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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Growing Of The Vision

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That night we travelled to London, arriving about two o'clock in the morning. There was little to denote that a European war was on, except that people were a trifle more animated and cheerful. The next day was Sunday, and we motored round Hampstead Heath. The Heath was as usual, gay with pleasure-seekers and the streets sedate with church-goers. On Monday, when we tried to transact business and exchange money, we found that there were hitches and difficulties; it was more as though a window had been left open and a certain untidiness had resulted. "It will be all right tomorrow," everybody said. "Business as usual," and they nodded.

But as the days passed it wasn't all right. Kitchener began to call for his army. Belgium was invaded. We began to hear about atrocities. There were rumours of defeat, which ceased to be rumours, and of grey hordes pressing towards Paris. It began to dawn on the most optimistic of us that the little British Army--the Old Contemptibles--hadn't gone to France on a holiday jaunt.

The sternness of the hour was brought home to me by one obscure incident. Straggling across Trafalgar Square in mufti and commanded by a sergeant came a little procession of recruits. They were roughly dressed men of the navy and the coster class. All save one carried under his arm his worldly possessions, wrapped in cloth, brown-paper or anything that had come handy. The sergeant kept on giving them the step and angrily imploring them to pick it up. At the tail of the procession followed a woman; she also carried a package.

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They turned into the Strand, passed by Charing Cross and branched off to the right down a lane to the Embankment. At the point where they left the Strand, the man without a parcel spoke to the sergeant and fell out of the ranks. He laid his clumsy hand on the woman's arm; she set down on the pavement the parcel she had been carrying. There they stood for a full minute gazing at each other dumbly, oblivious to the passing crowds. She wasn't pleasing to look at--just a slum woman with draggled skirts, a shawl gathered tightly round her and a mildewed kind of bonnet. He was no more attractive--a hulking Samson, perhaps a day-labourer, who whilst he had loved her, had probably beaten her. They had come to the hour of parting, and there they stood in the London sunshine inarticulate after life together. He glanced after the procession; it was two hundred yards away by now. Stooping awkwardly for the burden which she had carried for him, in a shame-faced kind of way he kissed her; then broke from her to follow his companions. She watched him forlornly, her hands hanging empty. Never once did he look back as he departed. Catching up, he took his place in the ranks; they rounded a corner and were lost. Her eyes were quite dry; her jaw sagged stupidly. For some seconds she stared after the way he had gone--her man! Then she wandered off as one who had no purpose.

Wounded men commenced to appear in the streets. You saw them in restaurants, looking happy and embarrassed, being paraded by proud families. One day I met two in my tailor's shop--one had an arm in a sling, the other's head had been seared by a bullet. It was whispered that they were officers who had "got it" at Mons. A thrill ran through me--a thrill of hero-worship.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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