By Norris Burkes
Posted Sep 17, 2017
Ten years ago, I was packing for my deployment to Iraq when I stopped to ask my wife, Becky, what she feared most.
“I’m afraid you’ll be killed doing something heroic,” she said.
I answered her with an embrace, proud she thought me capable of that kind of mettle.
This past week I rehashed those thoughts while touring the resting place of thousands of World War I soldiers in France and Belgium. The outing with Baxter’s Battlefield Tours was called “Faith Under Fire” because it focused on the heroism of WWI chaplains.
Our tour guide, Paul Prendergast, took us to St. Sever Cemetery in Rouen, France, to visit the grave of Chaplain Theodor B. Hardy, the most decorated noncombatant of the Great War.
Hardy was 52 years old in 1916 when he told his wife, Florence, that he was voluntarily deploying to the Western Front. I imagine Florence reacted much the same way as my wife. She didn’t want her husband to make heroic risks, but she knew he’d follow his calling.
Like many combat chaplains, Hardy moved quietly inside the darkened trenches to offer guidance and consolation along with cigarettes and sweets. But it was his reputation for advancing from those trenches with his men that endeared him in military history.
He received his first decoration from the Battle of Passchendaele, in October of 1917 where the British lost 275,000 men.
The Distinguished Service Order reads, with a ”… broken wrist and under the worst weather conditions, he crawled out with patrols within 70 yards of the enemy and returned with the wounded men under heavy fire.”
Two months later, Hardy was awarded the Military Cross, the British military’s third highest award, for his attending of the wounded. “The ground on which he worked was constantly shelled and casualties were heavy, (yet) he continually assisted in finding and carrying wounded and guiding stretcher bearers to the aid post.”
During a battle on the Somme in the spring of 1918, Hardy initiated three actions that would bring his nation’s highest honor, the Victoria Cross.
On the first occasion, he located a badly wounded officer separated from his patrol. Hardy endured tremendous enemy fire until he finally managed to bring the man back to the aid station.
In the second event, Hardy responded to a destroyed battalion post. Again while under heavy shelling, he dug a survivor from the rubble.
But the most valiant deed listed in the lengthy citation recounts how Hardy persuaded his sergeant to search for a wounded man in woods heavily infested with enemy soldiers. They found the man and carried him back to the trenches while under constant enemy fire.
When the King of England presented Hardy with the Victoria Cross on July 7, 1918, he urged him to become His Majesty’s personal chaplain. I can only imagine Florence had high hopes that her husband would accept the job, but his calling was with “the boys.”
On Oct. 10, 1918, Hardy was moving about the ranks as they readied their crossing of the river Selle. Suddenly a machine gun burst shattered the chaplain’s leg. The injury seemed survivable, so he was evacuated to the hospital in Rouen.
“Sadly,” our tour guide concluded, “Hardy passed away the following week at the age of 54.”
I stood motionless, with the reality of my wife’s fear over military service. I felt small in the presence of such heroics. I was grateful that men such as these likely reduced the risks I faced during my military career.
Gratefully, I returned from Iraq, all the hero my wife was looking for. For that reason, on this, the centenary of World War I, I salute our heroes of faith.
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