Robert Service and the crimson harvest

I wrote recently about how Robert Service tried to scoop the professional journalists during World War I, and how he was nearly shot for being suspected of spying.

I wrote recently about how Robert Service tried to scoop the professional journalists during World War I, and how he was nearly shot for being suspected of spying. He was never accepted into the army because of his age and physical condition, but he found another way to serve the Allied cause – as an ambulance driver for the American ambulance corps.

While Service did not see action on the front, he came close enough to see the slaughter and gore as he transported the victims of shelling, gassing and machine gun fire to field hospitals behind the line.

The details of Service’s time as an ambulance driver are confused by his own writing, as well as the writings of his biographers. In a biography by G. W. Lockhart, Service is on the “Somme Front” in January of 1915, a date which is dismissed by another biographer, James Mackay, as the battle of the Somme did not commence until July of 1916. Further, the volunteer ambulance corps did not proceed to the front until April, 1915.

Lockhart derived this idea from a notation in Service’s book of poems titled Ballads of a Bohemian, which was published in 1921 – three years after the conclusion of the war, and six years after Service had been an ambulance driver. While Service excelled at capturing the essence of the events (much as he did with his yarns of the Yukon), he did not devote much attention to the historical accuracy of his details. We are certain, however, that he was an ambulance driver and that he saw and transported some badly injured and mutilated patients.

Biographer James Mackay, on the other hand, places Service’s enlistment in the ambulance corps as September of 1915. Yet there is an article in the Dawson Daily News dated June 24, 1915, which announces that the “well known Yukon writer” had left for the front to drive a motor car. The News was citing an article from a Toronto newspaper dated June 5.

There were several volunteer ambulance corps organized during the war. Always vague on details, Service doesn’t state which one he joined, nor provide dates. I surmise that his stint in the ambulance corps may have lasted until the late fall of 1915. By December, he is already publishing articles about his experiences. From his own descriptions, these were harrowing times for the famed poet, times during which he observed the grim reality of the “crimson harvest.”

The ambulance corps, by the way, was populated by those who wanted to be involved in the war, though not necessarily as a soldier in the trenches of the Western Front. These volunteer ambulance drivers donned uniforms and served as “gentleman drivers,” in which capacity they were treated as the informal equivalent of officers.

Among those who served in this manner were many future beacons of arts and letters, one of whom was later awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. They included the French composer Maurice Ravel, future American filmmaker Walt Disney, and a stellar array of authors, including Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, John Masefield, W. Somerset Maugham, and Service himself. Most of these authors later incorporated their experiences into their literary works.

Service took great advantage of his observations to frame his narratives about the war. In a letter he sent to Dawson City, which was published in the newspaper in March, 1916, he described a trip to pick up casualties where he was caught in an enemy artillery bombardment and was forced to hide under his ambulance. Finally, he arrived near the front, to pick up his passengers and drove them to the nearest field hospital. One of them died before they reached their destination. A similar description of the bombardment can be found in an article published in the Toronto Star in December of 1915.

In Ballads of a Bohemian, he described his passengers in a fashion similar to that in his Dawson article. One is swathed in from hip to heel in bandages, while the second has a “great white turban” on his head, with a spreading patch of red. In another article he describes a poor soldier who had had the top of his skull blown off by a sniper when he risked peering over the top of the trench. The gravely wounded man was directed to the section of the casualty station where the most seriously injured are expected to die.

Service used his observations again and again in his writing of the war, each slightly different from the others, and yet all have a sense of immediacy to them. In his letter in the Dawson Daily News, he wrote about the ambulance (he named it Dorothea) which he was assigned for his duty. Dorothea was quite moody and prone to mechanical failure. She had no springs or any means of softening the roughness of the crater-filled roads over which he conveyed his casualties to the nearest field hospital.

Go more slowly, his passengers pleaded, but any slower and they would never have reached their destination and the little ambulance would have become an easy target for the enemy artillery. Dorothea clattered on until one cylinder stopped firing and she stalled. A passing soldier cleaned a clogged spark plug and Dorothea sputtered to life again.

Service picked up more passengers and turned away from the front. The first hospital he reached turned them away; it was too full of the wounded and dying already. He was directed to another field station a distance away. With his patients protesting at every bump and jostle, he slowly made his way toward the alternate hospital. Dorothea was only running on two cylinders and struggling over the hilly terrain, until she expired within sight of their destination.

Fortunately, a passing truck towed him the final distance and he was able to deliver his passengers into the doctors’ hands. Of one of his desperately wounded passengers, the twenty third he had transported that day, he could not bear to learn the outcome.

“I do hope that number twenty three did not die.” He wrote, “I never had the heart to ask.”

It is remarkable that Service’s graphic descriptions got past the censor’s pencils, but it is fortunate for us because they provide very disturbing, yet poignant descriptions of the casualties of the war.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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