our coffee with a relish.
“We hiked that day towards Chezy, just over from Chateau-thierry, and I remember so well my first sight of the enemy observation balloon. Away over about five miles distant, perhaps, there it was.
“Lieutenant Cramer said to us: ‘Men, you must keep out of sight. See over there is the enemy. You must not be walking about where you can be observed or we will have some shelling.’
“I recall several things about this day’s hike. It was a warm day and the boys had heavy packs to carry. We halted at a certain point where there was a farmhouse by the side of the road. The boys went in quest of water to fill their canteens, when an old lady with a sweet, motherly face came out with a big pail of water and two glasses and she took such delight in giving those thirsty boys drink.
“When night came on and it was a question as to where we should sleep, the officers went into the town and were given beds in the houses now vacated by their owners. I was given possession of a whole house. I was expecting some of the officers to put up with me, but they got fixed up somewhere, so I was given this elegant house as mine.
“I thought much of the melancholy aspects of war as I viewed this beautiful house left by its aged owner in the care of a French major and of his turning it over to us of the American army for the officers’ use. Here is a home having all the evidences of wealth, refinement, education and religion. Upon the door is a religious emblem bearing the words: ‘Car Jesu sacratissimum misserere nobis’ ( Latin, Most sacred heart of Jesus, have mercy on us)...”
There is much more, but space is limited.
Lest we forget.