One hundred and one years ago, the writing career of Robert Service almost came to the same end as dangerous Dan McGrew.
When he left the Yukon in 1912, never to return, Service accepted an assignment from the Toronto Daily Star, to cover the Balkan conflict. After that, he wandered through Europe, to Turkey, Bulgaria Austria and Germany and finally, Paris, where he met and married Germaine Bourgoin in June of 1913. His second novel was completed there and published in 1914.
By that summer, war had broken out and Service attempted to enlist. He was rejected because of his age and varicose veins, so he turned his hand to journalism, getting accreditation as a war correspondent with the Toronto Daily Star.
When the German advance into Belgium and France was stopped, they faced the Allies along a trench system that ran from Switzerland to the North Sea.
British reinforcements poured in through the French port of Calais and moved into position on the rapidly developing defensive line.
Service was in London the fall of 1914 where he met Mr. E.W. Walker, the head of the wholesale department for the Methodist Book Room back in Toronto. They discussed Service’s latest book, “The Pretender,” before it was issued. Service told Walker that he was going to the front to “see what he could see.” But a week later, he was back in London, with the amazing story of how he was almost executed by a French firing squad – for being a spy.
The Allied military high command did not want journalists in the trenches or at the battle front, so in the fall of 1914, Service joined other correspondents as near to the front as he could get at Calais:
“At the Station Hotel of Calais were a brilliant band of journalists,” he wrote, “but they depended on leave men and Blighty victims for their stories. [Blighty was a term loosely used by soldiers to describe any kind of wound that would result in their being sent back to England.]
I was not very successful. The regular newspaper men got tips that left me an outsider. I did not get much help from them; but one and all said: ‘If you value your skin don’t go near Dunkirk.’”
So that is exactly what he did. He clambered onto a train headed for Dunkirk, but knowing of its restrictions, and the likelihood of being sent packing if he got off the train there, he got off one station before and walked several kilometre to the battlefront city. Service certainly got an eyeful:
“I saw Indian troops looking strangely out of place in the mud and rain. I spoke to the weary poilus [French soldiers] fresh from the front.
I could hear the cannonading and it gave me a thrill of delight. I beheld my first string of German prisoners in grey-green coats, marching methodically. Troops were being landed in the Port and supply columns congested the narrow streets. All day I dodged from one vantage point to another, seeing a hundred things I was not supposed to see. And I was innocently happy thinking how I was getting ahead of the boys back in Calais.”
But he was arrested that evening by a local gendarme who suspected him of spying.
He was interrogated by a major, whose suspicions were heightened by the stamps in his passport from various countries, including Germany. An officer told him that they already had two spies and that as they were shot in groups of three, Service would be the third man for a proper execution. He was taken before a general and then locked up. Realizing the gravity of his behavior – sneaking into Dunkirk the back way – he asked to be taken to a British officer, who, after questioning him extensively, pointed out his suspicious activities during the day. He told Service:
“But are you aware you have no right to be here, and the faster you get out the better? As for the spy business, let me tell you that you’ve had a narrow escape. There’s a big scare on and they seem to have lost their heads. Only this morning they shot a half a dozen poor devils off hand. I am sure that some of them were innocent.
If I had not been there to intervene you might have become one of them. Now take your papers and GET OUT!’”
After the severe tongue-lashing, Service was sent packing on the first train for Calais, with warnings not to try it again. Back in Calais, his account of nearly being shot as a spy had the other journalists roaring with laughter. Within a week of his near-fatal adventure, he was back in London, where he was able to relate to Mr. Walker, the Canadian book man, what had happened to him.
It’s a good thing that his illustrious career did not end before a firing squad. Instead, he returned to his wife in Paris; a year later, he made his second foray into the battle zone, this time as a volunteer with an American ambulance unit. During this second visit to the front, he was witness to many stories of human interest. Day after day, he worked near the front lines, transporting what he called “the red harvest” from the battle zones to the hospitals farther back for treatment.
During this period he saw soldiers and civilians dealing with the hardships and disruption of war and how they lived under such circumstances. He wrote of his experiences and sent the dispatches to newspapers back in eastern Canada as well as the Yukon. He did not write of the hard news of the war, but of the ordinary civilians and soldiers he encountered. His accounts were so candid that it is a miracle the censors even allowed them to be published.
He was forced to retire from the battle front for a second time because of an outbreak of boils, but he was inspired to write about what he had seen and heard. The result was a book of poems about the war titled “Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.” The little book of verse is said to be the best-selling book of poetry of the Twentieth Century, and it would never have been written – if he had faced a firing squad in 1914!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org