Monday, 6 May 2019

Who wrote the WW1 poem “The Stretcher Bearer”?

I found an interesting discussion started by Oh, what a ladylike war @LucyMBD on Twitter regarding a poem attributed to a young British Private soldier called Thomas Albert Crawford entitled “The Stretcher Bearer”.  As always, I checked and found several posts on various Internet sites, including Oxford University’s The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, stating that the poem was written by Crawford.  However, a short while later, LucyMBD posted a correction on Twitter from Jessica Meyer to the effect that the poem was in fact written by British-born Canadian poet Robert Service and is in his WW1 poetry collection “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man” which was published in 1916.

The background to this is that the poem was apparently found among Thomas Albert Crawford’s possessions after his death in 1980 and, as his family thought he had written it, they included the poem in his memoirs "Tommy: The  First World War Experiences of Thomas Albert Crawford, 15th Durham Light Infantry", which they published in 2006.  This raises some very interesting questions – where did Crawford discover the poem?  If you look at his version, it would appear that he may have heard it recited because he has altered Service’s spelling.

It was very common at that time, and for many years after the end of the First World War, for people to copy out into notebooks poems that they found inspirational.  They very often forgot to add the name of the poet.  My Aunt had a notebook full of WW1 poems, yet no-one ever imagined that she had written them.

“The Stretcher Bearer” by Thomas Albert Crawford

My stretcher is one scarlet stain,
And as I tries to scrape it clean,
I tell you what - I'm sick of pain,
For all I've heard, for all I've seen;
Around me is the hellish night,
And as the war's red rim I trace,
I wonder if in Heaven's height
Our God don't turn away his face.

I don't care whose the crime may be,
I hold no brief for kin or clan;
I feel no hate, I only see
As man destroys his brother man;
I wave no flag, I only know
As here beside the dead I wait,
A million hearts are weighed with woe,
A million homes are desolate.

In dripping darkness far and near,
All night I've sought those woeful ones.
Dawn suddens up and still I hear
The crimson chorus of the guns.
Look, like a ball of blood the sun
Hangs o'er the scene of wrath and wrong,
"Quick! Stretcher-bearers on the run!",
Oh Prince of Peace! How long, how long?"

An interesting comment was made by Jessica Meyer via Twitter when she pointed out that the poem was in fact written by Robert Service.  Jessica says: This sort of ‘vernacular’ poetry was fairly common, after Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads. ‘Woodbine Willie’ (Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy) does the same thing in To Stretcher Bearers. If you are interested, I discuss both in this chapter: …

Thomas Albert Crawford (1897-1980) – British WW1 Infantryman

Thomas Albert Crawford was born on 19th May 1897.  He served in the 15th Durham Light Infantry during the First World War, later transferring to the Labour Corps. The 15th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry was part of the 21st Division, which arrived in France in September 1915. The Division attacked Fricourt on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Somme Offensive, during which action Private Crawford was wounded.

Thomas survived the war but his wife and their two sons died in their early 30's. Thomas  re-married and had two sons, Colin and Brian. Colin died at 25 years of age and six months later, in 1980, Thomas passed away. His memoirs were collated and published by his son Brian Crawford in 2006, providing a vivid insight into the brutal life of the infantrymen. “'Tommy: The First World War Experiences of a Soldier in the Durham Light Infantry'”  can be ordered here: All profits go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Robert Service's  poem:  “The Stretcher-Bearer” from “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”

 My stretcher is one scarlet stain,
 And as I tries to scrape it clean,
 I tell you wot--I'm sick with pain
 For all I've 'eard, for all I've seen;
 Around me is the 'ellish night,
 And as the war's red rim I trace,
 I wonder if in 'Eaven's height,
 Our God don't turn away 'Is Face.

 I don't care 'oose the Crime may be;
 I 'olds no brief for kin or clan;
  I 'ymns no 'ate:  I only see
  As man destroys his brother man;
  I waves no flag:  I only know,
  As 'ere beside the dead I wait,
  A million 'earts is weighed with woe,
  A million 'omes is desolate.

