Rhymes of a Red Cross Man
Genre: Collection (Poems)
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Mar-14-1999
This is a collection of poems based on Robert Service’s experience as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during World War I. The book begins with the patriotic call to war: "High and low, all must go: / Hark to the shout of War!" Some of the volunteers never come back (e.g. "The Fool," "Our Hero," and "My Mate"). Others are severely wounded (e.g. "The Convalescent" and "Wounded").
Many of the narrators express their love of home, family, and especially their fellow soldiers (e.g. "The Man From Athabaska," "Carry On," and "Bill the Bomber"). Only a small number of these poems evoke specifically Red Cross work. One of these is "The Odyssey of ’Erbert ’Iggins," in which two medics carry the wounded from the battlefield. Another is "The Stretcher Bearer," in which the narrator is unable to clean a blood stain from his stretcher and wonders, "if in ’Eaven’s height, / Our God don’t turn away ’Is Face."
Throughout the collection there is evidence of ambivalence toward the individual German soldier. In some moments he is "Only a Boche" (or Hun) who has killed the soldier’s buddies, but in other moments the narrators reflect that their opponents are also ordinary men, sons and fathers, who love their families.
Barse & Hopkins
This book was published in 1916. Thus, the individual poems were written in the early part of World War I, perhaps before the enormity and futility of the war had become fully apparent in the trenches. In any case, Robert Service’s poems are generally patriotic and meant to build morale. Although God’s role in the Great War is somewhat morally ambiguous, he is surely NOT on the German side.
Some of these poems are reprinted in The Best of Robert Service (Perigee Books, Putnam Publishing, New York, 1953). That collection also includes a post-war poem, "The March of the Dead," in which Service had a vision of armies of dead soldiers that "were come to mock us, in the first flush of our peace." This suggests a sensitivity perhaps more in line with the war poems of Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon. However, Service brushes the vision aside and concentrates on the glory of victory, while ending the poem by asking God, "in Thy great mercy, let us nevermore forget / The graves they left behind, the bitter graves."