In the midst of a devastating war, the “enemy” is never limited to a particular group of people or ideology. In an environment that could only be described as highly hostile, anything can be the enemy — especially the natural world itself. For Robert Service, who worked, essentially as an ambulance during the First World War, anything that would have prevented him from moving freely between the hospital and a wounded soldier was an enemy that needed to be dealt with. For many of the soldiers, similar obstacles would have been dangerous, even deadly. A Song of Winter Weather, published as a part of Service’s war-inspired volume in 1916 (“Rhymes of a Red Cross Man”), addresses a different kind of enemy in the midst of war, the kind that can’t be fought, can’t be beat, and never recedes or gives up.
A Song of Winter Weather Analysis
It isn’t the foe that we fear;
It isn’t the bullets that whine;
It isn’t the business career
Of a shell, or the bust of a mine;
It isn’t the snipers who seek
To nip our young hopes in the bud:
No, it isn’t the guns,
And it isn’t the Huns —
It’s the mud,
Immediately, the structure of A Song of Winter Weather is a little disorienting, though the verses follow a logical progression. For the first four lines of each, the rhyme is alternating — ABAB. The fifth line stands on its own, but is the first half of a sentence finished by the sixth line. The sixth line rhymes with the last line, which itself is divided into three “lines,” while the seventh and eighth lines in-between rhyme with each other. Written out, the pattern is ABABCDEED (DD), with the brackets indicating the repeated word that form a tenth and eleventh line.
The topic of A Song of Winter Weather briefly summarizes a war environment, using “we” to refer broadly to soldiers in the field. It describes some of the many things that can kill an unwary soldier — an enemy combatant, a bullet, an artillery shell, a mine, a hidden sniper — and then declares that none of those things are “it.” “It isn’t the guns / And it isn’t the Huns,” is written, suggesting that neither weapon nor man (the Huns being a nomadic and highly warlike people who threatened the Roman Empire at the height of their power) that was the true threat to soldiers, but rather it was the mud, a word that is italicized and written three times and emphasized accordingly to attribute how much of a problem mud truly is.
It isn’t the melee we mind.
That often is rather good fun.
It isn’t the shrapnel we find
Obtrusive when rained by the ton;
It isn’t the bounce of the bombs
That gives us a positive pain:
It’s the strafing we get
When the weather is wet —
It’s the rain,
The structure and idea behind the second verse is very much the same as the first. This time the narration takes on a somewhat more personal touch — the actual fighting isn’t bad, they say. The battles themselves aren’t bad, and raining shrapnel? That’s not what’s intrusive at all. Bouncing bombs, close combat, falling shrapnel — this is what was signed up for, after all! But what really hurts the soldiers is the rain. Not the rain of metal, shells, and shrapnel, but rather the rain of water that naturally occurs during inopportune times (and, incidentally, is part of how mud forms, referring back to the first verse). Everything listed at the start of the verse is something that can be avoided or anticipated — rain can be relentless and unavoidable, can chill the individual, slow them down, and make them miserable. Often, soldiers would have be to be fighting battles in poor weather conditions that almost certainly served to make a grim experience even worse.
It isn’t because we lack grit
We shrink from the horrors of war.
We don’t mind the battle a bit;
In fact that is what we are for;
It isn’t the rum-jars and things
Make us wish we were back in the fold:
It’s the fingers that freeze
In the boreal breeze —
It’s the cold,
These soldiers are evidently somewhat proud, stating through this third verse that they are not scared, they don’t mind the war-born horrors at all. They arrived to fight after all, suggesting that the soldiers, like the author of A Song of Winter Weather, are Canadian. What they didn’t evidently expect was for winter itself to have such a powerful influence on their day-to-day lives. In this verse, it’s the cold that hurts them, freezing their fingers and hurting their spirits — but it is a war. They can’t go inside and be warm and cozy, that isn’t what they signed up for. While there are battles to fight and horrors to endure, if the weather outside is frigid, they must endure their horrors in frigid weather — and it hurts them deeply.
Oh, the rain, the mud, and the cold,
The cold, the mud, and the rain;
With weather at zero it’s hard for a hero
From language that’s rude to refrain.
With porridgy muck to the knees,
With sky that’s a-pouring a flood,
Sure the worst of our foes
Are the pains and the woes
Of the rain,
and the mud.
Rather than listing off more things about the war that aren’t half as had as winter weather, the final verse examines how the soldiers themselves are affected by the weather they view as being worse than the battles themselves. At zero degrees, tempers are short, and the narrator suggests it’s “hard … to refrain” from rude language, when trudging through muddy terrain in freezing, rainy conditions. At the moment of this march, all they can think is that the worst enemy they’ve ever faced is surely nature itself, bringing down pouring rain, freezing winds, and muddy ground, all at the same time. For them, everything about the war at that moment is terrible.
For Robert Service, who served in World War One, A Song of Winter Weather likely rung all too true. In war, everything was the enemy one war or the other. To imagine soldiers marching off — or rather, slowly trudging through the mud — to kill or be killed in miserable, cold, wet weather is a terrible thing to contemplate, made even worse by the thought that like most of Service’s Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, it was conjured based on an entirely real experience.