Memorial Day

I originally posted this on my old web site in 2004. I decided it was worth reposting. Slightly edited from the original.

As a young man, Robert Service had a serious case of wanderlust. He spent time in the Yukon, coming out with a number of poems, the most famous of which is probably The Cremation of Sam McGee. They were collected in a book called The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses.

After that, he moved to France, to become the proverbial starving poet in a garret. When World War I started, several of his friends joined up to fight. Eventually, he agreed to serve in an ambulance service, described in Ballads of a Bohemian. He wrote the following in late August 1914:


Back again. Closed shutters, deserted streets. How glum everything is! Those who are not mobilized seem uncertain how to turn. Every one buys the papers and reads grimly of disaster. No news is bad news.

I go to my garret as to a beloved friend. Everything is just as I left it, so that it seems I have never been away. I sigh with relief and joy. I will take up my work again. Serene above the storm I will watch and wait. Although I have been brought up in England I am American born. My country is not concerned.

So, going to the Dôme Café, I seek some of my comrades. Strange! They have gone. MacBean, I am told, is in England. By dyeing his hair and lying about his age he has managed to enlist in the Seaforth Highlanders. Saxon Dane too. He has joined the Foreign Legion, and even now he may be fighting.

Well, let them go. I will keep out of the mess. But why did they go? I wish I knew. War is murder. Criminal folly. Against Humanity. Imperialism is at the root of it. We are fools and dupes. Yes, I will think and write of other things. . . .

MacBean has enlisted.

I hate violence. I would not willingly cause pain to anything breathing. I would rather be killed than kill. I will stand above the Battle and watch it from afar.

Dane is in the Foreign Legion.

How disturbing it all is! One cannot settle down to anything. Every day I meet men who tell the most wonderful stories in the most casual way. I envy them. I too want to have experiences, to live where life’s beat is most intense. But that’s a poor reason for going to war.

And yet, though I shrink from the idea of fighting, I might in some way help those who are. MacBean and Dane, for example. Sitting now in the Dôme, I seem to see their ghosts in the corner. MacBean listening with his keen, sarcastic smile. Saxon Dane banging his great hairy fist on the table till the glasses jump. Where are they now? Living a life that I will never know. When they come back, if they every do, shall I not feel shamed in their presence? Oh, this filthy war! Things were going on so beautifully. We were all so happy, so full of ambition, of hope; laughing and talking over pipe and bowl, and in our garrets seeking to realize our dreams. Ah, these days will never come again!

Then, as I sit there, Calvert seeks me out. He has joined an ambulance corps that is going to the Front. Will I come in?

“Yes,” I say; “I’ll do anything.”

So it is all settled. Tomorrow I give up my freedom.

He served with the Red Cross for about two years. His collection, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, came out of that experience. When the United States entered the war, he joined the US Army. At the Argonne, his left arm was “shot away.” He had this to say about his time as a soldier:

As far as time and health permitted, I kept a record of those years, and also wrote much verse. All this, however, has disappeared under circumstances into which there is no need to enter here. The loss was a cruel one, almost more so than that of my arm; for I have neither the heart nor the power to rewrite this material.

Here is one of his poems from Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.


For oh, when the war will be over
We’ll go and we’ll look for our dead;
We’ll go when the bee’s on the clover,
And the plume of the poppy is red:
We’ll go when the year’s at its gayest,
When meadows are laughing with flow’rs;
And there where the crosses are greyest,
We’ll seek for the cross that is ours.

For they cry to us: Friends, we are lonely,
A-weary the night and the day;
But come in the blossom-time only,
Come when our graves will be gay:
When daffodils all are a-blowing,
And larks are a-thrilling the skies,
Oh, come with the hearts of you glowing,
And the joy of the Spring in your eyes.

But never, oh, never come sighing,
For ours was the Splendid Release;
And oh, but ’twas joy in the dying
To know we were winning you Peace!
So come when the valleys are sheening,
And fledged with the promise of grain;
And here where our graves will be greening,
Just smile and be happy again.

And so, when the war will be over,
We’ll seek for the Wonderful One;
And maiden will look for her lover,
And mother will look for her son;
And there will be end to our grieving,
And gladness will gleam over loss,
As – glory beyond all believing!
We point … to a name on a cross.

This Memorial Day, remember those who serve, and those who have.

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