The Glory of the Trenches - Coningsby Dawson - ebook

In 1914, Coningsby Dawson went to Ottawa, saw Sir Sam Hughes, and was offered a commission in the Canadian Field Artillery on the completion of his training at the Royal Military College of Canada, at Kingston, Ontario. "His long training at Kingston had been very severe. It included besides the various classes which he attended a great deal of hard exercise, long rides or foot marches over frozen roads before breakfast, and so forth." In July 1916 he was selected, with twenty-four other officers, for immediate service in France. His younger brothers enlisted in the Naval Patrol, then being recruited in Canada by Commander Armstrong.Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson joined the Canadian Army at the front in 1916, and continued in service until the end of World War I. He served in the Somme battlefield at Albert, at Thiepval, at Courcelette, and at the taking of the Regina trench. After having been wounded he came twice to the United States (1917, 1918) on lecture tours. In 1918, he investigated for the British Ministry of Information, American military preparedness in France.The Glory of the Trenches is a record of things deeply felt, seen and experienced—this, first of all and chiefly. The lesson of what is recorded is incidental and implicit. It is left to the discovery of the reader, and yet is so plainly indicated that he cannot fail to discover it. We shall all see this war quite wrongly, and shall interpret it by imperfect and base equivalents, if we see it only as a human struggle for human ends. We shall err yet more miserably if all our thoughts and sensations about it are drawn from its physical horror, "the deformations of our common manhood" on the battlefield, the hopeless waste and havoc of it all. We shall only view it in its real perspective when we recognise the spiritual impulses which direct it, and the strange spiritual efficacy that is in it to burn out the deep-fibred cancer of doubt and decadence which has long threatened civilisation with a slow corrupt death.

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Coningsby Dawson

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Each night we panted till the runners came,

Bearing your letters through the battle-smoke.

Their path lay up Death Valley spouting flame,

Across the ridge where the Hun’s anger spoke

In bursting shells and cataracts of pain;

Then down the road where no one goes by day,

And so into the tortured, pockmarked plain

Where dead men clasp their wounds and point the way.

Here gas lurks treacherously and the wire

Of old defences tangles up the feet;

Faces and hands strain upward through the mire,

Speaking the anguish of the Hun’s retreat.

Sometimes no letters came; the evening hate

Dragged on till dawn. The ridge in flying spray

Of hissing shrapnel told the runners’ fate;

We knew we should not hear from you that day—

From you, who from the trenches of the mind

Hurl back despair, smiling with sobbing breath,

Writing your souls on paper to be kind,

That you for us may take the sting from Death.


In my book, The Father of a Soldier, I have already stated the conditions under which this book of my son’s was produced.

He was wounded in the end of June, 1917, in the fierce struggle before Lens. He was at once removed to a base-hospital, and later on to a military hospital in London. There was grave danger of amputation of the right arm, but this was happily avoided. As soon as he could use his hand he was commandeered by the Lord High Commissioner of Canada to write an important paper, detailing the history of the Canadian forces in France and Flanders. This task kept him busy until the end of August, when he obtained a leave of two months to come home. He arrived in New York in September, and returned again to London in the end of October.

The plan of the book grew out of his conversations with us and the three public addresses which he made. The idea had already been suggested to him by his London publisher, Mr. John Lane. He had written a few hundred words, but had no very keen sense of the value of the experiences he had been invited to relate. He had not even read his own published letters in Carry On. He said he had begun to read them when the book reached him in the trenches, but they made him homesick, and he was also afraid that his own estimate of their value might not coincide with ours, or with the verdict which the public has since passed upon them. He regarded his own experiences, which we found so thrilling, in the same spirit of modest depreciation. They were the commonplaces of the life which he had led, and he was sensitive lest they should be regarded as improperly heroic. No one was more astonished than he when he found great throngs eager to hear him speak. The people assembled an hour before the advertised time, they stormed the building as soon as the doors were open, and when every inch of room was packed they found a way in by the windows and a fire-escape. This public appreciation of his message indicated a value in it which he had not suspected, and led him to recognise that what he had to say was worthy of more than a fugitive utterance on a public platform. He at once took up the task of writing this book, with a genuine and delighted surprise that he had not lost his love of authorship. He had but a month to devote to it, but by dint of daily diligence, amid many interruptions of a social nature, he finished his task before he left. The concluding lines were actually written on the last night before he sailed for England.

