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The war book that Robert Service never wrote

‘No more war. Not in my lifetime. Curse the memory of it’
Robert Service served as an intelligence officer in the final days of World War I, already having served as a war correspondent, driven an ambulance to the front as a volunteer and written a best-selling book of poems about the conflict. At the end, in a frenzy of activity, he wrote the makings of a war story but when the armistice was declared, he tore up the manuscript and turned his back on the war. (Submitted)

The Battle of Amiens was the beginning of the end of the First World War. The Canadians scored a stunning victory in early August, and for the first time, it appeared that the war would not last out the year. Riding on the victory, the Canadians regrouped and at the end of September, they advanced from Arras, broke through the German defences at Canal du Nord and took Cambrai.

They followed these successes by taking Valenciennes and advancing toward Mons, Belgium. It fell to the Allies on November 11, and at 11 a.m., the Armistice took effect and the guns fell silent.

The last few weeks inflicted heavy casualties on the Yukoners who were fighting in the forefront of the advance. Nineteen fell in battle from Amiens until the Armistice took effect. The last to die was Robert Morton, originally a member of Boyle’s Yukon Battery, who was killed by an exploding shell on October 19.

As they advanced, the Canadian soldiers were given a hero’s welcome by liberated French and Belgian citizens, everywhere they went. The most notable of these Canadians may have been Robert Service, who was again enlisted in war-related duties. After his ambulance duty earlier in the war, Service was sidelined by health issues until the final year of the conflict. In the meantime, he had published the book Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, which became an immediate best seller.

Overcome by guilt, after the long-range bombardment of Paris in March of 1918 by huge German siege guns, Service again volunteered his services to the Canadian government, and in due course, was posted as an intelligence officer to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, touring France and reporting on the activities of Canadian troops. He was assigned a Cadillac, a chauffeur, an officer guide, and the freedom to plan his own itinerary. He visited lumber camps all over France.

Service was overcome by the death and destruction that he witnessed.

“I have no record of this period but my memories are too many to put on paper,” he said. “Le Cateau, with its reek of mustard gas and its streets strewn with civilian corpses. One stepped over them, taking little notice. One peered through the open doors of houses, empty but for the dead. In a dim room I saw five wax-like women lying on their beds as if sleeping peacefully. In a kitchen were a Tommy and a German who had fought it out with bayonets. The Tommy had spitted the Hun and was poised over his still defiant foe. Again, in an open space a Belgian machine gunner lay sprawled over his mitrailleuse while round him were seven dead Germans. Everywhere macabre scenes like the chambers of horrors of some super Madame Tussaud.”

One day in mid-October, Service and his guide, a Canadian major, ventured so far forward that they were ahead of the Allied advance. Germans were retreating in the distance, and Service was uncertain about going forward any farther. As the Germans retreated, civilians emerged from their cottages — women, children and old men, who “wept and cheered at the same time. Miserably thin and ill nourished, at that moment they seemed the happiest people on earth. They kept telling us that the Boches were running away, that we could go forward, for we would meet no Germans of the rear-guard.… So we marched merrily on the road to Lille.” and Service and the major were the first Allies to enter Lille by the Cambrai gate.

And what a welcome they received: “I never saw people more mad with joy. They pressed bottles of wine and cigarettes on us and it was difficult to refuse. In front of the gate was a gigantic crater, down which we had to climb, but on the other side the women of Lille awaited us in a serried mass…. They clutched us hysterically and swept us through the massive portals of the city.”

“Now we were in a maelstrom of mad women, all of them making desperate efforts to get at us. Hundreds there were, fighting to embrace us. They flung their arms around us and pressed their lips to our cheeks…. And so we were tossed in a tempest of osculatory enthusiasm, in which the major with his superior sex appeal was the chief victim. I could see him struggling in that welter of womanhood, for now they were begging for souvenirs and tearing away his buttons. I feared he would be reduced to a state of near nudity, so I shouted: ‘We’d better beat a retreat!’ He agreed and … gallantly defending his few remaining buttons, he fought his way back to the edge of the crater.”

When the British arrived at Lille on Oct. 17 1918, General Sir William Birdwood and his troops were welcomed by joyous crowds. Service and the major removed themselves discretely from the town. When they reported this later that evening at supper, they were scorned by the other men until they received official word that Lille had been taken. After that experience, anything else would have been anticlimactic, so Service returned to Paris and worked day and night, turning out article after article:

“I described sawmills, hospitals, bakeries, ordinance camps — all the organization that makes fighting possible. I gave the names of hundreds of those ‘who also serve’ and said something interesting about each. As I went on I saw a book in the making. War Winners I would call it, and it would deal with the efforts of those who worked without glory to win glory for others. I never wrote better. Graphically I covered all France with its pictorial background. I became more and more enthusiastic, then….

“The bells started ringing on Armistice Day at 11:00. All Paris was celebrating in joyous release that lasted for two days….

“For a while I remained in the midst of it, carried away by the extravagances of a mirth-mad mob; then I tired of it all. I thought of those who had given their lives for this, and for whom no one in all that cheering multitude had a single tear. So back to the Rabbit Hutch I crawled with sorrow in my heart. There on my desk were the articles I had written with such enthusiasm — excellent work, a month of effort. With sudden loathing I looked at them. I need not go on. Taking up my manuscript I tore it in tatters. ‘That ends it,’ I said. ‘No more war. Not in my lifetime. Curse the memory of it. Now I will rest and forget.”

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at