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The Glory of the Trenches Coningsby Dawson

The Road To Blighty

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After two changes into other ambulances at different distributing points, I arrived about nine on a summer's evening at the Casualty Clearing Station. In something less than an hour I was undressed and on the operating table.

You might suppose that when for three interminable years such a stream of tragedy has flowed through a hospital, it would be easy for surgeons and nurses to treat mutilation and death perfunctorily. They don't. They show no emotion. They are even cheerful; but their strained faces tell the story and their hands have an immense compassion.

Two faces especially loom out. I can always see them by lamp-light, when the rest of the ward is hushed and shrouded, stooping over some silent bed. One face is that of the Colonel of the hospital, grey, concerned, pitiful, stern. His eyes seem to have photographed all the suffering which in three years they have witnessed. He's a tall man, but he moves softly. Over his uniform he wears a long white operating smock--he never seems to remove it. And he never seems to sleep, for he comes wandering through his Gethsemane all hours of the night to bend over the more serious cases. He seems haunted by a vision of the wives, mothers, sweethearts, whose happiness is in his hands. I think of him as a Christ in khaki.

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The other face is of a girl--a sister I ought to call her. She's the nearest approach to a sculptured Greek goddess I've seen in a living woman. She's very tall, very pale and golden, with wide brows and big grey eyes like Trilby. I wonder what she did before she went to war--for she's gone to war just as truly as any soldier. I'm sure in the peaceful years she must have spent a lot of time in being loved. Perhaps her man was killed out here. Now she's ivory-white with over-service and spends all her days in loving. Her eyes have the old frank, innocent look, but they're ringed with being weary. Only her lips hold a touch of colour; they have a childish trick of trembling when any one's wound is hurting too much. She's the first touch of home that the stretcher-cases see when they've said good-bye to the trenches. She moves down the ward; eyes follow her. When she is absent, though others take her place, she leaves a loneliness. If she meant much to men in days gone by, to-day she means more than ever. Over many dying boys she stoops as the incarnation of the woman whom, had they lived, they would have loved. To all of us, with the blasphemy of destroying still upon us, she stands for the divinity of womanhood.

What sights she sees and what words she hears; yet the pity she brings to her work preserves her sweetness. In the silence of the night those who are delirious re-fight their recent battles. You're half-asleep, when in the darkened ward some one jumps up in bed, shouting, "Hold your bloody hands up." He thinks he's capturing a Hun trench, taking prisoners in a bombed in dug-out. In an instant, like a mother with a frightened child, she's bending over him; soon she has coaxed his head back on the pillow. Men do not die in vain when they evoke such women. And the men--the chaps in the cots! As a patient the first sight you have of them is a muddy stretcher. The care with which the bearers advance is only equalled by the waiters in old-established London Clubs when they bring in one of their choicest wines. The thing on the stretcher looks horribly like some of the forever silent people you have seen in No Man's Land. A pair of boots you see, a British Warm flung across the body and an arm dragging. A screen is put round a bed; the next sight you have of him is a weary face lying on a white pillow. Soon the chap in the bed next to him is questioning.

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The Glory of the Trenches
Coningsby Dawson

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