Fighting Words: Canadian War Poets

The First World War produced many war poets, particularly those writing in English; Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden all come to mind. In the Canadian context, there is a clear favourite for most well known – John McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields”. However, there were other less well known or less popular poets than McCrae, some of whom are only just now being discovered. 

Image: [Pte. Alexander Sinclair], [c1915-1916], loan from D. Sinclair.

We have written on this blog already about Robert W. Service’s war poetry. Best known for his Yukon and Gold Rush related verses like the “Cremation of Sam McGee”, Service wrote a book of war poetry in 1916 after a year serving as an ambulance driver. Service’s war poetry is similar in some ways to his earlier work, particularly in its use of humour to describe difficult environments. Describing a fight to the death in a trench raid, his protagonist asks his enemy,

“Now […] I can kill you fine; But tell me first, you Teutonic blighter! Have you any children?” He answers “Nein” Nine! Well, I cannot kill a father, So I tie his hands and leave him there”

Less humorous than Service is Canon Frederick Scott, best known to us as the author of the First World War memoir, The Great War as I Saw it. In his role as a chaplain, Scott roamed the front describing what he saw in its dugouts, hospital tents, and frontline trenches. He was a minor poet before the war, with several published works to his name, and published a book of war verses in 1916. Scott was of a patriotic bent, and though his poems and his writing mourn the loss of the young men of Canada, for him it usually could be justified by the fight for the Empire and for humanity.

One poet who has recently come to our attention is Alexander Sinclair. Pte. Sinclair’s work was never published in his lifetime, though he wrote prolifically during his four years on the Western Front. After returning to Winnipeg in 1919, Sinclair’s poems were put away, only to be rediscovered by nephew several years ago. They have now been published for the first time under the title Life and War: Poems, and include works describing a soldier’s view of some of the largest Canadian battles of the war.

Sinclair’s work is mournful and documents the loss of friends, including his faithful horse, and the monotony of life in the lines. Of his first birthday on the front in 1916, Sinclair wrote “On a Somme field looms up my day in life, The first I’ve spent in front of frightful foes”. He spent three more birthdays in the front, each likely more frightful than the last.

Note: Sinclair’s work has been published by his nephew, Douglas Sinclair, of Winnipeg. He can be contacted at dougsinc@mts.net

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