James H. Rawlinson.

Through St. Dunstan's to Light online

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[Illustration: Private James H. Rawlinson]

Through St. Dunstan's to Light











My Ticket for Blighty 1


In Blighty 14


At St. Dunstan's 23


Braille 32


The Spirit of St. Dunstan's 37


Air Raids 45


Royal Visitors 55


In Playtime 61


Memories of the Fighting Front 68


The Point of View of the Sightless 74


Private James H. Rawlinson _Frontispiece_

The Boot-Repairing Workshop _Facing Page_ 12

Sir Arthur Pearson " " 16

St. Dunstan's: The House " " 24

The Carpenter Shop " " 30

The Braille Room " " 34

Mat Weaving " " 56

Sightless Canadian Four " " 66

Basket Weaving " " 84




In the World War, it was not only the men who went "over the top" to
assault enemy positions who ran great risks. Scouts, snipers, patrols,
working parties, all took their lives in their hands every time they
ventured into No Man's Land, and even those who were engaged in
essential work behind the lines were far from being safe from death or
wounds. On the morning of June 7th, 1917, before dawn had broken, I was
out with a working party. Suddenly, overhead, sounded the ominous
drumming and droning of an aeroplane. It proved to be a Hun plane; the
aviator had spotted us, and was speedily in touch with the battery for
which he was working. Fortunately for us, he had mistaken our exact
position, and evidently thought we were on a road which ran towards the
front line about thirty yards to our left. The enemy guns, in answer to
his signals, opened up with a terrific fire, and the scenery round about
was soon in a fine mess. Shells of varying calibre came thundering in
our direction, throwing up, as they burst, miniature volcanoes and
filling the air with dust and mud and smoke. This shell-fire continued
for about three-quarters of an hour, but due to the defect in the
aviator's signals and our own skill in taking cover we suffered no
casualties. We were congratulating ourselves that we were to pass
through this ordeal uninjured, when suddenly a 5.9-inch shell fell
short. It exploded almost in our midst, and I was unlucky enough to get
in the way of one of the shrapnel bullets. I felt a slight sting in my
right temple as though pricked by a red-hot needle - and then the world
became black.

Dawn was now breaking, but night had sealed my eyes, and I could only
grope my way among my comrades. I was hit about 2.30 a.m., and it
speaks volumes for the Medical Service that at 2 p.m. I was tucked
safely in bed in a thoroughly-equipped hospital many miles from the
scene of my mishap.

Willing hands tenderly dressed my wounds and led me to the foot of the
ridge on which we were located. I was then placed on a stretcher, and
carried up the slope to one of the narrow-gauge railways that had been
run to the crest of Vimy Ridge. I was now taken to the end of what is
called the Y Road, and thence borne to one of the ambulances which are
always in waiting there, grim reminders of the work in hand.

My first impression of my ambulance driver was that I had fallen into
the hands of a Good Samaritan. He was most solicitous about the welfare
of the "head-case," and kept showering me with questions, such as: "Are
you comfortable, Mac?" (everyone in the Canadian Corps was "Mac" to the
stranger). "Tell me if I am driving too fast for you; you know, the
roads are a little lumpy round here." I didn't know it, but I was
quickly to become aware of the fact. His words and his driving did not
harmonize; if he missed a single shell-hole in the wide stretch of
France through which he drove, it was not his fault. I shall never
forget the agony of that drive; but at length, bruised and shaken, I
arrived at the Casualty Clearing Station at - but, no, I will not mention
its name; some of my readers may know the men who were there at the time
of my arrival, and there is pain enough in the world without
unnecessarily adding to the total. At the Clearing Station I learned two
things: First, that all the best souvenirs of the war are in the
possession of men who seldom or never saw the front line; and, secondly,
the real meaning, so far as the wounded "Tommy" is concerned, of the
letters R.A.M.C. The official records say they stand for the Royal Army
Medical Corps; but ask the men who have passed through the hands of the
Corps. They'll tell you with picturesque vehemence, and there will be
nothing Royal or Medical in their answer. For my own poor part, here's
hoping that the thirty-eight francs that disappeared from my pockets
while in their hands did some good somewhere. But I sadly wanted that
money while in the hospital at Boulogne to satisfy a craving I had for
oranges. Perhaps the beer or _eau de vie_ that it no doubt purchased did
more good than the oranges would have done me. Again, let us hope so!

