I hadn’t come across Coningsby Dawson until yesterday, when I read an instalment of his The Kingdom Round the Corner in a 1921 magazine. It’s a rather intriguing post-war story, about a demobbed officer who comes home to find his girl attracted to the man who used to be his chauffeur – and whom the fortunes of war have raised to the rank of Brigadier. So it’s looking at the social mobility theme of Locke’s The Mountebank from a different angle.
On the Internet I’ve found an e-text of his wartime book of reportage, The Glory of the Trenches. It’s a deliberately defiant title. As his father explains in a foreword to the book:
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.
I suspect that some soldiers thought more of it than others did.
Despite the book’s overwhelming intention to reinforce a patriotic ideology, it contains some striking passages:
Next to my bed there was a Colonel of a north country regiment, a gallant gentleman who positively refused to die. His wife had been with him for two weeks, a little toy woman with nerves worn to a frazzle, who masked her terror with a brave, set smile. The Colonel had had his leg smashed by a whizz-bang when leading his troops into action. Septic poisoning had set in and the leg had been amputated. It had been found necessary to operate several times owing to the poison spreading, with the result that, being far from a young man, his strength was exhausted. Men forgot their own wounds in watching this one man’s fight for life. He became symbolic of what, in varying degrees, we were all doing. When he was passing through a crisis the whole ward waited breathless. There was the finest kind of rivalry between the night and day sisters to hand him over at the end of each twelve hours with his pulse stronger and temperature lower than when they received him. Each was sure she had the secret of keeping him alive.
You discovered the spirit of the man when you heard him wandering in delirium. All night in the shadowy ward with its hooded lamps, he would be giving orders for the comfort of his men. Sometimes he’d be proposing to go forward himself to a place where a company was having a hot time; apparently one of his officers was trying to dissuade him. “Danger be damned,” he’d exclaim in a wonderfully strong voice. “It’ll buck ’em up to see me. Splendid chaps–splendid chaps!”
About dawn he was usually supposed to be sinking, but he’d rallied again by the time the day-sister arrived. “Still here,” he’d smile in a triumphant kind of whisper, as though bluffing death was a pastime.
One afternoon a padre came to visit him. As he was leaving he bent above the pillow. We learnt afterwards that this was what he had said, “If the good Lord lets you, I hope you’ll get better.”
We saw the Colonel raise himself up on his elbow. His weak voice shook with anger. “Neither God nor the Devil has anything to do with it. I’m going to get well.” Then, as the nurse came hurrying to him, he sank back.