Chaplain who volunteered to serve on the front

IT was probably the Rev George Harvey Ranking’s widow Violet who collected his silver-headed walking

stick at that presentation ceremony in 1921, for his is one of the 41 names on the Fernhurst war memorial.

Thanks to the research of Brian and Mary silver and their book, much is known of his service. The Rev Ranking had arrived in Fernhurst in

april 1915 with his wife Violet Evelyn, whom he had married in Farnham in 1906.

But two years later he was at the Front. In a letter to parishioners which appeared in april 1917, he said: “I heard

that chaplains were wanted in France and so I volunteered to go in the hope of being some service to some of our Fernhurst boys, or at least

to others like them who may value a word of good cheer.

“I know that all of you would like to go out and help in some way if you could and so I hope you will feel that I am representing you out there.”

Over the next eight months Mr Ranking sent back many letters, usually under the heading ‘somewhere in France’.

In one of his first messages he said: “It took me four days to reach the Front after I reached France and now I am sitting in a dug-out until recently occupied by Huns.”

In another letter he said: “The heavy artillery never get any regular rest like other troops, so that their life is very monotonous. I do not see much of the infantry but we all respect them immensely

as we see them trudging along the road with great packs on their backs going ’into the line’. They have the worst of the fighting and the hardest time.”

May 15, 1917: “as I write, the air is full of noise and artillery bombardment is going on and literally 1000s of shells must have fired since I began this letter. It is an incessant roar.

It is extraordinary how little damage a bombardment may do although at other times a single shell may kill a number of men.

“For instance yesterday I was walking towards a battery where I was going to hold a service. as I got near I saw it was being heavily shelled. The Huns put perhaps 250 shells into it in about half

an hour. The men were all cleared out without any hurt after the second shell and went into a dug-out some 200

yards away.

“when it was over I walked over to the position with two officers to see what had happened. some of the ammunition had been burned, but generally there was no damage and yet all the shells had burst within about

40 yards of the guns and some quite close to them.”

In yet another letter he said: “Not far from where I am now, one shell came through and went between the captain’s legs and into the ground, but did not explode. another shell burst in the tent where two officers were sleeping. One

had his head blown of, the other was unhurt.”

Hearing of the death of a Fernhurst villager, he wrote: “I grieve to hear of the death of Jesse Barnes who was another true personal friend.” He was able to reach George Haynes, who had been a lay reader at Fernhurst, in hospital near Ypres while he was still conscious.

“For 18 days he lay between life and death in terrible pain. During those days I found he had won the love of all who had come in contact with him by his unfailing patience, courtesy and cheerfulness.”

Just three days before his death he wrote: “we are short of chaplains in the army and if I were not here perhaps no-one else would be and I am thankful to be allowed to serve such splendid men as the gunners of the Royal Regiment artillery.”