A Red Cross Man: Robert W. Service, Canada’s other war poet

Robert W. Service, courtesy Library and Archives Canada PA-110158
Robert W. Service, courtesy Library and Archives Canada PA-110158

This time of year brings to mind Lt-Colonel John McCrae’s stirring and beautiful poem “In Flanders Fields”, which has become Canada’s de facto war poem and possibly even Canada’s national poem. The Vimy Foundation’s project this year to encourage school children to read the poem meant that McCrae’s words were heard across Canada on 11 November in the centennial year of its writing. “In Flanders Fields” has a nobleness to it that makes it suitable for such solemn occasions, but Canada also has another war poet, though an unexpected one. 

Robert W. Service is commonly called, not altogether kindly, Canada’s Kipling, and his poems of the Yukon Gold Rush are still popular today. Wry, rhythmic and full of colloquialisms; poems like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” painted such a vivid picture of the hardscrabble life in Dawson City that it is easy to forget that Service was actually a bank clerk who never panned for gold.

By the outbreak of the war, Service had left Canada and after a stint as a war correspondent during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 had settled in Paris. After being turned down for enlistment at age 41, Service again worked as a war correspondent with the Toronto Star before leaving to join the American Red Cross as a stretcher bearer. Service worked on the front aiding wounded men with the Red Cross for most of 1916 until ill health forced him to leave. His job brought him in contact constantly with wounded men and the absurdity of war, all of which Service absorbed and later used in his book of war poems “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”, which was dedicated to his 21 year old brother Albert, killed in 1916 while serving with the 52nd Battalion CEF.

Service’s poems are not “In Flanders Fields”. Unlike McCrae, who did not produce much beyond the single poem during his lifetime, Service was a prolific writer and “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” reflects this. He was also an accomplished mimic and observer, creating scenes and voices of the various people on the Front, including French poilus, village girls and British privates. Like his Yukon writings, Service’s war poems are wry, descriptive and lively, though they also contain criticisms of the war like those later seen in Siegfried Sassoon’s writings in 1917.

After the war, Service continued to live in Paris with his wife Germaine and published poetry prolifically until the end of his life. He died in 1958 and was buried in Lancieux. Though his Yukon poetry lives on, Service’s war poems have largely been forgotten.

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