From the Yukon to Hell: The War Rhymes of Robert Service


  • Edward J. Cowan University of Glasgow, Scotland


Robert Service, First World War, Yukon, Scottish Poet, Pacifism


The Northern Review 44 (2017): 243–265

The Scottish poet Robert Service has often been described as a mere rhymester, noted, if at all, for his Yukon ballads. This article argues that he was a highly talented folk poet whose best work was written as a result of his experiences in the First World War. His ideas of social Darwinism, so obvious in the brilliant Yukon poems, were transferred to the horror of warfare after he quit the Dawson for good in 1912. He first worked as a war correspondent sending reports, at least one of which was duplicated in the Dawson Daily News, to the Toronto Star. Images that first appeared in his journalism were re-used for his poems. He then joined the American Ambulance Unit to gain some further knowledge of the action, encounters that inspired his Rhymes of A Red Cross Man, a bestseller that represents some of his very finest work. He was highly successful in capturing the thoughts, fears, and heroism of soldiers who confronted at first hand the bloody filth and fatuity of trench warfare. He conjured images of death and dying that have now almost become clichés. He was anti-war but he had endless sympathy for the humble men who found themselves with commissions to kill or be killed. It is noteworthy that he did not forget the plight of the women who were condemned to remain in ignorance of their loved ones or, worse, to the prospect of lengthy widowhoods. It is time to recognize his achievement. This article is part of a special collection of papers originally presented at a conference on “The North and the First World War,” held May 2016 in Whitehorse, Yukon.


Author Biography

Edward J. Cowan, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Emeritus Professor of Scottish history and literature






The North and the First World War