We discussed several titles for the book. The Religion of Heroism was the title suggested by Mr. John Lane, but this appeared too didactic and restrictive. I suggested Souls in Khaki, but this admirable title had already been appropriated. Lastly, we decided on The Glory of the Trenches, as the most expressive of his aim. He felt that a great deal too much had been said about the squalor, filth, discomfort and suffering of the trenches. He pointed out that a very popular war-book which we were then reading had six paragraphs in the first sixty pages which described in unpleasant detail the verminous condition of the men, as if this were the chief thing to be remarked concerning them. He held that it was a mistake for a writer to lay too much stress on the horrors of war. The effect was bad physiologically—it frightened the parents of soldiers; it was equally bad for the enlisted man himself, for it created a false impression in his mind. We all knew that war was horrible, but as a rule the soldier thought little of this feature in his lot. It bulked large to the civilian who resented inconvenience and discomfort, because he had only known their opposites; but the soldier’s real thoughts were concerned with other things. He was engaged in spiritual acts. He was accomplishing spiritual purposes as truly as the martyr of faith and religion. He was moved by spiritual impulses, the evocation of duty, the loyal dependence of comradeship, the spirit of sacrifice, the complete surrender of the body to the will of the soul. This was the side of war which men needed most to recognise. They needed it not only because it was the true side, but because nothing else could kindle and sustain the enduring flame of heroism in men’s hearts.

While some erred in exhibiting nothing but the brutalities of war, others erred by sentimentalising war. He admitted that it was perfectly possible to paint a portrait of a soldier with the aureole of a saint, but it would not be a representative portrait. It would be eclectic, the result of selection elimination. It would be as unlike the common average as Rupert Brooke, with his poet’s face and poet’s heart, was unlike the ordinary naval officers with whom he sailed to the AEgean.

The ordinary soldier is an intensely human creature, with an “endearing blend of faults and virtues.” The romantic method of portraying him not only misrepresented him, but its result is far less impressive than a portrait painted in the firm lines of reality. There is an austere grandeur in the reality of what he is and does which needs no fine gilding from the sentimentalist. To depict him as a Sir Galahad in holy armour is as serious an offence as to exhibit him as a Caliban of marred clay; each method fails of truth, and all that the soldier needs to be known about him, that men should honour him, is the truth.

What my son aimed at in writing this book was to tell the truth about the men who were his comrades, in so far as it was given him to see it. He was in haste to write while the impression was fresh in his mind, for he knew how soon the fine edge of these impressions grew dull as they receded from the immediate area of vision. “If I wait till the war is over, I shan’t be able to write of it at all,” he said. “You’ve noticed that old soldiers are very often silent men. They’ve had their crowded hours of glorious life, but they rarely tell you much about them. I remember you used to tell me that you once knew a man who sailed with Napoleon to St Helena, but all he could tell you was that Napoleon had a fine leg and wore white silk stockings. If he’d written down his impressions of Napoleon day by day as he watched him walking the deck of the Bellerophon, he’d have told you a great deal more about him than that he wore white silk stockings. If I wait till the war is over before I write about it, it’s very likely I shall recollect only trivial details, and the big heroic spirit of the thing will escape me. There’s only one way of recording an impression—catch it while it’s fresh, vivid, vital; shoot it on the wing. If you wait too long it will vanish.” It was because he felt in this way that he wrote in red-hot haste, sacrificing his brief leave to the task, and concentrating all his mind upon it.

There was one impression that he was particularly anxious to record,—his sense of the spiritual processes which worked behind the grim offence of war, the new birth of religious ideas, which was one of its most wonderful results. He had both witnessed and shared this renascence. It was too indefinite, too immature to be chronicled with scientific accuracy, but it was authentic and indubitable. It was atmospheric, a new air which men breathed, producing new energies and forms of thought. Men were rediscovering themselves, their own forgotten nobilities, the latent nobilities in all men. Bound together in the daily obedience of self-surrender, urged by the conditions of their task to regard duty as inexorable, confronted by the pitiless destruction of the body, they were forced into a new recognition of the spiritual values of life. In the common conventional use of the term these men were not religious. There was much in their speech and in their conduct which would outrage the standards of a narrow pietism. Traditional creeds and forms of faith had scant authority for them. But they had made their own a surer faith than lives in creeds. It was expressed not in words but acts. They had freed their souls from the tyrannies of time and the fear of death. They had accomplished indeed that very emancipation of the soul which is the essential evangel of all religions, which all religions urge on men, but which few men really achieve, however earnestly they profess the forms of pious faith.

