Monday, 6 September 2010

Robert Service: 'Only a Boche'

The portrayal in verse of the enemy soldier has been one of this blog's recurring subjects. Rarely glimpsed during the First World War, Fritz is most likely to be encountered as a corpse, 'Dribbling black blood from nose and beard', or lying inert while a 'happy warrior' stabs him again and again.

The best time for conversation and reconciliation between warring soldiers is after death. The dead German in 'Strange Meeting' recognises the poem's speaker, 'For so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed'. Similarly, Ivor Gurney imagines in 'The Target' that, if he is killed, he will seek out the man he shot, 'And ask his pardon, if I durst.' After all, as Thomas Hardy had pointed out several years previously, killing someone in war is nothing personal.

Even when Fritz is alive, poets find it hard to muster any animosity towards him. Gurney's own attitudes are complex and shifting, but as I argue in this essay, he reserves his outbursts of rage for letters rather than poetry, and for Germany as a nation rather than for individual soldiers. David Jones goes so far as to dedicate In Parenthesis partly to 'the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure'. Resisting all this fellow feeling for the brotherly enemy, the most contemptuous account of Fritz that I have read is given by John Allan Wyeth, whose sonnet, 'Souilly: Hospital', describes how the 'rancid bodies' of POWs inspire his 'dull and cruel laughter'. The greatness of the poem stems from Wyeth's deliberate refusal to offer the sentimental response expected by his readers.

Soldiers sometimes fantasise about killing Germans. Robert Service, like Sassoon, can write poems imagining the joy of bayoneting them --- 'I'm 'untin' for someone to christen me bay'nit', as the charmless speaker of 'My Bay'nit' puts it. However, bloodthirsty rhetoric gives way to compassion when an injured German soldier needs assistance. The title of Service's 'Only a Boche' seems increasingly ironic, as the Boche is discovered to be a mirror-image, a married man and a family man with cherubic daughters whose curse it will be to experience their father's death 'again and again'.

For Service's place among Canadian war poets, see here; and here is an assessment of another poem from Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.


  1. A curious aside: Whilst pondering other matters, I stumbled recently upon the fact that the name Fritz apparently means 'Peace Ruler'. Rather ironic in the context of it being a nickname for the Germans in war-time, but it in a way it seems to embody the sometimes ambivalent attitude towards the enemy.

  2. In Service, Out of Service, At Your Service... too easy to Dis Service when modern poetry standards are applied to his jingle-jangle jingoist rhymes. Seattle (where I owned a bookstore for a decade) having settled-in so near Canada and as a result being treated for a century as the gateway to the Far North, I sold many a copy of his Yukon gold rush poems, to Yanks and Canucks alike--the War poems less frequently. Your pinpoint analysis and wide-ranging links are exemplary, Tim, and I do grudgingly admire one Serviceable line in this poem: "For his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain." But the burst of French at the end just makes me say... Zut! Diable! et firmez le Boche.

  3. To regard the enemy soldier as a chap like oneself may be "the sentimental response" today -and even in 1929, when Wyeth published his sonnet. But as I see it, the "sentimental" response in 1914-18 (in spite of Hardy's "Man He Killed") would have been to revile the individual Hun as the savager of the Belgians and crucifier of the Canadians.

    By 1916, when Service's collection appeared, the crucifixion stories of 1915 were widely accepted as typical Teutonic Schrecklichkeit. For a popular Canadian writer to ignore it in a two-fisted poem like this about the nature of the odrinary Fritz strikes me as less sentimental than it is level-headed.