Dunstan's memories of World War I are a whirlwind of chaos and destruction. A meticulous historian, he feels unable to adequately chronicle his deployment into hell.
In his telling, he spends three years in the Great War, from 1915 through 1917. It is his first time away from Deptford, and he battles both extreme homesickness and loneliness. Contrary to the war stories of camaraderie that were later told, he makes no lasting friendships in the Second Division, and is interested in nothing of the infantry life. Instead, he performs a litany of monotonous chores, all the while longing for the pursuits - like reading - that give him pleasure.
Though Dunstan initially believes the Allied propaganda about the Germans, he soon notices that many of his comrades also perpetrate the lascivious behavior attributed to the enemy.
Once transferred to France, Dunstan finds his boredom mixed with fear and terror as he sees many of his fellow Canadians killed or maimed beyond description. The only book he manages to procure is a small pocket Bible, which he reads regularly despite his lack of religion. Assuming him to be pious, Dunstan's fellow soldiers nickname him Deacon. He is only able to dispel that nickname by performing a particularly vaudevillian rendition of a Charlie Chaplin routine. This earns him the nickname Charlie. Overall, his responsible and introverted nature impresses his superiors, who promote him to the rank of sergeant.
One night in 1917, the Canadians are deployed to what would be called the Third Battle of Ypres. The front is muddy and ugly, so the soldiers are terrified. Nevertheless, they are ordered to sneak across the lines to hopefully wipe out the German machine-gunners who are firing on them.
When some flares fire in the air, he fears one might land on him, so he runs mindlessly. Accidentally, he stumbles upon a German machine gun nest, and for his own protection kills the three snipers there. Afraid he will be found in the nest, he wanders back into the mayhem, and is struck in the leg by enemy shrapnel. He crawls to the shambles of a destroyed church, slowly bleeding to death. He sees flares in the sky, and worries one might come down on him. As he recalls Mrs. Dempster's parting advice - not to be afraid - he looks up to see a statue of the Virgin Mary, and recognizes Mrs. Dempster's face on the figure. He immediately identifies the moment as a miracle before losing consciousness. (We later learn he was struck by the flare after all.)
For a while, Dunstan exists in a strange state of existence, "wonderfully at ease and healingly at peace," all the while visited by the Madonna with the face of Mrs. Dempster (78).
Eventually, though, he regains consciousness in a hospital in England, disoriented and with one leg amputated. His torso has been badly burnt, and one of his arms is extremely weak.
While recovering, he grows close with a pretty young nurse named Diana Marfleet, whose fiancé had died during the war. Over time, they become lovers. Dunstan is fascinated by her - she is older than him, a quick wit (unlike Leola), and kind. Further, she is the first woman he ever sleeps with.
Soon, Dunstan is given the news that he has been awarded the prestigious Victoria Cross for his bravery in battle. (In particular, Canada is honoring him for killing the German snipers, something he did without any thought of heroism.)
Dunstan also learns that both of his parents have died from a flu epidemic that swept through Canada in 1918. They both died thinking that Dunstan had perished in the war, since he was not identified for some time after being rescued. Strangely, he feels relieved about their passing, since it means he will not have to relive history after returning to Deptford. Instead, he feels reborn.
While in the hospital, Dunstan continues his relationship with Diana, even spending time with her wealthy parents who live nearby.
When Dunstan travels to London to receive the V.C (Victoria Cross) from the King himself, he is initially turned off by the pageantry involved. However, he decides these things are part of war and he might as well be involved.
He has a revelation when meeting the King, realizing that just as he is pretending to be a hero, the King is pretending to be an authority. He realizes that "we cast [people] in roles" in life, and that it is a challenge to live up to that (87).
Though Dunstan loves Leola very much, he is well aware that this relationship might not survive his time there, because of his own feelings. While she is interested in marriage, he is not ready to settle down, and worries that her motherly affection will eventually smother him like his own mother's did.
Also while in the hospital, he receives occasional letters from Leola, which are compassionate but avoid any explicit reference to their relationship. He also notices, more than ever before, how simple and unlearned she is.
While staying with Diana's parents over one Christmas, Dunstan and Diana finally confront the question of their future together. He admits that he cannot see himself with her, especially now that he has learned to walk with a prosthetic leg and will soon return to Canada. He feels compelled to live as a new man there. Though initially devastated, Diana eventually understands his perspective, and performs an impromptu ceremony, re-christening him as "Dunstan" from his given name of Dunstable.
Dunstan returns to Deptford to receive a hero’s welcome, which begins with a huge parade outside the Opera house. The next day, the town throws a huge celebration for the returned veterans, whose number includes Percy as well as Dunstan. During the ceremony, he notices a big ring around Leola's finger, and surmises that she has returned to Percy. He is slightly offended that she kept this news from him, though not at all emotionally upset.
Immediately after the ceremony, Dunstan publicly gives Percy and Leola his blessing. He also flashes his V.C. medal much, to Percy’s chagrin.