From the Casualty Clearing Station I was taken to the hospital at St.
Omer, which was later to be laid flat by Hun air raids. And here, for
the first time, I realized the full weight of the calamity that had
overtaken me, and what being "windy" really meant. I was first visited
by the M.O., who removed my bandage and had my head skilfully dressed;
after him came a priest of the Church to which I belonged, who
administered to me the rites of the Church; then followed the assistant
matron, who endeavoured to cheer me up by asking if I wished to have any
letters written home. Before my inward eyes there began to flash visions
of a newspaper notice: "Died of wounds." But although a bit alarmed,
more by the attentions shown me than by my physical condition, the
thought of pegging-out never seriously entered my mind.

I spent four days at the hospital at St. Omer, and was then transferred
to Boulogne, together with a New Zealand sergeant who was in the same
plight as myself, and whom I later had the pleasure of meeting under
more favourable and happier conditions at dear old St. Dunstan's. At
Boulogne, I was given a thorough examination, and the doctors concluded
that an absolutely useless member of the body was an unnecessary burden
to the bearer, and so they removed what remained of my left eye. I was
still vainly hoping that my right eye, which was remote from my wound,
might recover its sight; but as the days crept by while the blackness of
night hung about me I grew alarmed, and one day I asked the O.C.
hospital why he was constantly lifting up my right eyelid. Truth to
tell, I was scared stiff with the thought that they were contemplating
removing my remaining eye, but I gave no outward sign of my fear. No
matter how "windy" one is, it would never do to let the other fellow
know it, at least not while you are wearing the uniform of the
Canadians. I, therefore, quickly followed my first question with the
inquiry if he thought he might yet get some daylight into my right eye.
"When?" he questioned. And, still clinging to the hope that I was not to
be forever in the dark, I replied, "In five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five
years; any time, so long as I get some light." In answer, he merely
patted me on the shoulder, saying: "Never mind, things are not always
quite so bad as they look." Then he moved away from my cot, and a moment
later I heard him talking in undertones to another officer. This
officer, whom he now brought to my bedside, proved to be Captain Towse,
the bravest man it has ever been my privilege to meet, and while I was
up the line I met many brave men who, where duty called, counted life
not at a pin's fee.

Captain Towse is a double V.C. It is hard enough to get the Cross
itself, and there are few men who dare even to dream of a bar to it. I
was now in personal touch with a man who, in distant Africa, during the
Great Boer War, with both eyes shot away, had gallantly stood firm,
urging his men to the charge. He came to my bedside with a cheery:
"Good morning, Canada! How is the boy this morning?" My answer was the
usual one of the boys in France: "Jakealoo!" Then he pointedly asked me
a question that set me wondering at its purport.

"You are a soldier, are you not, Canada?"

I replied with a somewhat mournful: "Well, I was one time, but I can't
say much as to the truth of that now."

Then he hit me harder than any Hun shell could hit a man. He snapped out
in a voice penetrating, yet with a cheery ring to it: "Well, you are
blind, and for life. How do you like it?"

For about five seconds (it was no longer) the night that sealed my eyes
seemed to clutch my soul. I was for the moment "down and out"; but I
braced my spirits in the presence of this dominating man. I would show
him how a Canadian soldier could bear misfortune. So I gathered myself
together as best I could under the circumstances; swore just a little to
ease my nervous strain, and replied: "That's a hell of a thing to tell a

Then came words that rolled a mighty load from heart and brain. Captain
Towse praised my soldierly bearing under misfortune, and praise from
this blind double V.C. meant much. He had been sorely smitten at a time
when there was no St. Dunstan's, no Sir Arthur Pearson, to make his
blindness into just a handicap, instead of what it nearly always was
before the days of St. Dunstan's, an unparalleled affliction. But
Captain Towse beat blindness, and did it, for the most part, alone.

