A Poem for His Sons: A Briton through and through.

Lance-Corporal Henry James Smith. Circa 1916.

A father at war. At 39-years of age he was almost too old to enlist at St. Thomas, Ontario in the winter of 1916. Married with children we can not directly derive at the reasons for his enlistment, but being British born, he perhaps had a strong patriotic streak and enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was one way to express his support for his Empire and the values it expressed to and for him.

This man would stand in history as one-dimensional if all you knew of him was his name and death date on a gravestone at Prospect Cemetery at Toronto, Ontario. He would become two-dimensional if one was to access and read his service record to find that he saw active service with the 18th Battalion and had been wounded on April 9, 1917, with a gunshot wound (GSW) to left buttock and thigh. This wound would serve a reminder of his service long after the war would end as it was a persistent cause of infirmity for this man during his course of treatment from the date of wounding until he was discharged after more treatment upon his return to Canada. His left leg was having issues with numbness and fatigue from use, and it required him to use crutches in order to walk. The military authorities, upon his discharge, indicated he would suffer 100% disability with no treatment and 50% disability with a recommended 3-month course of treatment using electrical stimulation and massage.

This father at war wrote a poem to his sons (for full text of poem see end of article). This now makes the man three-dimensional as the poem gives voice to the man and his personality. He felt the need to share an explanation for his service using the medium of a poem and we know that he wrote this poem before he saw active service. Currently we do not know the exact date of the authorship of the poem but by examining this man’s service records we can estimate with a high degree of certainty the timeframe of its creation.

The poem offers an insight of this man of this time. A British born soldier of the CEF who has returned to his mother country to express his support for his Empire by active military service.

We can deduce the timeframe of the creation of the poem as it was written at West Sandling Camp, a major training camp for soldiers of the CEF once they arrived in England from Canada. Lance-Corporal Henry James Smith (reg. no. 190013) arrived in England on July 6, 1916, at Liverpool and was transferred from the 91st Battalion to the 36th Reserve Battalion as West Sandling that very day. He served there until October 21, 1916, when he was transferred to the 18th Battalion and embarked for overseas service with the 18th. After his wounding his medical treatment never took him back to West Sandling, so we know that he wrote this poem between July and October 1916.

The untitled poem begins as a conversation between a non-commissioned soldier and his officer after a spate of combat as they are “By the side of our cooling gun…” The author is asked about what he is writing about, and he expresses that “…to be a Briton Is worth a broken heart,” an obvious expression that the responsibility of the expression of duty towards one’s country takes precedence over that of duty to his family.

The poem uses imagery to reflect the importance of the concepts that the author is expounding. He would rather “be a dustman [garbage collector ] in the poorest London streets,” if that meant he could see his sons again. The sacrifice that he is currently undertaking does not mean he does not miss his children and he hopes upon hope he will see them again, clearly an expression that he is putting his own mortality at risk which would result in him never seeing his precious sons again.

As “…a Briton’s word is true,” he is compelled by his affiliation with his country to become part of the expression of its policy to enact and participate in a conflict that will stop the Kaiser and his generals as they subjugate Belgium and occupied France as Britons “…don’t desert their friends.” He, as many new immigrants to Canada from the United Kingdom are Britons and do not identify as Canadian in preference to being identified as a Briton. As this soldier was born in England and probably lived most of his life in England this strong identification makes sense. From our perspective over a hundred years later this shows the influence of Empire on the culture of Canada for a large segment of the population of Canada at that time.

For Smith another aspect of the expression of his military service is that of honour, coupled with a desire to create peace through the defeat of the enemy and that “…these wicked wars may cease.” This line seems to indicate that there was a feeling that the level of conflict experience during the time from the beginning of the war to the time of the penning of this poem that this conflagration between nations was so terrible that people were conceiving that the Great War would be the war to end all wars early in this conflict, and not at its end. It would be interesting to determine when this concept started to gain traction in the zeitgeist of the Commonwealth, Allied and Central Power nations during the span of the conflict.

The next stanza is interesting as its perspective if written from that of a serving soldier – one that has experienced combat. If this was written in West Sandling at this time then the context is confusing. It appears to by an extension of his psyche in the future: what he imagines he will feel when he encounters and experiences combat. He does not want to be considered crazy or “funky” as he puts it, when he shares that he loves

“…it [combat] when its thick.
When the shells come screaming, bursting, and whistling bullets wail,
God forgive me, but I love it, and I fight with tooth and nail.”

In the next stanza is a recognition of the cost of combat as he expresses the loss of missing and dead friends, and this outcome is in response to the Germany’s action leading to war which needs to be fought with such ferocity that the aggressor “Should go swimming into judgement down a cataract of gore.” The cost of duplicity and evil has to be met with a resolve that has a strength equal to that of the evil one is fighting.

The outcome of this expression of fealty and honour to one’s Empire as a Briton means that this level of violence towards a greater cause, validated by God’s endorsement absolve all of consequences as the work of a British soldier is directly an expression of God’s will. For, “…when the bullets want a thrashing, why you thrash them all you can.” Yet this expression of militant Christianity is tempered in the next stanza with a softer sentiment, with a watchword towards vigilance as he hopes that Christian values will:

“Save my little ones from slaughter, guard their hearts and minds from wrong,
Keep them sweet and kind and gentle, yes, but make them awfully strong.”

