Coningsby Dawson

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.

8 Comments

  1. Andy Frayn
    Posted June 14, 2007 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating – partic as part of a movement away from the Good Life > Good Death model which I see as being a key part of the development of post-war literature.

    The book is from 1918, by the way.

  2. Andy Frayn
    Posted June 16, 2007 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    And does anyone know if you can get at the John Lane archives? Looking at the debate on the title it also made me think of Ford’s The Good Soldier. Or is it part of the Penguin “We don’t like scholars” archive?

  3. Posted June 16, 2007 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Like so much of Britain’s literary history, the John Lane archive is at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Texas.

    (according to the Weedon list of archives, online at SHARP web)

  4. Anne
    Posted August 5, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I recently read “Glory of the Trenches” and was struck by how similar it appears in message and tone to Ernst Junger’s “In Stahlgewittern.”

    Propaganda, glorification of war and a trainwreck in the making, curiously both written around the same time and towards the same goals.

    What struck me most was the sharp difference between public perception and treatment of the invalided as it has been established and his glorification and (wilfull? propagandistic?) failure to see behind the curtain.

    • Posted August 7, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      For me, the interesting thing is that Dawson acknowledges ‘the squalor, filth, discomfort and suffering of the trenches’ before stating explicitly that his account of the War will be very different.
      So I don’t think you can actually accuse him of a ‘failure to see behind the curtain’ so much as a deliberate decision not to dwell on that aspect of the War.
      Propaganda? Maybe, but that word suggests a top-down misleading of the masses. I suspect that in Dawson’s case it was more a matter of his voicing an idealism that he shared with his readers – and which they were willing to pay good money to read about.

      • Anne
        Posted August 7, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        Maybe you’ve got to read it side by side with “In Stahlgewittern” and “A Soldier’s Diary” (Ralph Scott Atkinson), which both also are from the same time period and by similar (in biography and standing) authors to make the connection. You might add Remarque’s book to that bunch.

        I don’t really see where he does more than give lip service to reality and it’s rather clear he refrains from acknowledging the horrors or even does as much as try to point out what is behind the front of the so often-cited invalids’ cheer. As I consider him, as per what he does and how he does it, as an intelligent writer, the only conclusion is that he is being manipulative on purpose. Given period and time that puts him on a level with Junger.

        This also makes it quite clear: “…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…”

        If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

        Especially when you compare to Atkinson’s book which I consider being rather balanced for something written by a participant. He is very matter-of-fact, the very bloodymindedness that Dawson so glorifies, but he not only acknowledges the horrors, he owns up to (in a very different manner) his and his men’s fears, he gives a realistic impression of what took place (which Dawson for all his posing does not), also a sophisticated and reflected one, and what really bowled me over when reading him, he has an almost modern insight into shell-shock/PTSD from an inside vantage point. He ends with showing the hell behind his more or less smiling face, something that Dawson entirely refuses to address and instead lies about.

        Reading all these together made a lot of sense of something R. Holmes wrote of “a brave and distinguished” old veteran who, after nearly seventy years, “wept softly…as he described a popular officer who had been literally disemboweled by a shell fragment.”…”We thought we had managed all right,” he told Holmes, “kept the awful things out of our minds, but now I’m an old man and they come out from where I hid them. Every night.” (quote from “On Killing”)

        Which leaves you with the question of whether Dawson belongs to the 2% of real sociopaths at large in any given war, or whether he paints things a rose colour. I think he does the latter and the other word for this, given the topic, is propaganda. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s not as if it hadn’t happened.

        Off my soap here, sorry, Dawson’s book was rather distasteful to read and I’m really of the opinion that just calling it more or less naive and enthusiastic is misleading in a way and allowing him a far too easy getaway.

  5. Posted August 7, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Yet Ralph Scott Atkinson is as propagandist in his own way as Dawson. He states his agenda:
    ‘The only way to stop war is to tell these facts in the school history books and cut out the rot about the gallant charges, the victorious returns, and the blushing damsels who scatter roses under the conquering heroes’ feet.’
    Here he has surely set up a straw man for easy marksmanship. Was anyone in 1918 really talking about war in this way?

    • Anne
      Posted August 7, 2012 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      I’d say the majority of them did. I’m reading myself currently through some 300-350 war diaries of soldiers and another few dozen of non-combatant participants, not all of which are sophisticated or were written by erudite officers.

      I’m through a third of them and Dawson’s agenda is followed suit by a real minority and even among that minority (so far maybe 4-5% if even that many) there is a large faction of men clearly trying to deal with what they did by seeking ulterior justifications. Which is an understandable and psycho-pathologic act. I’m not giving Dawson that, he is much too calculating.

      Atkinson may have had a purpose, but he goes about it without any bathos and also without propaganda tricks. His account is quite balanced, if you can talk about balance where it comes to what actually took place during that war. Large stretches of his diary are written very matter-of-factly, very toned down and stiff upper lip. When horror creeps in it is almost always his own and it is not dramatised.

      That is supported by e.g. A.A. Martin, who on the face of it could be thrown in with Dawson. But where Dawson engaged in outright lies, Martin, in spite of all his bluster and imperial arrogance, like Atkinson writes down what actually happened:

      “…I well remember at the hospital at Bethune one man who had had to have his arm off at the shoulder joint for a bad shrapnel wound. He was dangerously ill and semi-conscious for several days. When he had fully roused to his surroundings and the knowledge of his weakness he was like a little child, crying and begging me to get him away from the sound of the firing. He said that he would be happy if only he could get away to some place where he would not hear the sound of the guns. On the day the German aeroplane dropped a bomb near the hospital the windows of the building shook and rattled with the concussion, and this poor devil screamed aloud with terror and tried to get out of the bed and crawl away–anywhere from the sound of the firing…”

      Absolutely different (and not just this one account of a patient either, he has more in the same line) from what Dawson does, even though Martin is quite cocksure and convinced at the time that this war had merits. That’s the difference I am talking about, that’s where Dawson manipulates and where people as differently minded about that war as Martin and Atkinson don’t do that.

      Phew! Hefty discussion for so early this morning😉


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