Now the cruel fact had to be faced; the only world I would see
henceforth would be that conjured up by the imagination from memories of
the past. Then the difficulties of the future crowded upon me. Even if I
were not to see as other people do I should still have to eat; and
dinners do not grow by the roadside, and if they did I could not see to
pick them up.

"Well, Jim," I said to myself, "you are in a fine fix; what are you
going to do to get those three square meals a day that you were
accustomed to in civil life?" Then I began to wonder what particular
street and what street corner in old Toronto would be best suited for
selling matches, bootlaces, pencils, and postcards. While in this vein,
I conjured up visions of cold, grey days, days when customers did not
appear, and imagined myself led home at night without having enough to
buy even a meal. My humour suggested strolling along the roadside
singing doleful songs. I even chose a song, "The Blind Boy," by the late
W. G. Chirgwin, on which I might try my voice.

All this passed through my mind while Captain Towse was still standing
by my cot.

I was suddenly startled from my gruesome speculations by the captain
asking me if I had made up my mind to go to St. Dunstan's. I had to
confess that I did not know the place, where it was, or what it was for.
Then he told me that he wished to take down some particulars regarding
me. He wanted to know my full name, regimental number, when I was hit,
where I received my wound, who was my next of kin, and many other
particulars, all of which I, at that time, thought a most unnecessary
and foolish proceeding.

While the Captain was questioning me, I heard a rapid, clicking sound
following each of my answers. The noise fascinated me, and after a brief
time I made bold to ask him what it was. The answer fairly staggered me.

"It's a Braille machine," he replied. "I am writing down your answers."

I knew he was blind - blinder than any bat; and, in my ignorance, I asked
him, in an irritated voice, if he thought that it was fair to try "to
kid" a man who had just been told that he would never again have the use
of his eyes. He uttered no word, but I had a feeling that a smile was
playing on his lips; and the next moment the machine he had been
operating was placed in my hands. He then began patiently to explain its
use, and what a moment before had seemed an utter impossibility I
realized to be a fact. Although the blind could not see, they at least
had it in their power to put down their thoughts without the aid of a
second party; and, not only that, the world of knowledge was no longer a
sealed book - they could read as well as write. The eye had been
accustomed to carry the printed word to the brain; now the finger tips
could take the place of eyes. I now recalled that I had seen a blind man
sitting at a street corner, running his fingers over the pages of a big
book; but I had paid no heed to it, thinking it merely a fake
performance to gain sympathy from the public. I told this to Captain
Towse, and he replied kindly that I should soon learn much greater
things about the blind. At St. Dunstan's, he said, there were about
three hundred men, all more or less sightless, making baskets, mats,
hammocks, nets, bags, and dozens of other useful articles, mending
boots, doing carpentry, learning the poultry business, fitting
themselves for massage work, and, what seemed to me most incredible,
taking up stenography as an occupation.

[Illustration: The Boot-Repairing Workshop]

Men - men who could not see as did other men, were doing these things;
straightway, the old street corner, the selling of matches and
shoelaces, the street strolling singing in a cracked voice while
twanging some tuneless instrument, vanished. Other men had risen above
this crowning infirmity; why could not I. Boulogne and this meeting
with Captain Towse had saved me. Gloom vanished, for the moment at any
rate, and my whole being was animated by a great resolve - the resolve to
win in the battle of life, even though I had to fight against fearful



It was with a sense of relief that, shortly after this, I received word
that I was to be sent to England. To me, it was the promised land, in
which I was to be fitted to take my place as a useful, independent
member of society. The trip to Dover was pleasant and exhilarating; the
run to London a bit tedious. But an incident that occurred on my arrival
at Charing Cross Station touched my heart as has nothing else in my
life, and my misfortune seemed, for the moment, almost a blessing; it
taught me that hearts beat right and true, and that about me were men
and women eager to cheer me on as I played the game of life.

