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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Growing Of The Vision

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Often at the Front I have thought of Christ's explanation of his own unassailable peace--an explanation given to his disciples at the Last Supper, immediately before the walk to Gethsemane: "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Overcoming the world, as I understand it, is overcoming self. Fear, in its final analysis, is nothing but selfishness. A man who is afraid in an attack, isn't thinking of his pals and how quickly terror spreads; he isn't thinking of the glory which will accrue to his regiment or division if the attack is a success; he isn't thinking of what he can do to contribute to that success; he isn't thinking of the splendour of forcing his spirit to triumph over weariness and nerves and the abominations that the Huns are chucking at him. He's thinking merely of how he can save his worthless skin and conduct his entirely unimportant body to a place where there aren't any shells.

In London as I saw the work-a-day, unconscious nobility of the maimed and wounded, the words, "I have overcome the world," took an added depth. All these men have an "I-have-overcome-the-world" look in their faces. It's comparatively easy for a soldier with traditions and ideals at his back to face death calmly; to be calm in the face of life, as these chaps are, takes a graver courage.

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What has happened to change them? These disabilities, had they happened before the war, would have crushed and embittered them. They would have been woes utterly and inconsolably unbearable. Intrinsically their physical disablements spell the same loss to-day that they would have in 1912. The attitude of mind in which they are accepted alone makes them seem less. This attitude of mind or greatness of soul--whatever you like to call it--was learnt in the trenches where everything outward is polluted and damnable. Their experience at the Front has given them what in the Army language is known as "guts." "Guts" or courage is an attitude of mind towards calamity--an attitude of mind which makes the honourable accomplishing of duty more permanently satisfying than the preservation of self. But how did this vision come to these men? How did they rid themselves of their civilian flabbiness and acquire it? These questions are best answered autobiographically. Here briefly, is the story of the growth of the vision within myself.

In August, 1914, three days after war had been declared, I sailed from Quebec for England on the first ship that put out from Canada. The trip had been long planned--it was not undertaken from any patriotic motive. My family, which included my father, mother, sister and brother, had been living in America for eight years and had never returned to England together. It was the accomplishing of a dream long cherished, which favourable circumstances and a sudden influx of money had at last made possible. We had travelled three thousand miles from our ranch in the Rockies before the war-cloud burst; obstinacy and curiosity combined made us go on, plus an entirely British feeling that by crossing the Atlantic during the crisis we'd be showing our contempt for the Germans.

We were only informed that the ship was going to sail at the very last moment, and went aboard in the evening. The word spread quickly among the crews of other vessels lying in harbour; their firemen, keen to get back to England and have a whack at the Huns, tried to board our ship, sometimes by a ruse, more often by fighting. One saw some very pretty fist work that night as he leant across the rail, wondering whether he'd ever reach the other side. There were rumours of German warships waiting to catch us in mid-ocean. Somewhere towards midnight the would-be stowaways gave up their attempt to force a passage; they squatted with their backs against the sheds along the quayside, singing patriotic songs to the accompaniment of mouth-organs, confidently asserting that they were sons of the bull-dog breed and never, never would be slaves. It was all very amusing; war seemed to be the finest of excuses for an outburst of high spirits.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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