Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Rhymes of a Red Cross Man

by Robert Service
Barse and Hopkins, 1916
(Still published in modern editions)
David F. Beer, Reviewer

One of Many Editions of the Work

 I have no doubt at all the Devil grins,
As seas of ink I spatter.
Ye gods, forgive my ‘literary’ sins—
The other kind don’t matter.

Already immensely popular and prosperous as a poet of the Yukon and the Klondike Gold Rush, Robert William Service was living in Paris when the Great War began.  At 41 he was unable to enlist but got a job as a war correspondent. A few months later he volunteered as a stretcher bearer for an American Red Cross ambulance corps, where he served for several months. In 1916 he published Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, a collection of over 50 poems based on his experiences on the Western Front.

Service’s poems have often been dismissed as mere "verse" or "doggerel" by literary scholars—who frequently say the same of Kipling’s poetry. In my humble opinion this is what makes them readable and enjoyable and at times quite moving. They’re accessible to the ordinary reader who, like me, finds much modern poetry opaque. Often their rhythm sings along like a concert hall song, and the working-class dialect Service frequently employs connects them tellingly to the real world. Rhymes opens with a poetic FOREWORD that explains the circumstances under which he initially composed and "tinkered:"

I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,
By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

Four stanzas later this foreword ends by telling the reader to take or leave these “songs from out the slaughter mill.” But inveterate traveler and adventurer that he was, it’s hard to believe Service was completely turned off by the prospect of war. On 1 August 1914 he wrote "The Call," four stanzas long and conjuring up some of the enthusiasm and excitement felt by many before reality set in:

Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!

High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!

Soon the horror of war did set in, of course, and Robert Service was thrust into all the destruction and bloodshed involved. Perhaps one of his best poems describing his work with the ambulance corps is "The Stretcher-Bearer," where rhythm, rhyme scheme, and homespun dialect all reinforce a sense not of excitement but of inner turmoil and sorrowful questioning:

Service in Uniform in France

My stretcher is one scarlet stain,
And as I tries to scrape it clean,
I tell you wot — I'm sick with pain
For all I've 'eard, for all I've seen;
Around me is the 'ellish night,
And as the war's red rim I trace,
I wonder if in 'Eaven's height,
Our God don't turn away 'Is Face.

I don't care 'oose the Crime may be;
I 'olds no brief for kin or clan;
I 'ymns no 'ate: I only see

As man destroys his brother man;
I waves no flag: I only know,
As 'ere beside the dead I wait,
A million 'earts is weighed with woe,
A million 'omes is desolate.

In drippin' darkness, far and near,
All night I've sought them woeful ones.
Dawn shudders up and still I 'ear
The crimson chorus of the guns.
Look! like a ball of blood the sun
'Angs o'er the scene of wrath and wrong. . . .
"Quick! Stretcher-bearers on the run!"
O Prince of Peace! 'ow long, 'ow long? 

The poems in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man cover many more topics than Service could have possibly experienced in his months at the front, but this diversity only shows that he had a vivid imagination (as his Klondike poems attest) and that he was a keen observer and listener. Terribly wounded soldiers, maimed and blind, are often his subject. The heartbreak of leaving wife and family at home, their sorrow at hearing bad news, sympathy for wounded Germans, village girls, and bars, calls to carry on no matter what, the various personalities that were to be found in the army, all are grist for his mill. A eulogy to "A Pot of Tea" includes a nice refrain:

In back rooms of estaminays I've gurgled pints of cham;
I've swilled down mugs of cider till I've felt a bloomin' dam;
But 'struth! they all ain't in it with the vintage of Assam:
God bless the man that first invented Tea!

Several poems are reminiscent of Service’s most popular earlier poems, such as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and "The Cremation of Sam McGee." In Rhymes we find, for example, "The Whistle of Sandy McGraw," a long and sad poem in Scots dialect that begins with:

You may talk o' your lutes and your dulcimers  fine,
Your harps and your tabors and cymbals and a',
But here in the trenches jist gie me for mine
The wee penny whistle o' Sandy McGraw.

A common theme in a lot of war poetry is the soldier on sentry duty or at other idle moments pondering about the enemy. I call this the "empathy poem," and one of Service’s pieces does this well. ‘A Song of the Sandbags’ is a relatively long poem. Here’s the beginning, but it’s worth reading the whole poem to get its full effect:

No, Bill, I'm not a-spooning out no patriotic tosh 
(The cove be'ind the sandbags ain't a death-or-glory cuss).
And though I strafes 'em good and 'ard I doesn't 'ate the Boch
 I guess they're mostly decent, just the same as most of us.
I guess they loves their 'omes and kids as much as you or me;
And just the same as you or me they'd rather shake than fight;
And if we'd 'appened to be born at Berlin-on-the-Spree
We'd be out there with 'Ans and Fritz, dead sure that we was right.

A-standin' up to the sandbags
    It's funny the thoughts wot come;
Starin' into the darkness,
    'Earin' the bullets 'um;
(Zing! Zip! Ping! Rip!
    'ark 'ow the bullets 'um!)
A-leanin' against the sandbags
    Wiv me rifle under me ear,
Oh, I've 'ad more thoughts on a sentry-go
    Than I used to 'ave in a year.

Perhaps not as polished as the lines of Keats or Shelley or as mighty as Milton’s work, the war poetry of Robert Service, like that of Kipling, Woodbine Willie, Owen Rutter, Laurence Binyon, and a host of others, speaks to us clearly and without pretense. They give us down-to-earth insights and responses. Such poetry can constantly be appreciated by all readers. 


  1. Lovely review of a forgotten poet. And congratulations for defending accessible poetry! It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of modern poets when they’ve chased their audience away.

  2. Bravo! I can't say anymore. These poems would inspire the budding rhymer on a school bench if only they would find their way into an English lesson instead of the Bard of Avon. cheers

  3. For those who enjoy Service's poems, here's "Only a Boche":

  4. And here's "The Mourners," with more biographical information on Service and his war involvement:

  5. And another, Dr. R., is 'Tipperary Days.' They are all well worth reading--which I guess is another way of saying "Buy the book if you like his poems and read them all. Only $8.00!"

    1. Great advice. It's always good to see those who appreciate Service's war poems, David!

  6. In 1971 Country Joe McDonald released an album of Service's war poetry on LP. It includes renditions of Forward, The Call, Young Fellow, My Lad, The Man from Athabaska, The Munition Maker, The Twins, Jean Desprez, War Widow and the haunting The March of the Dead (written about the Boer War). The CD is still available. If you like Service's poetry, I highly recommend it.

  7. As a former tour guide on the battlefields of the western front, I have often recited two of his most dramatic poems, 'Young Fellow my Lad' and 'The Wire'. They often move people to tears. In fact, when I started, I found it difficult to read out loud 'Young Fellow my Lad' as I often got choked up.

  8. Service has been my second favorite poet, only after Robert Frost.