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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Growing Of The Vision

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Next morning, when we came on deck for a breath of air the vessel was under way; all hands were hard at work disguising her with paint of a sombre colour. Here and there you saw an officer in uniform, who had not yet had time to unpack his mufti. The next night, and for the rest of the voyage, all port-holes were darkened and we ran without lights. An atmosphere of suspense became omnipresent. Rumours spread like wild-fire of sinkings, victories, defeats, marching and countermarchings, engagements on land and water. With the uncanny and unaccustomed sense of danger we began to realise that we, as individuals, were involved in a European war.

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As we got about among the passengers we found that the usual spirit of comradeship which marks an Atlantic voyage, was noticeably lacking. Every person regarded every other person with distrust, as though he might be a spy. People were secretive as to their calling and the purpose of their voyage; little by little we discovered that many of them were government officials, but that most were professional soldiers rushing back in the hope that they might be in time to join the British Expeditionary Force. Long before we had guessed that a world tragedy was impending, they had judged war's advent certain from its shadow, and had come from the most distant parts of Canada that they might be ready to embark the moment the cloud burst. Some of them were travelling with their wives and children. What struck me as wholly unreasonable was that these professional soldiers and their families were the least disturbed people on board. I used to watch them as one might watch condemned prisoners in their cells. Their apparent indifference was unintelligible to me. They lived their daily present, contented and unruffled, just as if it were going to be their present always. I accused them of being lacking in imagination. I saw them lying dead on battlefields. I saw them dragging on into old age, with the spine of life broken, mutilated and mauled. I saw them in desperately tight corners, fighting in ruined villages with sword and bayonet. But they joked, laughed, played with their kiddies and seemed to have no realisation of the horrors to which they were going. There was a world-famous aviator, who had gone back on his marriage promise that he would abandon his aerial adventures. He was hurrying to join the French Flying Corps. He and his young wife used to play deck-tennis every morning as lightheartedly as if they were travelling to Europe for a lark. In my many accusations of these men's indifference I never accused them of courage. Courage, as I had thought of it up to that time, was a grim affair of teeth set, sad eyes and clenched hands--the kind of "My head is bloody but unbowed" determination described in Henley's poem.

When we had arrived safe in port we were held up for some time. A tug came out, bringing a lot of artificers who at once set to work tearing out the fittings of the ship that she might be converted into a transport. Here again I witnessed a contrast between the soldierly and the civilian attitude. The civilians, with their easily postponed engagements, fumed and fretted at the delay in getting ashore. The officers took the inconvenience with philosophical good-humour. While the panelling and electric-light fittings were being ripped out, they sat among the debris and played cards. There was heaps of time for their appointment--it was only with wounds and Death. To me, as a civilian, their coolness was almost irritating and totally incomprehensible. I found a new explanation by saying that, after all, war was their professional chance--in fact, exactly what a shortage in the flour-market was to a man who had quantities of wheat on hand.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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