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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Growing Of The Vision

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There's one person I've missed since my return to New York. I've caught glimpses of him disappearing around corners, but he dodges. I think he's a bit ashamed to meet me. That person is my old civilian self. What a full-blown egoist he used to be! How full of golden plans for his own advancement! How terrified of failure, of disease, of money losses, of death--of all the temporary, external, non-essential things that have nothing to do with the spirit! War is in itself damnable--a profligate misuse of the accumulated brain-stuff of centuries. Nevertheless, there's many a man who has no love of war, who previous to the war had cramped his soul with littleness and was chased by the bayonet of duty into the blood-stained largeness of the trenches, who has learnt to say, "Thank God for this war." He thanks God not because of the carnage, but because when the wine-press of new ideals was being trodden, he was born in an age when he could do his share.

America's going through just about the same experience as myself. She's feeling broader in the chest, bigger in the heart and her eyes are clearer. When she catches sight of the America that she was, she's filled with doubt--she can't believe that that person with the Stars and Stripes wrapped round her and a money-bag in either hand ever was herself. Home, clean and honourable for every man who ever loved her and has pledged his life for an ideal with the Allies--that's what she's become now.

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I read again the words that I wrote about those chaps in the London hospital, men who had journeyed to their Calvary glad-hearted from the farthest corners of the world. From this distance I see them in truer perspective than when we lay companions side by side in that long line of neat, white cots. I used to grope after ways to explain them--to explain the courage which in their utter heroism they did not realise they possessed. They had grown so accustomed to a brave way of living that they sincerely believed they were quite ordinary persons. That's courage at its finest--when it becomes unconscious and instinctive.

At first I said, "I know why they're so cheerful--it's because they're all here in one ward together. They're all mutilated more or less, so they don't feel that they're exceptional. It's as though the whole world woke up with toothache one morning. At breakfast every one would be feeling very sorry for himself; by lunch-time, when it had become common knowledge that the entire world had the same kind of ache, toothache would have ceased to exist. It's the loneliness of being abnormal in your suffering that hurts."

But it wasn't that. Even while I was confined to the hospital, in hourly contact with the chaps, I felt that it wasn't that. When I was allowed to dress and go down West for a few hours everyday, I knew that I was wrong most certainly. In Piccadilly, Hyde Park, theatres, restaurants, river-places on the Thames you'd see them, these men who were maimed for life, climbing up and down buses, hobbling on their crutches independently through crowds, hailing one another cheerily from taxis, drinking life joyously in big gulps without complaint or sense of martyrdom, and getting none of the dregs. A part of their secret was that through their experience in the trenches they had learnt to be self-forgetful. The only time I ever saw a wounded man lose his temper was when some one out of kindness made him remember himself. A sudden down-pour of rain had commenced; it was towards evening and all the employees of the West End shopping centre were making haste to get home to the suburbs. A young Highland officer who had lost a leg scrambled into a bus going to Wandsworth. The inside of the bus was jammed, so he had to stand up clutching on to a strap. A middle-aged gentleman rose from his seat and offered it to the Highlander. The Highlander smiled his thanks and shook his head. The middle-aged gentleman in his sympathy became pressing, attracting attention to the officer's infirmity. It was then that the officer lost his temper. I saw him flush.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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