Canadian Poets of World War I

March 12, 2015 by Legion Magazine

WWI-CanadianPoets

Canadian Poets of World War I

By R.O. Spreckley

April 1953

General James Wolfe is reported to have said on the eve of the epoch-making battle which was to be his last, that he would sooner have written Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Courtyard” than take Quebec.

That delightful story may or may not be true, but it is certainly correct to say that quite a few of Canada’s First Contingent who participated in the Second Battle of Ypres 156 years after Wolfe’s heroic death on the Plains of Abraham not only wrote poetry but good poetry.

Besides John McCrae, the devoted medial officer who penned his immortal “In Flanders Field” in an Ypres dugout, and that beloved padre and poet, Canon Frederick George Scott, there were quite a few who sang of the common experiences of Canada’s “First Thirty Thousand,” and some of them received high acclaim from England’s leading literary authorities. Recalling the promising young poets who fell in the Second Battle of Ypres and later, I am inclined to agree with the late General Wavell that poetry today is at its present low ebb because some of the finest poets the Empire ever produced were killed in World War I.

Such a one was Sergeant Francis S. Brown of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who, amid the mud and discomfort of Salisbury Plain, wrote “Contingent Ditties”, which won high praise from that distinguished English critic, Holbrook Jackson, who penned a preface to the volume. It, alas, did not appear until after the poet’s death in action on his first day in the trenches.

In “The Convoy” Brown fittingly commemorated the sailing of the First Contingent in “thrice ten and two grey sullen merchantmen”, from their departure from “Gaspe’s smiling bay” to their arrival at Plymouth.

Another was Sergeant W.M. Scanlan of the 5th Battalion, who survived the Second Battle of Ypres and other engagements, to sing of one of the most moving sights on the Western Front – the leaning virgin on Albert Cathedral, still remembered by those who fought in the Battle of the Somme. The poem entitled “Notre Dame de Brebieres”, has never appeared in any anthologies in which it fully deserves a place. Scanlan after winning his commission in the field was killed in action in front of Vimy in 1917.

 

PROPHETIC POEM

One of the most remarkable war poems I have ever read was written and published three years before the outbreak of World War I by Corporal George Blackstone Field of the 1st Field Company, Canadian Engineers. In Rhymes of the Survey and Frontier, published by William Briggs, he vividly foretold the assembling of the First Contingent at Valcartier Camp in the fateful August of 1914:

They came in detachments, they came alone;

They paid or they worked their way,

In moccasins, chaps or in overalls,

The young with the old and grey.

 

He prophetically foretold the Second Battle of Ypres, in which he himself was to take part, in the following moving stanzas:

Then I seemed to be in a land of strife,

With Britain against the wall,

Where the pride of an Empire was falling

Forever beyond recall,

And the flag which had waved in its glory

Was drooping amid the gloom.

‘Twas the end, and I fancied I heard it,

The song of Britannia’s doom.

But its notes were hushed, as with vengeance flushed

In anger the legion came,

Like a surging sea for a moment free,

Avengers of England’s fame.

And the flag was saved, but the lonely graves

Recorded the price they paid,

Ere the work of the legion was ended,

The doom of an Empire stayed.

 

I first met Field at Fleurbaix in March 1915, where he wrote “The Vacant Ranks” which shortly after appeared in a well known London weekly. It later was to become one of the most popular and most quoted recruiting poems of the war:

On the road to Tipperary

There’s a place that’s vacant still,

There’s a rifle lying silent,

There’s a uniform to fill.

           

True, at home they’ll hate to lose you,

But the march will soon begin,

On the road to Tipperary,

With the army to Berlin.

 

Field, who later obtained a commission in the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, was seriously wounded and captured on the September 30th 1918, when he was engaged with two men and an non-commissioned officer (NCO) searching for mines and “booby traps” ahead of the advancing troops. The NCO, who escaped, reported that they had been surprised by 20 Germans who rushed the party from the rear. “Captain Field”, he said, “was seen to fall, get up and run a short distance, keeping the enemy off with his revolver. He fell again and when last seen was surrounded”.

Although officially reported “missing, believed killed”, incredible as it may seem, Field survived, in spite of receiving five bullet wounds in his shoulder, chest and lung. On his return to Canada he went back to his former job as surveyor with the Canadian Pacific Railway, but for 12 years prior to his death in 1952 he was employed by the Engineering Department of the City of Saskatoon.

When visiting relatives on the Pacific Coast last Fall this talented poet and intrepid soldier (who had also served in the South African War when in his teens) was severely stricken and passed away at the Shaughnessy Military Hospital. He left behind a collection of verse entitled Echoes from Ypres, and his widow hopes to publish these as a fitting memorial to her husband whom she truly describes as “one of God’s gallant gentlemen”.

 

 

 

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