Born in England in 1874 to a bank cashier and an heiress, Robert William Service was the first of 10 children. He spent much of his childhood in Scotland and wrote his first poem on his sixth birthday. In 1894, yearning for travel and adventure, he sailed to western Canada to become a cowboy in the Yukon wilderness. Service worked on a ranch, as a store clerk, and as a teller for the Canadian Bank of Commerce on Vancouver Island, all the while writing poems—including “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—that, with the publication of his first collection of verse in 1907, would instantly make him famous and wealthy. In 1913, after working as a correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkan Wars, Service—by then widely known as “The Bard of the Yukon”—moved to Paris. He was 41 when World War I broke out. Turned down for military service, he briefly covered the war for the Toronto Star and then worked as a stretcher-bearer and ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. From these experiences came Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, published in 1916, which Service dedicated to the memory of his brother Albert, who had been killed in action in France early that year. After the war Service wrote a health book and several novels; he also played himself in The Spoilers, a 1942 film with Marlene Dietrich (the two of them are shown here on the MGM lot), Randolph Scott, and John Wayne set in Nome, Alaska, during the Nome Gold Rush. During World War II Service lived in Hollywood and visited army camps in California to read his “verse,” as he preferred to call his work. Service died in 1958 at his home in Lancieux, France, which he had fled in wartime shortly before the Nazis invaded the country. German troops, the story goes, soon came there looking specifically for the poet who had mocked Adolf Hitler in newspaper verse.
Is it not strange? A year ago to-day,
With scarce a thought beyond the hum-drum round,
I did my decent job and earned my pay;
Was averagely happy, I’ll be bound.
Ay, in my little groove I was content,
Seeing my life run smoothly to the end,
With prosy days in stolid labour spent,
And jolly nights, a pipe, a glass, a friend.
In God’s good time a hearth fire’s cosy gleam,
A wife and kids, and all a fellow needs;
When presto! like a bubble goes my dream:
I leap upon the Stage of Splendid Deeds.
I yell with rage; I wallow deep in gore:
I, that was clerk in a drysalter’s store.
Stranger than any book I’ve ever read.
Here on the reeking battlefield I lie,
Under the stars, propped up with smeary dead,
Like too, if no one takes me in, to die.
Hit on the arms, legs, liver, lungs and gall;
Damn glad there’s nothing more of me to hit;
But calm, and feeling never pain at all,
And full of wonder at the turn of it.
For of the dead around me three are mine,
Three foemen vanquished in the whirl of fight;
So if I die I have no right to whine,
I feel I’ve done my little bit all right.
I don’t know how—but there the beggars are,
As dead as herrings pickled in a jar.
And here am I, worse wounded than I thought;
For in the fight a bullet bee-like stings;
You never heed; the air is metal-hot,
And all alive with little flicking wings.
But on you charge. You see the fellows fall;
Your pal was by your side, fair fighting-mad;
You turn to him, and lo! no pal at all;
You wonder vaguely if he’s copped it bad.
But on you charge. The heavens vomit death;
And vicious death is besoming the ground.
You’re blind with sweat; you’re dazed, and out of breath,
And though you yell, you cannot hear a sound.
But on you charge. Oh, War’s a rousing game!
Around you smoky clouds like ogres tower;
The earth is rowelled deep with spurs of flame,
And on your helmet stones and ashes shower.
But on you charge. It’s odd! You have no fear.
Machine-gun bullets whip and lash your path;
Red, yellow, black the smoky giants rear;
The shrapnel rips, the heavens roar in wrath.
But on you charge. Barbed wire all trampled down.
The ground all gored and rent as by a blast;
Grim heaps of grey where once were heaps of brown;
A ragged ditch—the Hun first line at last.
All smashed to hell. Their second right ahead,
So on you charge. There’s nothing else to do.
More reeking holes, blood, barbed wire, gruesome dead;
(Your puttee strap’s undone—that worries you).
You glare around. You think you’re all alone.
But no; your chums come surging left and right.
The nearest chap flops down without a groan,
His face still snarling with the rage of fight.
Ha! here’s the second trench—just like the first,
Only a little more so, more “laid out”;
More pounded, flame-corroded, death-accurst;
A pretty piece of work, beyond a doubt.
Now for the third, and there your job is done,
So on you charge. You never stop to think.
Your cursed puttee’s trailing as you run;
You feel you’d sell your soul to have a drink.
The acrid air is full of cracking whips.
You wonder how it is you’re going still.
You foam with rage. Oh, God! to be at grips
With someone you can rush and crush and kill.
Your sleeve is dripping blood; you’re seeing red;
You’re battle-mad; your turn is coming now.
See! there’s the jagged barbed wire straight ahead,
And there’s the trench—you’ll get there anyhow.
Your puttee catches on a strand of wire,
And down you go; perhaps it saves your life,
For over sandbag rims you see ’em fire,
Crop-headed chaps, their eyes ablaze with strife.
You crawl, you cower; then once again you plunge
With all your comrades roaring at your heels
Have at ’em, lads! You stab, you jab, you lunge;
A blaze of glory, then the red world reels.
A crash of triumph, then…you’re faint a bit…
That cursed puttee! Now to fasten it….
Well, that’s the charge. And now I’m here alone.
I’ve built a little wall of Hun on Hun,
To shield me from the leaden bees that drone
(It saves me worry, and it hurts ’em none).
The only thing I’m wondering is when
Some stretcher-men will stroll along my way?
It isn’t much that’s left of me, but then
Where life is, hope is, so at least they say.
Well, if I’m spared I’ll be the happy lad.
I tell you I won’t envy any king.
I’ve stood the racket, and I’m proud and glad;
I’ve had my crowning hour. Oh, War’s the thing!
It gives us common, working chaps our chance,
A taste of glory, chivalry, romance.
Ay, War, they say, is hell; it’s heaven, too.
It lets a man discover what he’s worth.
It takes his measure, shows what he can do,
Gives him a joy like nothing else on earth.
It fans in him a flame that otherwise
Would flicker out, these drab, discordant days;
It teaches him in pain and sacrifice
Faith, fortitude, grim courage past all praise.
Yes, War is good. So here beside my slain,
A happy wreck I wait amid the din;
For even if I perish mine’s the gain….
Hi, there, you fellows! Won’t you take me in?
Give me a fag to smoke upon the way….
We’ve taken La Boiselle! The hell, you say!
Well, that would make a corpse sit up and grin….
Lead on! I’ll live to fight another day. MHQ
This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue (Vol. 30, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: To Fight Another Day
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