Letters are a window into the life or lives of people at a point in time. As an Archivist I see letters not initially intended for my eyes. Often I feel like an intruder into a quiet corner of a person’s life. More often I sense great privilege and pleasure in sharing the experiences of the writer and intended reader. One set of letters that fill me with wonder were written from Palestine and Sinai to family members during WW1.
Alexander McNeur who served as a combatant soldier wrote regularly to all his siblings, parents and future wife. His grim descriptions of water filled trenches, subsiding banks, intense heat, long night marches, air battles, dead comrades, is interspersed with red poppies and butterflies, parcels from home, biblical imagery, renewal of previous friendships, church worship and conversation.
His sheer delight in being in the ‘Holy Land’ is apparent on every page of the letters. “What light it [the land] throws on the Bible and how everything speaks to us of the readings we had in our boyhood…earliest recollections of the old family bible with its pictures are being lived over and again in actual experience.” But to walk in the footsteps of the great biblical figures of Joseph, David, Samson, Joshua and others was beyond his “wildest dreams”.
As he describes his brigade’s activities he parallels their movements and activities with these great figures. “Like Samson we may smite them [Turks] hip & thigh with a great slaughter from Dan to Beersheba (these are the places we will be fighting). Great Scot who would have thought that we would ever do the same things as these old fighters did and I doubt if our machine gun will be more effectual than Samson’s jawbone of an ass.”
Rather then outline one leg of the regiment’s journey he recommends to his brother Dave that he would find it in Genesis 26 where they move from well to well as the Hebrew sojourners of previous times. They finished this tour at Jaffa “where Peter lodged with Simon a tanner”. The door of the house was locked, he explained, “so [they] did not meet with the reception that the servants of Cornelius did.”
McNeur paints for us the ambiguity of war. “I am keeping the feast of the Tabernacles in a booth made of heath just beside my bomb proof shelter. These are the sort of things [booths] the children of Israel camped [in] during their wilderness days.” On one hand he describes a battle in detail and within the same sentence marvel at the beauty of valley and at the sumptuous feast of oranges they ate between firing. The attraction of war startled him – the night marches being hidden by day, the final lines of battle drawn and the sense of triumph as they galloped into action. Only when the battles concluded did the dilemma of war surface. “After the excitement of the fight comes the sense of the awfulness of it all, the cruelty, hellishness … and if this war does nothing else it ought to teach men the folly of battle as a means of settling disputes.”
Although not officially a Chaplain McNeur was called upon regularly to take services and lead Bible Classes. Prior to enlisting he completed his studies at the Theological Hall, Knox College. Concerned at the beginning that he had little material to aid him he relied on their shared experiences. A year later he wrote “what a grip a talk has on the men when you can tell them how He [Jesus] passed just this way.”
In what would have been one of his last letters, McNeur reflected on his war experience. “Everything [about life] had been readjusted… and out of it all the Lord delivered us.” With some trepidation he looked forward to his return concerned at meeting up with families of those not returning. “To their mothers we can say little of comfort; yet every dusk of spray has its rainbow.”
One year after his return Alexander McNeur was ordained into Central Ridges Parish and that is another fascinating chapter in his life.