On November 4 in 1918, New Zealand soldiers liberated the small French town of Le Quesnoy — the links endure 100 years on

When you think of World War I, the first people you'd probably think about are the front-line men. And rightly so.

An appalling existence of not knowing whether you or the mates you've gone off on this great adventure with, would still be here come sundown. The great adventure of The Great War that was meant to be over by Christmas — but of course it wasn't. And it wasn't an adventure.

Coping with that personal uncertainty and the inevitable death and destruction you can't help but witness must have taken a huge psychological toll on those men.

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I've learnt recently about the work of the chaplains who went with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force to war, and I have a huge respect for the work they did there with and for these men. They were perhaps the one group that truly knew the emotional toll of war. They were a safe option to unload to and were attached to every battalion.

Reverend Clive Mortimer Jones was one such man — one of the 140 clergy New Zealand would send overseas with their troops.

He wrote letters back to his parish in St Andrew's, Cambridge, telling them of his experiences and his admiration for the boys. Letters that even his own son would not know about until some 40 years after his father died. Because like so many others, Clive came home and didn't talk about the war. In the letters however, he did just that.

Jude Dobson at Le Quesnoy Communal Cemetery Extension at the graves of the men buried by Rev Clive Mortimer Jones. Photo / Malcolm Sines
Jude Dobson at Le Quesnoy Communal Cemetery Extension at the graves of the men buried by Rev Clive Mortimer Jones. Photo / Malcolm Sines

On reading them you realise the enormity of the job description. At the big hospital centres where there were 17 hospitals with up to 60 wards, he talks of three afternoons visiting 30 men, happy to see someone from home. Just finding the New Zealand wounded was challenging in itself, walking from hospital to hospital, ward to ward, sometimes 7km each way.

The chaplain was often the censor of letters the men wrote, and I can only imagine that would be a sad job, reading men's letters home and deciding if they were acceptable to send and didn't give too much away. He self-censored, often writing from somewhere in France and on one occasion stating, HQ and the trenches I may not describe.

What he did describe though was raw. Letters talk of navigating Dead Mule Gully, and a bomb that killed five men and 17 horses close by, and of course dealing with the dead and dying. He would take the burial services, sometimes in the thick of battle.

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He would take care of any personal effects he would find on them — many of whom were extremely wounded - and mark their graves with all he knew about the dead man.

He would comb the battlefields for any of our boys not buried, and ensure they were identified if possible and buried. Sometimes men would not be allowed to go to the burials in an effort to keep a fingerhold on their sanity, given they had to face another day like the last one that killed their mate, tomorrow. So he was it.

He would write to the relatives. Many relatives, days and days on end. He'd take photos of the wooden crosses too and send them to their mums. Grim stuff. What do you write, letter after letter?

And then there were the living. He was their confidant, counsellor, consistent friend.

There when they went over the top in the trenches and there at the regimental aid post when they came back injured or dying. A ubiquitous, soothing presence in times of intense stress.

I have a newfound respect for the clergy on the front-line, and when I think of active service, I now realise how active and instrumental they were in the mental health support of our brave soldiers. Lest we forget.