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Carry On Coningsby Dawson


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The Somme battlefield, from which all these letters were despatched, is an Inferno much more terrible than any Dante pictured. It is a vast sea of mud, full of the unburied dead, pitted and pock-marked by shell-holes, treeless and horseless, "the abomination of desolation." And the men who toil across it look more like outcasts of the London Embankment than soldiers. "They're loaded down like pack-animals, their shoulders are rounded, they're wearied to death, but they go on and go on.... There's no flash of sword or splendour of uniforms. They're only very tired men determined to carry on. The war will be won by tired men who can never again pass an insurance test." Yet they carry on--the "broken counter-jumper, the ragged ex-plumber," the clerk from the office, the man from the farm; Londoner, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, men drawn from every quarter of the Empire, who daily justify their manhood by devotion to an ideal and by contempt of death. And in the heart of each there is a settled conviction that the cause for which they have sacrificed so much must triumph. They have no illusions about an early peace. They see their comrades fall, and say quietly, "He's gone West." They do heroic things daily, which in a lesser war would have won the Victoria Cross, but in this war are commonplaces. They know themselves re-born in soul, and are dimly aware that the world is travailing toward new birth with them. They are still very human, men who end their letters with a row of crosses which stand for kisses. They are not dehumanised by war; the kindliness and tenderness of their natures are unspoiled by all their daily traffic in horror. But they have won their souls; and when the days of peace return these men will take with them to the civilian life a tonic strength and nobleness which will arrest and extirpate the decadence of society with the saving salt of valour and of faith.

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It may be said also that they do not hate their foe, although they hate the things for which he fights. They are fighting a clean fight, with men whose courage they respect. A German prisoner who comes into the British camp is sure of good treatment. He is neither starved nor insulted. His captors share with him cheerfully their rations and their little luxuries. Sometimes a sullen brute will spit in the face of his captor when he offers him a cigarette; he is always an officer, never a private. And occasionally between these fighting hosts there are acts of magnanimity which stand out illumined against the dark background of death and suffering. One of the stories told me by my son illustrates this. During one fierce engagement a British officer saw a German officer impaled on the barbed wire, writhing in anguish. The fire was dreadful, yet he still hung there unscathed. At length the British officer could stand it no longer. He said quietly, "I can't bear to look at that poor chap any longer." So he went out under the hail of shell, released him, took him on his shoulders and carried him to the German trench. The firing ceased. Both sides watched the act with wonder. Then the Commander in the German trench came forward, took from his own bosom the Iron Cross, and pinned it on the breast of the British officer. Such an episode is true to the holiest ideals of chivalry; and it is all the more welcome because the German record is stained by so many acts of barbarism, which the world cannot forgive.

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Carry On
Coningsby Dawson

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