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Date: January 26th 1917
"My Very Dear Ones"
Coningsby Dawson

January 26th, 1917.

My Very Dear Ones:

Here I am back—my nine days' leave a dream. I got into our wagon-lines last night after midnight, having had a cold ride along frozen roads through white wintry country. I was only half-expected, so my sleeping-bag hadn't been unpacked. I had to wake my batman and tramp about a mile to the billet; by the time I got there every one was asleep, so I spread out my sleeping-sack and crept in very quietly. For the few minutes before my eyes closed I pictured London, the taxis, the gay parties, the mystery of lights. I was roused this morning with the news that I had to go up to the gun-position at once. I stole just sufficient time to pick up a part of my accumulated mail, then got on my horse and set out. At the guns, I found that I was due to report as liaison officer, so here I am in the trenches again writing to you by candle-light. How wonderfully we have bridged the distance in spending those nine whole days together. And now it is over, and I am back in the trenches, and to-morrow you're sailing for New York.

I can't tell you what the respite has meant to me. There have been times when my whole past life has seemed a myth and the future an endless prospect of carrying on. Now I can distantly hope that the old days will return.

When I was in London half my mind was at the Front; now that I'm back in the trenches half my mind is in London. I re-live our gay times together; I go to cosy little dinners; I sit with you in the stalls, listening to the music; then I tumble off to sleep, and dream, and wake up to find the dream a delusion. It's a fine and manly contrast, however, between the game one plays out here and the fretful trivialities of civilian life.

January 27th.
I got as far as this and then "something" happened. Twenty-four hours have gone by and once more it's nearly midnight and I write to you by candle-light. Since last night I've been with these infantry boy-officers who are doing such great work in such a careless spirit of jolliness. Any softness which had crept into me during my nine days of happiness has gone. I'm glad to be out here and wouldn't wish to be anywhere else till the war is ended.

It's a week to-day since we were at Charlie's Aunt—such a cheerful little party! I expect the boys are doing their share of remembering too somewhere on the sea at present. I know you are, as you round the coast of Ireland and set out for the Atlantic. I've not been out of my clothes for three days and I've another day to go yet. I brought my haversack into the trenches with me; on opening it I found that some kind hands had slipped into it some clean socks and a bottle of Horlick's Malted Milk tablets.

The signallers in a near-by dug-out are singing Keep the Home-Fires Burning Till the Boys Come Home. That's what we're all doing, isn't it—you at your end and we at ours? The brief few days of possessing myself are over and once more stern duty lies ahead. But I thank God for the chance I've had to see again those whom I love, and to be able to tell them with my own lips some of the bigness of our life at the Front. No personal aims count beside the great privilege which is ours to carry on until the war is over.

All my thoughts are with you—so many memories of kindness. I keep on picturing things I ought to have done—things I ought to have told you. Always I can see, Oh, so vividly, the two sailor brothers waving good-bye as the train moved off through the London dusk, and then that other and forlorner group of three, standing outside the dock gates with the sentry like the angel in Eden, turning them back from happiness. With an extraordinary aloofness I watched myself moving like a puppet away from you whom I love most dearly in all the world—going away as if going were a thing so usual.

I'm asking myself again if there isn't some new fineness of spirit which will develop from this war and survive it. In London, at a distance from all this tragedy of courage, I felt that I had slipped back to a lower plane; a kind of flabbiness was creeping into my blood—the old selfish fear of life and love of comfort. It's odd that out here, where the fear of death should supplant the fear of life, one somehow rises into a contempt for everything which is not bravest. There's no doubt that the call for sacrifice, and perhaps the supreme sacrifice, can transform men into a nobility of which they themselves are unconscious. That's the most splendid thing of all, that they themselves are unaware of their fineness.

I'm now waiting to be relieved and am hurrying to finish this so that I may mail it as soon as I get back to the battery. There's a whole sack of letters and parcels waiting for me there, and I'm as eager to get to them as a kiddy to inspect his Christmas stocking. I always undo the string and wrappings with a kind of reverence, trying to picture the dear kneeling figures who did them up. In London I didn't dare to let myself go with you—I couldn't say all that was in my heart—it wouldn't have been wise. Don't ever doubt that the tenderness was there. Even though one is only a civilian in khaki, some of the soldier's sternness becomes second nature.

All the country is covered with snow—it's brilliant clear weather, more like America than Europe. I'm feeling strong as a horse, ever so much better than I felt when on leave. Life is really tremendously worth living, in spite of the war.

January 28th.
I'm back at the battery, sitting by a cosy fire. I might be up at Kootenay by the look of my surroundings. I'm in a shack with a really truly floor, and a window looking out on moonlit whiteness. If it wasn't for the tapping of the distant machine guns—tapping that always sounds to me like the nailing up of coffins—I might be here for pleasure. In imagination I can see your great ship, with all its portholes aglare, ploughing across the darkness to America. The dear sailor brothers I can't quite visualise; I can only see them looking so upright and pale when we said good-bye. It's getting late and the fire's dying. I'm half asleep; I've not been out of my clothes for three nights. I shall tell myself a story of the end of the war and our next meeting—it'll last from the time that I creep into my sack until I close my eyes. It's a glorious life.

Yours very lovingly,

Original Scans

Original Scans