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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Road To Blighty

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The dressing-station to which I went was underneath a ruined house, under full observation of the Hun and in an area which was heavily shelled. On account of the shelling and the fact that any movement about the place would attract attention, the wounded were only carried out by night. Moreover, to get back from the dressing-station to the collecting point in rear of the lines, the ambulances had to traverse a white road over a ridge full in view of the enemy. The Huns kept guns trained on this road and opened fire at the least sign of traffic. When I presented myself I didn't think that there was anything seriously the matter; my arm had swelled and was painful from a wound of three days' standing. The doctor, however, recognised that septic poisoning had set in and that to save the arm an operation was necessary without loss of time. He called a sergeant and sent him out to consult with an ambulance-driver. "This officer ought to go out at once. Are you willing to take a chance?" asked the sergeant. The ambulance-driver took a look at the chalk road gleaming white in the sun where it climbed the ridge. "Sure, Mike," he said, and ran off to crank his engine and back his car out of its place of concealment. "Sure, Mike,"--that was all. He'd have said the same if he'd been asked whether he'd care to take a chance at Hell.

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I have three vivid memories of that drive. The first, my own uneasy sense that I was deserting. Frankly I didn't want to go out; few men do when it comes to the point. The Front has its own peculiar exhilaration, like big game-hunting, discovering the North Pole, or anything that's dangerous; and it has its own peculiar reward--the peace of mind that comes of doing something beyond dispute unselfish and superlatively worth while. It's odd, but it's true that in the front-line many a man experiences peace of mind for the first time and grows a little afraid of a return to normal ways of life. My second memory is of the wistful faces of the chaps whom we passed along the road. At the unaccustomed sound of a car travelling in broad daylight the Tommies poked their heads out of hiding-places like rabbits. Such dirty Tommies! How could they be otherwise living forever on old battlefields? If they were given time for reflection they wouldn't want to go out; they'd choose to stay with the game till the war was ended. But we caught them unaware, and as they gazed after us down the first part of the long trail that leads back from the trenches to Blighty, there was hunger in their eyes. My third memory is of kindness.

You wouldn't think that men would go to war to learn how to be kind--but they do. There's no kinder creature in the whole wide world than the average Tommy. He makes a friend of any stray animal he can find. He shares his last franc with a chap who isn't his pal. He risks his life quite inconsequently to rescue any one who's wounded. When he's gone over the top with bomb and bayonet for the express purpose of "doing in" the Hun, he makes a comrade of the Fritzie he captures. You'll see him coming down the battered trenches with some scared lad of a German at his side. He's gabbling away making throat-noises and signs, smiling and doing his inarticulate best to be intelligible. He pats the Hun on the back, hands him chocolate and cigarettes, exchanges souvenirs and shares with him his last luxury. If any one interferes with his Fritzie he's willing to fight. When they come to the cage where the prisoner has to be handed over, the farewells of these companions whose acquaintance has been made at the bayonet-point are often as absurd as they are affecting. I suppose one only learns the value of kindness when he feels the need of it himself. The men out there have said "Good-bye" to everything they loved, but they've got to love some one--so they give their affections to captured Fritzies, stray dogs, fellows who've collected a piece of a shell--in fact to any one who's a little worse off than themselves. My ambulance-driver was like that with his "Sure, Mike." He was like it during the entire drive. When he came to the white road which climbs the ridge with all the enemy country staring at it, it would have been excusable in him to have hurried. The Hun barrage might descend at any minute. All the way, in the ditches on either side, dead pack animals lay; in the dug-outs there were other unseen dead making the air foul. But he drove slowly and gently, skirting the shell-holes with diligent care so as to spare us every unnecessary jolting. I don't know his name, shouldn't recognise his face, but I shall always remember the almost womanly tenderness of his driving.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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