 In drippin' darkness, far and near,
 All night I've sought them woeful ones.
 Dawn shudders up and still I 'ear
 The crimson chorus of the guns.
 Look! like a ball of blood the sun
 'Angs o'er the scene of wrath and wrong. . . .
 "Quick!  Stretcher-bearers on the run!"

Robert W. Service Service (1874 – 1958) – British-born Canadian Poet - known as “Canada’s Kipling”

“… a people’s poet” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph of Sept. 16, 1958

Born in Preston, Lancashire, UK in Service went to live in Canada

When war broke out in 1914, Robert tried to enlist in the British Army but was turned down because he had Varicose Veins. He was a friend of the writer John Buchan, who suggested that Robert join the Officers Training Corps (OTC) scheme and apply for a commission. However, Robert did not want to be an officer, so instead, he joined the Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross as a Stretcher Bearer.

While recuperating in Paris after an illness, Robert wrote and published “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”, which he dedicated to his brother, Lieutenant Albert Service, who served with the Canadian Infantry on the Western Front and was killed in action in August 1916.

During the Second World War, Robert and his family narrowly escaped being arrested by the Nazis because of Robert’s satirical verses about Adolf Hitler amd went to live in Canada. After the war the family returned to France and in 1947 went to live in Monaco.

Robert died in Lacieux, Brittany, on 11th September 1958 and was buried in the local cemetery.

The following obituary appeared in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph of Sept. 16, 1958: A GREAT POET died last week in Lancieux, France, at the age of 84.

He was not a poet's poet. Fancy-Dan dilettantes will dispute the description "great." He was a people's poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle. And he was no poor, garret-type poet, either. His stuff made money hand over fist. One piece alone, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, rolled up half a million dollars for him. He lived it up well and also gave a great deal to help others.

"The only society I like," he once said, "is that which is rough and tough - and the tougher the better. That's where you get down to bedrock and meet human people." He found that kind of society in the Yukon gold rush, and he immortalized it.

Other books by Robert W. Service:

The Trail of '98--A Northland Romance (1910)

Ploughman of the Moon (1945)  | A two-volume

Harper of Heaven (1948)       | autobiography.

Poetry collections by Robert Service: “Songs of a Sourdough”, “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”, “The Trail of '98”.

A comment via Twitter continues the discussion: As well as the authorship issue, there are variants in spelling and therefore in tone. The version you quote is quite different in style from the one @LucyLondon7 links to (Project Gutenberg), which is written in a kind of "Mockney".

Foreword to Rhymes of a Red Cross Man:

     I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes
     In weary, woeful, waiting times;
     In doleful hours of battle-din,
     Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
     Through vigils of the fateful night,
     In lousy barns by candle-light;
     In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
     On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
     By ragged grove, by ruined road,
     By hearths accurst where Love abode;
     By broken altars, blackened shrines
     I've tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

     I've solaced me with scraps of song
     The desolated ways along:
     Through sickly fields all shrapnel-sown,
     And meadows reaped by death alone;
     By blazing cross and splintered spire,
     By headless Virgin in the mire;
     By gardens gashed amid their bloom,
     By gutted grave, by shattered tomb;
     Beside the dying and the dead,
     Where rocket green and rocket red,
     In trembling pools of poising light,
     With flowers of flame festoon the night.
     Ah me! by what dark ways of wrong
     I've cheered my heart with scraps of song.

     So here's my sheaf of war-won verse,
     And some is bad, and some is worse.
     And if at times I curse a bit,
     You needn't read that part of it;
     For through it all like horror runs
     The red resentment of the guns.
     And you yourself would mutter when
     You took the things that once were men,
     And sped them through that zone of hate
     To where the dripping surgeons wait;
     And wonder too if in God's sight
     War ever, ever can be right.

     Yet may it not be, crime and war
     But effort misdirected are?
     And if there's good in war and crime,
     There may be in my bits of rhyme,
     My songs from out the slaughter mill:
     So take or leave them as you will.

Since I began my commemorative WW1 poetry exhibition project, I have been given several notebooks of poems written out by people during the war.  We are fortunate indeed that with the advent of the Internet it is now possible to check these poems and to try to find out exactly who wrote them.