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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Road To Blighty

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The sisters at the Casualty Clearing Station--they understood. The Casualty Clearing Station is the first hospital behind the line to which the wounded are brought down straight from the Dressing-Stations. All day and all night ambulances come lurching along shell-torn roads to their doors. The men on the stretchers are still in their bloody tunics, rain-soaked, pain-silent, splashed with the corruption of fighting--their bodies so obviously smashed and their spirits so obviously unbroken. The nurses at the Casualty Clearing Station can scarcely help but understand. They can afford to be feminine to men who are so weak. Moreover, they are near enough the Front to share in the sublime exaltation of those who march out to die. They know when a big offensive is expected, and prepare for it. They are warned the moment it has commenced by the distant thunder of the guns. Then comes the ceaseless stream of lorries and ambulances bringing that which has been broken so quickly to them to be patched up in months. They work day and night with a forgetfulness of self which equals the devotion of the soldiers they are tending. Despite their orderliness they seem almost fanatical in their desire to spend themselves. They are always doing, but they can never do enough. It's the same with the surgeons. I know of one who during a great attack operated for forty-eight hours on end and finally went to sleep where he stood from utter weariness. The picture that forms in my mind of these women is absurd, Arthurian and exact; I see them as great ladies, mediaeval in their saintliness, sharing the pollution of the battle with their champions.

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Lying here with nothing to worry about in the green serenity of an English summer, I realize that no man can grasp the splendour of this war until he has made the trip to Blighty on a stretcher. What I mean is this: so long as a fighting man keeps well, his experience of the war consists of muddy roads leading up through a desolated country to holes in the ground, in which he spends most of his time watching other holes in the ground, which people tell him are the Hun front-line. This experience is punctuated by periods during which the earth shoots up about him like corn popping in a pan, and he experiences the insanest fear, if he's made that way, or the most satisfying kind of joy. About once a year something happens which, when it's over, he scarcely believes has happened: he's told that he can run away to England and pretend that there isn't any war on for ten days. For those ten days, so far as he's concerned, hostilities are suspended. He rides post-haste through ravaged villages to the point from which the train starts. Up to the very last moment until the engine pulls out, he's quite panicky lest some one shall come and snatch his warrant from him, telling him that leave has been cancelled. He makes his journey in a carriage in which all the windows are smashed. Probably it either snows or rains. During the night while he stamps his feet to keep warm, he remembers that in his hurry to escape he's left all his Hun souvenirs behind. During his time in London he visits his tailor at least twice a day, buys a vast amount of unnecessary kit, sleeps late, does most of his resting in taxi-cabs, eats innumerable meals at restaurants, laughs at a great many plays in which life at the Front is depicted as a joke. He feels dazed and half suspects that he isn't in London at all, but only dreaming in his dug-out. Some days later he does actually wake up in his dug-out; the only proof he has that he's been on leave is that he can't pay his mess-bill and is minus a hundred pounds. Until a man is wounded he only sees the war from the point of view of the front-line and consequently, as I say, misses half its splendour, for he is ignorant of the greatness of the heart that beats behind him all along the lines of communication. Here in brief is how I found this out.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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