Dunstan visits his empty house to collect his belongings and a special item that remains undisclosed. From Milo - now the town barber - he learns of all the gossip he missed. Apparently, people had always thought Mrs. Ramsay had continued to send Dunstan to visit Mrs. Dempster after her encounter with the vagrant. Mrs. Dempster survived the flu epidemic, but her husband did not. Paul Dempster, who was mocked viciously after his mother's shame, eventually ran away with the circus. Distraught at her son's disappearance and unable to take care of herself, Mrs. Dempster was taken in by an aunt who lives in Weston, near Toronto.
Dunstan auctions off his parent’s house and leaves town for Toronto, where he attends University and loses himself in history and literature.
Dunstan Ramsey comes of age in Part 2. Like many young men were, he is thrown into the chaos of war, baptized by fire at the front lines, a virgin with a rifle simply trying to survive. He is affected in many ways by his experience there.
Though Dustan explicitly tries to gloss over the terrors of war, they have clearly transformed him. The first and most immediate way reflects the novel's realistic tendency. His attitude towards life and death is entirely skewed after the war, which helps to explain why he spends the rest of his life as interested in man's spiritual nature as physical. Having witnessed so much destruction, Dunstan finds it better to think on man's potential than on his actuality; after all, the latter can be so easily annihilated.
Secondly, the war deepens his conflicted relationship with religion. Though he remains an atheist throughout his life, his time with the pocket Bible establishes his sense of life as powerful but destructive. More interested in the Old Testament saints - who brave difficulties for faith - than in the New Testament stories of redemption, Dunstan clearly recognizes the world's destructive power. And yet he is also aware that the power of myth can be redemptive. In the same way these stories keep him distracted from the war's terrors, so can the mythic undercurrents of the world bring us solace.
Finally, Dunstan does not only come of age, but is in fact "born again" by the war. He is given a chance to remake himself, and this happens largely through what he considers Mrs. Dempster’s second miracle. While lying bloodied beside an old crumbling church, Dunstan is shocked to see a statue of the Holy Virgin, with Mary Dempster's face.
While he will spend the rest of his life trying to understand this vision, we can already surmise that he has been so affected by her simplicity, her ability to suffer the world's tortures with equanimity, that her image provides solace in the face of these terrible troubles. This revelation proves both blessing and curse for Dunstan. He is able to survive the war and establish a new life because of it, but he remains always somewhat separated from life, unwilling to directly confront it, as Mrs. Dempster did. Not until he meets Liesl will this attitude get challenged.
The first encounter with unfiltered life that Dunstan has after being "born again" comes through Diana. She is the first truly worldly woman he has ever met; while his mother was entirely provincial and Leola is a simple girl, Diana is intellectual, witty, socially assertive and self-aware. Further, she is not only sexually experienced but also willing to initiate Dunstan into that world. For a young man, this makes her an abundantly important figure. Because Diana is there, Dunstan is able to suffer his handicaps - a missing leg, terrible burns - as badges of a sort. They are evidence that he has been reborn into a new, different life.
Ironically, though, Diana also teaches Dunstan that he is not fit for a conventional life. The idea of marriage and running a farm that entices her only frightens him. What he does not express, but the reader can see, is that Dunstan is not only rejecting her, but also his mother. In effect, he is rejecting the role of a 'leading woman,' to use the ideas that Liesl will later teach him. He does not belong as the hero of a story. Instead, he is the "Fifth Business," the supporting role. He does not have such understanding at this point in his narrative, but his willingness to reject being the 'leading man' establishes a new path, one he will stay upon until Liesl later challenges his assumptions. And indeed, Dunstan’s ingrained alienation from the intimacy of women will haunt him for the rest of his life (at least in this novel).
The moment is made explicit when Diana, after finally realizing that Dunstan is not simply capricious but in fact has a vision for his life, rechristens him, changing his name from the very Protestant “Dunstable” to the rather Catholic “Dunstan.” In some ways, it seems that Diana understands Dunstan better than most women in his life ever would. The new name underscores his continued fascination with saints, as well as his ever-present guilt. It is also a rejection of all things Protestant that shaped him and constrained him in Deptford, and yet it also marks the way he is isolated from any faith community. He has rejected his Protestantism, but is not Catholic. Thus, Dunstan accepts with this new name a perpetual outsider status, a sort of “Fifth Business” to religion.
And yet Dunstan is also ready to reject his past. He feels little other than liberation when he learns of his parents' deaths, suggesting that the shackles of small-minded Deptford are anathema to him. His time in Deptford, with its strange pageantry about the war, only convinces him that he wants to move on. He wishes to write away what he was.
Of course, the novel suggests time and again that this is impossible. His life remains interlinked with those of both Percy and Paul, since the mythic undercurrents of it began in Deptford. This desire to define ourselves, but the impossibility of fully doing it, is reflected in what Dunstan realizes in meeting the King. He discovers that we often try to fill the roles life gives us, even though we are not in fact defined by those. Similarly, Dunstan will spend his life believing he has become someone different, only to discover much later on that he is both the person he wants to be and the person created in Deptford.