It was just one of London's flower-girls, one of the women who
religiously meet the hospital trains and shower on the wounded soldiers
the flowers they have not sold - flowers, no doubt, held back from sale
in most cases for this charitable purpose. When the attendants were
moving me from the train and placing me on a stretcher, I was gently
touched, and a large bunch of roses placed in my hand. The act was
accompanied by the words: "'Ere ye are, Tommy. These 'ere roses will
'elp to liven things up a bit when yer gets in the 'ospital. Good luck
to you, matey; may yer soon get better." The voice was harsh and
unmusical. Grammar and accent showed that it had been trained in the
slums; but the kindly act, the sympathetic words, touched my soul.

The act was much to me, but the flowers were nothing. In answer to the
girl's good wishes, I replied that I did not see as well as I used to,
and that my power of enjoying the perfume of flowers had also been taken
from me; perhaps there were some other wounded boys who could appreciate
the beauty and scent of the flowers better than I could, and she had
better put them on one of their stretchers. But she left them with me,
and, in a voice in which I could detect a tear, said: -

"Well, matey, if yer can't see, yer can feel. Let's give yer a kiss."

I nodded assent, and then I received the first kiss from a woman's lips
that I had had since I left home - and then she passed away, but the
memory of that kiss remains, and will remain while life lasts.

I was now taken to St. George's Hospital, and from there to No. 2 London
General Hospital (old St. Mark's College), Chelsea. In this institution
I met for the first time one of the geniuses of the present age, a man
who spent his life working not with clay or marble, or wood or metal,
but with human beings, taking the derelicts of life and moulding them
into useful vessels - Sir Arthur Pearson, a true miracle worker, a man
who has given the equivalent of eyes to hundreds of blind people, who
has enabled many men who felt themselves down and out to face life's
battle bravely, teaching them to look upon their affliction as nothing
more than a petty handicap. A few years ago, as everyone knows, Sir
Arthur was one of the leading journalists and publishers in the British
Empire, the true founder of Imperial journalism. At the summit of his
career, while still a comparatively young man, he was smitten with
blindness. He would not let a thing like that beat him; he conquered
blindness, and set himself to help others to conquer it. He soon became
the leading spirit in the education of the blind in Great Britain, and,
despite his handicap, was elected President of the National Institute
for the Blind, and was the guiding star in many organizations
established to aid the sightless. When war broke out his success as an
organizer, his power as a teacher, caused the authorities to choose him
to look after the blinded of the Army and Navy.

[Illustration: Sir Arthur Pearson]

My meeting with Sir Arthur occurred in the following manner. The ward
door was open - I knew that by the gentle breeze that swept across my
cot. Suddenly, from the direction of the door, a cheery voice exclaimed:
"Are any new men here? Where's Rawlinson?"

I answered: "Right here, sir! But who are you?"

"Well, Rawlinson, and how are you getting along? When do they figure on
letting you get away from here? You know, we are waiting for you at St.

I knew then that the man standing by my cot was the famous Sir Arthur. I
shook hands with him, and thanked him for his kindly interest in asking
about me. I offered him the chair that always stands beside the hospital
bed. He must have heard me moving some objects I had placed on it, in
order to have them within reach of my hands.

"Never mind the chair," he said. "Just sit up a bit; there is room
enough on the bed for both of us. Have you got a cigarette to give a

I apologized, saying that I had only - - - - , and that I didn't think
he would care to smoke them.

"Do you smoke them?" he questioned. "If they're good enough for you to
smoke, they're good enough for me."

That set me right at my ease. I was in the presence of a knight; but he
was first and last a _man_. Straight to the point he went. He never puts
a man through that bugbear of the soldier, a host of seemingly
inconsequential questions; he has the particulars of each man who is
likely to come under his direction long before he visits him.

