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  The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

God As We See Him

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For some time before I was wounded, we had been in very hot places. We could scarcely expect them to be otherwise, for we had put on show after show. A "show" in our language, I should explain, has nothing in common with a theatrical performance, though it does not lack drama. We make the term apply to any method of irritating the Hun, from a trench-raid to a big offensive. The Hun was decidedly annoyed. He had very good reason. We were occupying the dug-outs which he had spent two years in building with French civilian labour. His U-boat threats had failed. He had offered us the olive-branch, and his peace terms had been rejected with a peal of guns all along the Western Front. He had shown his disapproval of us by paying particular attention to our batteries; as a consequence our shell-dressings were all used up, having gone out with the gentlemen on stretchers who were contemplating a vacation in Blighty. We couldn't get enough to re-place them. There was a hitch somewhere. The demand for shell-dressings exceeded the supply. So I got on my horse one Sunday and, with my groom accompanying me, rode into the back-country to see if I couldn't pick some up at various Field Dressing Stations and Collecting Points.

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In the course of my wanderings I came to a cathedral city. It was a city which was and still is beautiful, despite the constant bombardments. The Huns had just finished hurling a few more tons of explosives into it as I and my groom entered. The streets were deserted; it might have been a city of the dead. There was no sound, except the ringing iron of our horses' shoes on the cobble pavement. Here and there we came to what looked like a barricade which barred our progress; actually it was the piled-up walls and rubbish of buildings which had collapsed. From cellars, now and then, faces of women, children and ancient men peered out--they were sharp and pointed like rats. One's imagination went back five hundred years--everything seemed mediaeval, short-lived and brutal. This might have been Limoges after the Black Prince had finished massacring its citizens; or it might have been Paris, when the wolves came down and Francois Villon tried to find a lodging for the night.

I turned up through narrow alleys where grass was growing and found myself, almost by accident, in a garden. It was a green and spacious garden, with fifteen-foot walls about it and flowers which scattered themselves broadcast in neglected riot. We dismounted and tied our horses. Wandering along its paths, we came across little summer-houses, statues, fountains and then, without any hindrance, found ourselves in the nave of a fine cathedral which was roofed only by the sky. Two years of the Huns had made it as much a ruin as Tintern Abbey. Here, too, the flowers had intruded. They grew between graves in the pavement and scrambled up the walls, wherever they could find a foothold. At the far end of this stretch of destruction stood the high altar, totally untouched by the hurricane of shell-fire. The saints were perched in their niches, composed and stately. The Christ looked down from His cross, as he had done for centuries, sweeping the length of splendid architecture with sad eyes. It seemed a miracle that the altar had been spared, when everything else had fallen. A reason is given for its escape. Every Sabbath since the start of the war, no matter how severe the bombardment, service has been held there. The thin-faced women, rat-faced children and ancient men have crept out from their cellars and gathered about the priest; the lamp has been lit, the Host uplifted. The Hun is aware of this; with malice aforethought he lands shells into the cathedral every Sunday in an effort to smash the altar. So far he has failed. One finds in this a symbol--that in the heart of the maelstrom of horror, which this war has created, there is a quiet place where the lamp of gentleness and honour is kept burning. The Hun will have to do a lot more shelling before he puts the lamp of kindness out. From the polluted trenches of Vimy the poppies spring up, blazoning abroad in vivid scarlet the heroism of our lads' willing sacrifice. All this April, high above the shouting of our guns, the larks sang joyously. The scarlet of the poppies, the song of the larks, the lamp shining on the altar are only external signs of the unconquerable, happy religion which lies hidden in the hearts of our men. Their religion is the religion of heroism, which they have learnt in the glory of the trenches.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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