Through the Hitler Line
Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain
Hardcover 248 pp.
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Paper 248 pp.
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Laurence Wilmot’s Second World War memoir is a rare thing: a first-hand account of front-line battle by an army officer who is a resolute non-combatant. And it is paradoxes such as this that also make Wilmot’s book a unique and compelling document. Wilmot, as an Anglican chaplain, is a priest dressed as a warrior, a man of peace in battle fatigues. He is an incongruous figure in a theatre of war, always vigilant for opportunities to partake of silent meditation and prayer, never failing to lose sight of the larger moral issues of the war. His compassion is boundless, his sensitivity acute, and one senses his mounting emotional and spiritual enervation as the death toll of his fellow serving men steadily mounts. At the centre of the book is Wilmot’s witness of the murderous battle at the Arielli.
Wilmot’s compassion for the fighting men compels him to leave the safety of his ministry and join them at the front, at great personal risk. There, as an unarmed stretcher-bearer, he is kept busy transporting the wounded under enemy fire. In this crucible of battle we see the qualities that attest to Wilmot’s character and contribute to his memoir’s importance: an indefatigable devotion to his duty to save and comfort the wounded, and a resolve to resist despair in spite of the terrible carnage all around. In short, a singular triumph of the decency of one man in the midst of total war.
Laurence F. Wilmot, M.C., was Warden Emeritus of St. John’s College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. During a pre-engineering year at university, he decided to train for the ministry. He served as a chaplain in the Canadian army from 1942-45, and was in Italy during the 1944-45 campaign. He was awarded the Military Cross in August 1944 and has received honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees from Trinity College, Toronto, and St. John’s College, Winnipeg. Laurence Wilmot passed away in December 2003 at the age of 96.
“In his book Through the Hitler Line: Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain, Laurence Wilmot admitted a chaplain’s role could sometimes be confusing. At first he felt ‘the military considered clergy...an unnecessary nusiance and interference’ in the middle of battle. The padres, he said, proclaimed the peace of God to men sworn to war. Like most padres, Wilmot created a role for himself assisting the medics, retrieving casualties on stretchers from the battlefields, caring for the dead and their personal effects, writing to families, providing comfort and aid to soldiers regardless of their faith. Wilmot was one of many padres decorated for bravery.”
— Valerie Hill, The Record (Kitchener-Waterloo)
“Wilmot’s memoir is a story of remarkable faith, discipline, and determination....[which] allows us a detailed and honest view into regimental life...[and] also [provides] a valuable study in military leadership....In the end this work is a powerful testament of faith. In our more secular world, it seems jarring to read how Wilmot, amid the carnage, continued his daily ritual of prayer, meditation, and Bible study. But his clear, honest prose reflects a moral certainty that is very moving. Few wartime memoirs are better.”
— Geoffrey Hayes, University of Toronto Quarterly—Letters in Canada 2003
“A remarkable and unique view of war from a non-combatant.”
— Wesley C. Gustavson, University of Western Ontario, Canadian Historical Review
“Provides a comprehensive answer to the question, ‘What does a chaplain do in a war zone?’ [as well as offering] some insights on and vignettes of the men in the West Nova Scotia Regiment who played their small, but heroic, part in defeating the Axis forces in Europe.”
— Wallace G. Mills, St. Mary’s University, Histoire social/Social History
“This book will become a classic on conflict from the perspective of a chaplain....Padre Wilmot’s story provides...personalities that bring this sotry to life, where other histories provide only dry statistics and commentary....For padres and other support professionals, this book is thought provoking, as the essence of the challenges and coping strategies remain the same sixty years later. If nothing else, this book should serve as a catalyst to discussions on the roles of these professionals and the relationships with the chain of command at all levels.”
— Captain R.D. Tesselaar, Canadian Army Journal
“This is a rather good military memoir. The late Canon Laurence Wilmot’s book provides rare insights into frontline combat conditions through the eyes of a World War II army chaplain.... His compassionate depiction of the courage and self-sacrifice displayed by the so-called ordinary Canadians—while neither glorifying war nor belittling warriors—documents the price of the freedom we enjoy to this day. Wilmot’s description of infantry fighting in Italy is as good as it gets. He is particularly vivid when describing a little-known battle at the Arielli. He served in the thick of things there, working as a frontline stretcher-bearer, helping to bring in scores of wounded men while under heavy enemy fire himself. He conveys his compassion and devotion to the soldiers without a flicker of self-aggrandizement. The book-jacket blurb is the only way you would know he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1944.”
— Sidney Allinson, Canadian Book Review Annual
“Through the Hitler Line is a concise history of the West Nova Scotia Regiment’s campaign in Italy...it should be read in the schools, so that a generation becoming more and more separated from the reality of World War II may know the anatomy of sacrifice, and be convinced that war is not just a video game.”
— Glen Hancock, The Regional Magazine
“The late Laurence Wilmot’s memoirs rarely touch on abstract theological issues, but he was an acute observer an ddevout Anglican priest whose service with the Canadian army in Italy during World War II tested his faith, courage, and physical strength to the limit....Readers will be rewarded with provocative insights into what is called the ministry of presence, as well as how Wilmot sustained this ministry in extraordinarily brutal times. His book will provide cause for reflection and insight for all who minister, civilian or military.”
— Duff Crerar, Toronto Journal of Theology
“If you need to be persuaded that we have to find another and a better way of settling international disputes than war, then read Wilmot’s wartime journal and be convinced.”
— Frank Morgan, The Record
“Among the cresting tide of Second World War memoirs, Laurence Wilmot’s Through the Hitler Line stands out for its unusual perspective.”