"Have you," he said, "made up your mind to join our happy band at St.
Dunstan's. There's lots of room up there for you, and we want you."

Just here I would remark that No. 2 General was a sort of preparatory
school for St. Dunstan's. The adjutant from one of the St. Dunstan's
establishments, either the House, College, or Bungalow, came to read the
newspapers and talk with the men who were to study under him. So we had
by this means picked up much information about Sir Arthur, and knew the
man even before meeting him; but the being conjured up by our
imagination fell far short of the real man. He did not come to your
bedside commiserating with you over your misfortune. He was totally
unlike the average visitor, whose one aim seemed to be to impress on you
some appropriate - often most inappropriate, considering your
condition - text of scripture. Well, he was with me, and we talked and
smoked, the knight and the private soldier, both blind, but both
completely ignoring the fact. During our talk darkness seemed to
vanish, and I saw a great light - the battle could be won, and I would
win it. After that conference, I knew full well that I should not be a
burden upon anybody, sightless though I was.

Up to this time my idea of a blind man was just what is or was that of
the average sighted person - a man groping his way about the streets or
standing at some conspicuous corner with a card hanging on his breast
telling the world that he could not see; a cup to hold the coppers that
the sympathetic public would drop into it; and last, but not least, a
faithful little dog, his friend and guide. During the first days of my
blindness I often wondered where I was going to get a suitable pup.

While at No. 2 London General, preparation for my future work went on.
As soon as I was able to get out of bed, I was taken once each week to
St. Dunstan's to talk with other men in residence there - a species of
initiation. While in hospital, too, as soon as we were able to work a
little, we were given the rudiments of Braille. This was not compulsory;
and if we wished to yield to fate and sit with hands idly folded we
were at liberty to do so. But the majority of the men were eager for
occupation of any kind.

Lying in bed or sitting on a hospital chair, unable to see the objects
about you, there is a danger of deep depression being occasioned by
melancholy brooding. To prevent this, the V.A.D.'s who worked in the St.
Dunstan's Ward saw to it that the men were not left too much to
themselves, and kindly attention kept me from becoming morbid while
waiting for my exchange to St. Dunstan's.

As I was a Canadian, I had to go down to the Canadian Hospital to
receive my final Board - just a matter of that child of the devil,
red-tape. August 13th saw me on my way to Regent's Park, where St.
Dunstan's is situated. My heart leaped within me; I was going to have
first-hand knowledge of the marvellous things about which I had heard. I
was going to learn things that would put me out of the stick, tin-cup,
card-around-my-neck, and little-dog class. Thirteen may be an unlucky
number, but that 13th of August was, notwithstanding my blindness, the
beginning of the happiest year of my life since I left my mother's

On my way to St. Dunstan's, I journeyed from the Marble Arch to Orchard
Street, then by bus up Orchard Street, Upper Baker and Baker Streets,
right past Marylebone, on the right of which stands Madame Tussaud's
famous Wax-Works, and on to Baker Street tube. Just past the tube is
Clarence Gate, one of the entrances to Regent's Park. Entering the
grounds, we followed the park rails until we came to two white stone
pillars. I have painful recollections of these pillars. For the first
two weeks after my arrival at St. Dunstan's I made their acquaintance
frequently, and in no pleasant manner. I was anxious to find my way
about without assistance, and those pillars always seemed to stand in my
way. Head, shoulders, and shins all bumped into them. They would meet me
even if I walked in the broad roadway. And they were hard, very hard.
They were at first a pair of veritable ogres, but in the end I conquered
them, and could walk by them with a jaunty air, whistling a tune of



When I arrived at St. Dunstan's, the place was practically deserted. The
summer holidays were on, and all the men were away, either at their
homes in the British Isles or at one of the annexes of St. Dunstan's.
Sir Arthur sees to it that no man goes without his vacation. Torquay and
Brighton were within easy reach, and at these seaside resorts there were

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Online LibraryJames H. RawlinsonThrough St. Dunstan's to Light → online text (page 1 of 4)