This was the true Glory of the Trenches. They were the Calvaries of a new redemption being wrought out for men by soiled unconscious Christs. And, as from that ancient Calvary, with all its agony of shame, torture and dereliction, there flowed a flood of light which made a new dawn for the world, so from these obscure crucifixions there would come to men a new revelation of the splendour of the human soul, the true divinity that dwells in man, the God made manifest in the flesh by acts of valour, heroism, and self-sacrifice which transcend the instincts and promptings of the flesh, and bear witness to the indestructible life of the spirit.

It is to express these thoughts and convictions that this book was written. It is a record of things deeply felt, seen and experienced—this, first of all and chiefly. The lesson of what is recorded is incidental and implicit. It is left to the discovery of the reader, and yet is so plainly indicated that he cannot fail to discover it. We shall all see this war quite wrongly, and shall interpret it by imperfect and base equivalents, if we see it only as a human struggle for human ends. We shall err yet more miserably if all our thoughts and sensations about it are drawn from its physical horror, “the deformations of our common manhood” on the battlefield, the hopeless waste and havoc of it all. We shall only view it in its real perspective when we recognise the spiritual impulses which direct it, and the strange spiritual efficacy that is in it to burn out the deep-fibred cancer of doubt and decadence which has long threatened civilisation with a slow corrupt death. Seventy-five years ago Mrs. Browning, writing on The Greek Christian Poets, used a striking sentence to which the condition of human thought to-day lends a new emphasis. “We want,” she said, “the touch of Christ’s hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things—we want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest.” It is this glory of divine sacrifice which is the Glory of the Trenches. It is because the writer recognises this that he is able to walk undismayed among things terrible and dismaying, and to expound agony into renovation.


February, 1918.


Hushed and happy whiteness,

Miles on miles of cots,

The glad contented brightness

Where sunlight falls in spots.

Sisters swift and saintly

Seem to tread on grass;

Like flowers stirring faintly,

Heads turn to watch them pass.

Beauty, blood, and sorrow,

Blending in a trance—

Eternity’s to-morrow

In this half-way house of France.

Sounds of whispered talking,

Laboured indrawn breath;

Then like a young girl walking

The dear familiar Death.


I am in hospital in London, lying between clean white sheets and feeling, for the first time in months, clean all over. At the end of the ward there is a swinging door; if I listen intently in the intervals when the gramophone isn’t playing, I can hear the sound of bath-water running—running in a reckless kind of fashion as if it didn’t care how much was wasted. To me, so recently out of the fighting and so short a time in Blighty, it seems the finest music in the world. For the sheer luxury of the contrast I close my eyes against the July sunlight and imagine myself back in one of those narrow dug-outs where it isn’t the thing to undress because the row may start at any minute.

Out there in France we used to tell one another fairy-tales of how we would spend the first year of life when war was ended. One man had a baby whom he’d never seen; another a girl whom he was anxious to marry. My dream was more prosaic, but no less ecstatic—it began and ended with a large white bed and a large white bath. For the first three hundred and sixty-five mornings after peace had been declared I was to be wakened by the sound of my bath being filled; water was to be so plentiful that I could tumble off to sleep again without even troubling to turn off the tap. In France one has to go dirty so often that the dream of being always clean seems as unrealisable as romance. Our drinking-water is frequently brought up to us at the risk of men’s lives, carried through the mud in petrol-cans strapped on to packhorses. To use it carelessly would be like washing in men’s blood——

And here, most marvellously, with my dream come true, I lie in the whitest of white beds. The sunlight filters through trees outside the window and weaves patterns on the floor. Most wonderful of all is the sound of the water so luxuriously running. Some one hops out of bed and re-starts the gramophone. The music of the bath-room tap is lost.

Up and down the ward, with swift precision, nurses move softly. They have the unanxious eyes of those whose days are mapped out with duties. They rarely notice us as individuals. They ask no questions, show no curiosity. Their deeds of persistent kindness are all performed impersonally. It’s the same with the doctors. This is a military hospital where discipline is firmly enforced; any natural recognition of common fineness is discouraged. These women who have pledged themselves to live among suffering, never allow themselves for a moment to guess what the sight of them means to us chaps in the cots. Perhaps that also is a part of their sacrifice. But we follow them with our eyes, and we wish that they would allow themselves to guess. For so many months we have not seen a woman; there have been so many hours when we expected never again to see a woman. We’re Lazaruses exhumed and restored to normal ways of life by the fluke of having collected a bit of shrapnel—we haven’t yet got used to normal ways. The mere rustle of a woman’s skirt fills us with unreasonable delight and makes the eyes smart with memories of old longings. Those childish longings of the trenches! No one can understand them who has not been there, where all personal aims are a wash-out and the courage to endure remains one’s sole possession.