Robert Service

The Stretcher-Bearer by Robert Service

‘The Stretcher-Bearer’ is one of Robert Service’s signature wartime poems that recalls his experiences during the First World War.

After making a name for himself by writing poetry inspired by northern Canada, Robert Service found himself working with the American Red Cross as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War. The poet became an ambulance service and was able to serve his country in such a way as he had been denied when he attempted to enlist in the war effort when it began. One of the results of this venture in his life was a volume of wartime poetry inspired by what Service had seen and done during his years as a wartime correspondent with a Toronto newspaper, and as a stretcher-bearer for the American Red Cross. The Stretcher-Bearer is, as the name implies, one of his poems written during this dark period in human history, and one of the many examples of the way Service saw the war and felt during its long passing.

The Stretcher-Bearer by Robert Service


The Stretcher-Bearer Analysis

Stanza One

My stretcher is one scarlet stain,

And as I tries to scrape it clean,

I tell you wot — I’m sick with pain

For all I’ve ‘eard, for all I’ve seen;

Around me is the ‘ellish night,

And as the war’s red rim I trace,

I wonder if in ‘Eaven’s height,

Our God don’t turn away ‘Is Face.

One of the most important elements of The Stretcher-Bearer is the voice that Robert Service takes on for the narrator of the work. When he utilizes spellings such as “wot,” “‘eard,” “‘ellish,” and “‘Eaven,” he is instilling a great deal of character into his poem. In this way, there is a strong focus on character over circumstance. Given that Robert Service himself worked briefly as a stretcher-bearer during the First World War, it is easy to draw a connection between the events of that war and The Stretcher-Bearer, but Service’s tone and style make it clear that he is less interested in discussing the war itself as he is in remembering the people who fought, lived, and died throughout.

In the first verse of the poem, the unnamed stretcher-bearer is carrying a stretcher that is so stained with red it seems as though he is simply dragging a bloodstain around the trenches, rather than a device for healing. The realization brings him to a moment of contemplation, in which he imagines God watching the world and turning away, rather than face the bloodshed. For all of its simplicity, this is a powerful concept — the bearer is imagining the wisest and most powerful entity in existence being unable to bear the war around him. For the rest of the verse, Service uses sensory details to convey the brutal bloodshed in very simple terms — “sick with pain,” “[h]ellish night,” and the “red” of the war. Rather than attempt to convey grand emotional gestures of pain and suffering, Service grounds The Stretcher-Bearer in simplicity and familiarity, focusing again on the narrator who is speaking more so than the world around him.


Stanza Two

I don’t care ‘oose the Crime may be;

I ‘olds no brief for kin or clan;

I ‘ymns no ‘ate: I only see

As man destroys his brother man;

I waves no flag: I only know,

As ‘ere beside the dead I wait,

A million ‘earts is weighed with woe,

A million ‘omes is desolate.

The second verse separates the stretcher-bearer from the war around him by allowing him to express that he is not a soldier in the war. This man “waves no flag;” he is a supporter of neither the Allied Powers nor the Central Powers, and doesn’t care for their conflicts, quarrels, or “who started it,” as is expressed by reference to the “Crime,” capitalized to indicate its importance. The word “Crime” is used with strong irony, because it is displayed here as the justification for the war — in essence justifying wrongdoing with wrongdoing. By highlighting the importance of the word, Service draws attention to the irony of the very concept of war. And indeed, his character spends the second verse thinking about the consequences this war will have. As a healer, he spends a fair amount of time surrounded by dead soldiers and imagines the broken home represented by each one. Many of the causes surrounding the Great War were political in nature, and the narrator can see none of those causes on the battlefield, nothing that would encourage him to choose a side or cheer for the Central or Allied powers — all he sees is people killing other people.


Stanza Three

In drippin’ darkness, far and near,

All night I’ve sought them woeful ones.

Dawn shudders up and still I ‘ear

The crimson chorus of the guns.

Look! like a ball of blood the sun

‘Angs o’er the scene of wrath and wrong….

“Quick! Stretcher-bearers on the run!”

O Prince of Peace! ‘ow long, ‘ow long?

The Stretcher-Bearer concludes by bringing the narrator deeper into his introspection before he is called back onto the fields, his services required once more. Throughout the poem, the consistent written style has portrayed the speaker as being a fairly simple person. Grammatical mistakes such as “them woeful ones” and “I waves no flag” portray a person who doesn’t have the strongest education, and while the spelling mistakes are likely an indication of a spoken accent, it is also conceivable that this is meant to be looked at as a journal entry as well. In this light, Service is, in a way, exploring the idea that war changes the way people look at the world. He doesn’t focus his poem on a soldier on the front lines, but rather on a man carrying a stretcher, who leaves the fight as soon as he’s arrived.

In summary, The Stretcher-Bearer isn’t a “typical” wartime poem; Robert Service is exploring the ways in which war affects everyone involved and portrays a character who muses deeply on the broad implications of a conflict that has very little to do with him. Everyone is hurt by the war, and while this feels like a rather simplistic message, the first-hand experience perspective adopted, particularly in the final verse, gives it strength. Once again, the color red is used to highlight all aspects of the scene; the guns have begun to “sound” red, and the sun resembles a ball of blood more strongly than a distant star, a constant reminder for everyone involved of the pain that hangs constantly around all aspects of the field. When he sees that there is nothing good at all about the fiend, he believes it can only be a matter of time before the world comes to its senses and the war ends and is desperate to know how long it will be before that day comes. He finishes the poem by praying to the God he imagines as having turned away, invoking an old, and in this case very fitting name for Jesus Christ — the Prince of Peace, and hopes his God will live up to the name.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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