This duality of Christian values is a consistent theme in many written works published and private by soldiers of the British Empire during the war. That the kinder, gentler expressions of Christianity are in preference to that of militant Christianity but when the sword is drawn from it scabbard the fury of God will replace the tenants expressed in the New Testament. The moral superiority of this position is reinforced by the acts of the German Empire as the aggressor with their initiation of the war, and the subsequent acts against Belgian civilians, use of unrestricted submarine warfare, and many other enumerated acts stressed through the Allied propaganda infrastructure.

In ending, Smith offers his sons a “good night kiss” and that:

“If I don’t come back to see you I will die without a groan,
For it’s great to fall for freedom, little boys, my own.”

The father is consistent in his application of the religious and martial values expressed as a good Briton. The act of the ultimate sacrifice, with all its intendent consequences to his family is worth it as these values are precedent to that of family and home as they act to protect them in the larger sense of community and culture.

A preface to the poem written by Smith states:

“From Dad to his boys if I do not come back. Keep this for Harry and Leslie. Evelyn; when they grow up they will know what it means.”

As Smith survived the war, he would be able to share his experiences with his sons. And, as history would have it, they would get a chance to emulate their father twenty years later. Of course, we cannot begin to surmise the content of any conversations between these men, now long dead, about the war. Perhaps, like the author’s grandfather, Smith never spoke of the war – ever. Nor attended any formal religious service (church service, wedding, funeral) until his death where he, ironically, and perhaps against his wishes, had a well attended funeral in a church after his passing. Perhaps Smith’s service changed his perspective about religion and his God.

The poem is a wonderful document of values and perspectives. Smith felt so strongly about is values he placed pen to paper and wrote them out in a cogent, thoughtful manner. As a man of his times, this poem represents the values of the man and speaks to this truth and what he values above all. This is something we all have to contend with. We are all placed in the position of establishing value of people and ideas in some order. He formed his beliefs and stood by them. He did not love his sons or wife any less. He made a moral accommodation to determine what method of service would be of greater value to his Empire and his family.

On April 4, 1919, Smith was discharged from the CEF after requiring more treatment for the wounds he sustained in action in France. He would return to his family in Iona, Ontario and at some point move to Toronto, Ontario. He died on December 7, 1936, as the clouds of another war were forming. His Veterans Death Card indicates his death was attributable to his service in the war. He rests peacefully with his wife (Evelyn Wallet died August 23, 1977) and his daughter Evelyn Taylor (August 7, 1916-July 6, 1970) at Prospect Cemetery, Toronto, Ontario.

West Sandling Camp,
Kent, London, England.

Soldier, what are you writing
By the side of our cooling gun?
Sir, since I’m stopped fighting,
A word to my little sons.

Tell me the thing you’ve written,
For I love the writer’s art.
Sir, that to be a Briton
Is worth a broken heart.
Show me so fine a letter
That you write in the trench’s mud.
Sir, you could read it better
Were it not for the stain of blood.

Soldier, tell me your story—
Your eyes grow bright and wide.
Sir, it is the taste of glory
To think of the young one’s pride.

Would you like to be a soldier, little boys, all my own?
Would you like to tip the Kaiser off his high and mighty throne?
Would you like to be with father, in a well dug British trench,
Knocking spots off German generals and saluting General French?

Would you like to be with Harry, little Harry, all my own?
Would I give a month of Sundays just to see how he’s grown?
Yes! I’d like to be a dustman in the poorest London streets
For the chance of seeing Leslie with a gumboil made of sweets.

If you want to be where I am, then I want to be with you,
But I’m here to show a tyrant that a Briton’s word is true;
We must stand by little Belgium, we must fight till the fighting ends;
We must show the foes of Britain that we don’t desert our friends.

Don’t you go and think, my Harry, little Harry all my own,
That we’re squabbling here for nothing, that we’re growling for a bone.
We are here for Britain’s honor, for our freedom, for our peace;
And we’re also here, my Harry, that these wicked wars may cease.

Don’t you say that I am funky, don’t you say I am sick;
Boys, I’m half afraid to tell you, but I love it when its thick—
When the shells come screaming, bursting, and whistling bullets wail,
God forgive me, but I love it, and I fight with tooth and nail.

But if after looking round us, missing friends and finding dead,
It is then the British soldier gets a fancy in his head;
And he swears by God in heaven that the man who starts a war
Should go swimming into judgement down a cataract of gore.

That’s what makes us such great fighters, and I hope you’ll be the same;
Love your country like a good son, hold your head up, play the game!
Be a straight, and pleasant neighbour, boys, be cool, unruffled men,
But when the bullets want a thrashing, why you thrash them all you can.

While you say your prayers at night, boys, my little boys, my own,
Asking God to save your daddy and send him safely home,
Save my little ones from slaughter, guard their hearts and minds from wrong,
Keep them sweet and kind and gentle, yes, but make them awfully strong.

Good night, my little children, here’s your Daddy’s good night kiss,
Don’t forget what I have told you, and remember also this:
If I don’t come back to see you I will die without a groan,
For it’s great to fall for freedom, little boys, my own.

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