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0105_001E The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

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While some erred in exhibiting nothing but the brutalities of war, others erred by sentimentalising war. He admitted that it was perfectly possible to paint a portrait of a soldier with the aureole of a saint, but it would not be a representative portrait. It would be eclectic, the result of selection elimination. It would be as unlike the common average as Rupert Brooke, with his poet's face and poet's heart, was unlike the ordinary naval officers with whom he sailed to the AEgean.

The ordinary soldier is an intensely human creature, with an "endearing blend of faults and virtues." The romantic method of portraying him not only misrepresented him, but its result is far less impressive than a portrait painted in the firm lines of reality. There is an austere grandeur in the reality of what he is and does which needs no fine gilding from the sentimentalist. To depict him as a Sir Galahad in holy armour is as serious an offence as to exhibit him as a Caliban of marred clay; each method fails of truth, and all that the soldier needs to be known about him, that men should honour him, is the truth.

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What my son aimed at in writing this book was to tell the truth about the men who were his comrades, in so far as it was given him to see it. He was in haste to write while the impression was fresh in his mind, for he knew how soon the fine edge of these impressions grew dull as they receded from the immediate area of vision. "If I wait till the war is over, I shan't be able to write of it at all," he said. "You've noticed that old soldiers are very often silent men. They've had their crowded hours of glorious life, but they rarely tell you much about them. I remember you used to tell me that you once knew a man who sailed with Napoleon to St Helena, but all he could tell you was that Napoleon had a fine leg and wore white silk stockings. If he'd written down his impressions of Napoleon day by day as he watched him walking the deck of the Bellerophon, he'd have told you a great deal more about him than that he wore white silk stockings. If I wait till the war is over before I write about it, it's very likely I shall recollect only trivial details, and the big heroic spirit of the thing will escape me. There's only one way of recording an impression--catch it while it's fresh, vivid, vital; shoot it on the wing. If you wait too long it will vanish." It was because he felt in this way that he wrote in red-hot haste, sacrificing his brief leave to the task, and concentrating all his mind upon it.

There was one impression that he was particularly anxious to record,--his sense of the spiritual processes which worked behind the grim offence of war, the new birth of religious ideas, which was one of its most wonderful results. He had both witnessed and shared this renascence. It was too indefinite, too immature to be chronicled with scientific accuracy, but it was authentic and indubitable. It was atmospheric, a new air which men breathed, producing new energies and forms of thought. Men were rediscovering themselves, their own forgotten nobilities, the latent nobilities in all men. Bound together in the daily obedience of self-surrender, urged by the conditions of their task to regard duty as inexorable, confronted by the pitiless destruction of the body, they were forced into a new recognition of the spiritual values of life. In the common conventional use of the term these men were not religious. There was much in their speech and in their conduct which would outrage the standards of a narrow pietism. Traditional creeds and forms of faith had scant authority for them. But they had made their own a surer faith than lives in creeds. It was expressed not in words but acts. They had freed their souls from the tyrannies of time and the fear of death. They had accomplished indeed that very emancipation of the soul which is the essential evangel of all religions, which all religions urge on men, but which few men really achieve, however earnestly they profess the forms of pious faith.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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