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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Growing Of The Vision

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At the Empire Music Hall in Leicester Square, tragedy bared its broken teeth and mouthed at me. We had reached the stage at which we had become intensely patriotic by the singing of songs. A beautiful actress, who had no thought of doing "her bit" herself, attired as Britannia, with a colossal Union Jack for background, came before the footlights and sang the recruiting song of the moment,

"We don't want to lose you
    But we think you ought to go."

Some one else recited a poem calculated to shame men into immediate enlistment, two lines of which I remember:

"I wasn't among the first to go
    But I went, thank God, I went."

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The effect of such urging was to make me angry. I wasn't going to be rushed into khaki on the spur of an emotion picked up in a music-hall. I pictured the comfortable gentlemen, beyond the military age, who had written these heroic taunts, had gained reputation by so doing, and all the time sat at home in suburban security. The people who recited or sung their effusions, made me equally angry; they were making sham-patriotism a means of livelihood and had no intention of doing their part. All the world that by reason of age or sex was exempt from the ordeal of battle, was shoving behind all the rest of the world that was not exempt, using the younger men as a shield against his own terror and at the same time calling them cowards. That was how I felt. I told myself that if I went--and the if seemed very remote--I should go on a conviction and not because of shoving. They could hand me as many white feathers as they liked, I wasn't going to be swept away by the general hysteria. Besides, where would be the sense in joining? Everybody said that our fellows would be home for Christmas. Our chaps who were out there ought to know; in writing home they promised it themselves.

The next part of the music-hall performance was moving pictures of the Germans' march into Brussels. I was in the Promenade and had noticed a Belgian soldier being made much of by a group of Tommies. He was a queer looking fellow, with a dazed expression and eyes that seemed to focus on some distant horror; his uniform was faded and torn--evidently it had seen active service. I wondered by what strange fortune he had been conveyed from the brutalities of invasion to this gilded, plush-seated sensation-palace in Leicester Square.

I watched the screen. Through ghastly photographic boulevards the spectre conquerors marched. They came on endlessly, as though somewhere out of sight a human dam had burst, whose deluge would never be stopped. I tried to catch the expressions of the men, wondering whether this or that or the next had contributed his toll of violated women and butchered children to the list of Hun atrocities. Suddenly the silence of the theatre was startled by a low, infuriated growl, followed by a shriek which was hardly human. I have since heard the same kind of sounds when the stumps of the mutilated are being dressed and the pain has become intolerable. Everybody turned in their seats--gazing through the dimness to a point in the Promenade near to where I was. The ghosts on the screen were forgotten. The faked patriotism of the songs we had listened to had become a thing of naught. Through the welter of bombast, excitement and emotion we had grounded on reality.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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