The Bible that went to war …

Some of us who inherit more copies of The Bible than we’re ever likely to need, tend to store them, politely and respectfully on a bookshelf, in sentimental acknowledgment of their former owners. Collectively, they express unique aspects of those former owners’ histories:  records of achievement at Sunday School, or the day school Scripture class; departure from a congregation or community; a wedding gift; or a school-leaver’s presentation copy, complete with school crest embossed on the front cover.

There’s one particular bible which sits almost inconspicuously among just such a collection; its brown leatherette cover shows signs of wear and its size belies its significance. On the fly leaf there’s an inscription which reads, quite simply, “John Fergus Ross with love from Mother 24.6.43”. The only indication of provenance is a retailer’s sticker, “Hyndman’s, Dunedin” on the front recto endpaper.

Then, in an altogether different hand, not the exquisite fountain pen of ‘Mother’ but in post-war ballpoint, the recipient appends: “Carried by me in my battledress pocket throughout the war” followed by “William Thomas Fergus Ross, Love from Father Feb 1977”.

In these few tantalizing lines we are made aware that this small copy of the Scriptures has passed through the hands of three generations. John Fergus Ross did indeed survive the war, returned home to raise his own family and was still living in 1977. So much for the obvious. But what of that which isn’t obvious and raises more questions than there are immediate answers?

The date, 24.6.43, appears to lack any significance beyond its falling within the period of the Second World War. It was neither John Ross’s birthday (23 October), nor his wedding anniversary (1 July 1939). However, there is a letter in the family’s personal history collection, dated 1st July 1943, which offers a clue.  It’s an intensely personal and poignant letter from an adoring aunt to a special nephew, likely penned in a quiet moment of reflection after a family celebration of his wedding anniversary.

She writes: There were one or two things I wanted to say to you if there had been an opportunity – (though probably I wouldn’t have said them even if there had been!) … I know it is a satisfaction for you to go overseas & that you have to go – but you are leaving some very sad hearts behind you … There is no man in the Army, Navy or Air Force who will receive a warmer welcome on his return than you. John – you have no idea how we hate you having to go. You will always be in our thoughts. I am convinced that whatever happens to one the only thing to do is to hold on to one’s trust in God. Much love from Aunt Z.

Another letter in the family’s personal collection  – this one from Army Headquarters, Wellington – solves the date problem. On 23 December 1939, Ross, John Fergus, 611199, was commissioned in the New Zealand Scottish Regiment. The day before he resigned that commission on 25 June 1943, to join the ranks on 26 June 1943 as Private Ross in the 23rd Battalion, 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force, his mother inscribed the little bible. Her only son was off to war!

John Ross’s army serial number proved a lucky one. Or was it the bible that never left his battledress pocket, together with the wedding anniversary day letter’s entreaty to trust in God, that ensured his safe return? Not least among this soldier’s survival stories was the Battle of Monte Cassino.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

An honourable hour off school in Dunedin

I  dashed out to take just a single photograph of a building – because the sun was shining so gloriously –  when I spied a more seriously worthy ‘photo-op’. One digital click later I recorded a special moment in our seasonal preparation for Anzac Day. Two very polite and well-spoken young ladies wearing the uniform of New Zealand’s oldest state secondary school for girls, Otago Girls’ High School, had exchanged their first hour in the classroom this Friday morning for the honourable title of New Zealand Returned Services Association ‘Official Collector’.

And so it was that they were ‘standing guard’ over a collection box and a tray of poppies, fulfilling a role that dates from the first ‘Poppy Day’ in 1922, six years after the establishment of the RSA in New Zealand. The first watch of the day was almost over so when the ‘relief’ arrived, I found myself in conversation with four, uniformed, young ladies.

Typically, their inherited personal histories reflected war service: one never knew a grandfather because he was killed when her father was three; another knew a grandfather who had served in the Air Force. They had studied the First World War poets as prescribed in the New Zealand secondary school English curriculum and readily volunteered their understanding of the symbolism of the poppy.

I don’t imagine for a moment they expected their photo to be taken by a random passer-by, nor to have been engaged in further conversation. And I certainly wasn’t the only one to reward their hour off school with such comments as ‘Keep up the good work’. As the first two collectors posed in the mid-morning Dunedin sun, with dignity and respect for their part in Poppy Day, I smiled through the camera. The cafe and bar, outside which they were stationed, is called “Alibi (genuine)”.

This morning, these young ladies had the most honourable alibi of all.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow…

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) stanzas 3 & 4