The Survivor a poignant 1934 reflective feminine war voice

“The Survivor” was written by Mrs. Amabel King (maiden name Reeves) (born: May 3, 1899, Toronto, Ontario – died: January 19, 1979 Brompton, Ontario) during her final year (1934) studying in the University of Toronto Extension Journalism course in which she was registered during 1932 to 1934. “The Survivor” under the initial title “My Old Shoes” was awarded the U of T Journalism Student Prize in May,1934. In 1935 her poem along with a historically based but semi-fictionalized autobiographical story revolving around Reeves’s V.A.D. overseas participation at the end of and immediate aftermath of the war was published in a pamphlet as “Relics of a V.A.D.” Toronto, Ontario: The Leslie Press, page 7 although her poem “The Survivor” had already appeared in a 1934 issue of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire magazine “ECHOES.” The University of Toronto Archives copy has an inscription on the front flyleaf, viz.: “To John M. Elson who guided my first faltering steps in the literary world – my sincere appreciation. Amabel King. Dec. 7. 1935.” John Melbourne Elson (born: 1880 – died: ? ) was a minor novelist (e.g. “The Scarlet Sash: A Romance of the Old Niagara Frontier.” published 1925 and a free-lance Canadian writer who also lived next door to King in Toronto. King had one child, Charmaine King (1925 – 2007) a successful Canadian stage and screen actress and wife of Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent (1930 – ). I believe Reeves a young adolescent served overseas most likely under the Canadian branch of the St. John Ambulance Canada who were mainly responsible for the bulk of the Canadian overseas VADs during WWI. She probably did visit Paris most likely in 1919 where her “shoes” were most likely bought. Given the combination of the cynically viewed Geneva Disarmament Talks 1932 – 1933 plus, the depths of human suffering and misery reached in the Great Depression’s years 1933-1934, the rise of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933 and concurrent swell of anti-war pacifism and isolationism sweeping especially the former Allied states her poem is indeed poignant when compared to the glorious sacrificial verses employed especially during the conflict. Moreover, a Canadian feminine inter-war voice of a most likely actual overseas participant is atypical in looking back and directly reflecting with sadness on the sheer futility of the sacrifices of so many young men’s lives. It is also quite possible that King visited the actual battlefields of the Western Front as such tourism was fairly popular generally and not just for immediate family members who had loved ones buried overseas.

“The Survivor”

In memory to-night I’m on Flanders’ front
Where poppies, blood-red, swayed
To the guns, and the drums, and the marching feet
of a million men — betrayed!
And I’m talking once more with old comrades — pals
Whose bodies have long been dust.
How firm was their faith that war would end!
Great God! — was it just — was it just?

Brief was their span, but their day’s dying sun
Left haloes of glory anon;
‘Midst unfurling flags, and screeching of shells
Their brave young souls marched on.
And now, though but half-way along life’s rough road,
I feel the cruel pressure of years,
For my youth went out with the old brigade
On that futile tide of tears.

And while their blithe spirits are hov’ring to-night
Over old familiar heaths,
Where, entangled and gassed in a hell of mud,
They died a thousand deaths.
I thank God they’re beyond the maddening truth
That War makes man its fool,
And will stalk abroad o’er a prostrate world
Till sovereign Love shall rule!

Her story’s focus on her wartime purchased French shoes is well worth quoting at length not only for its writing but in sharp contrasts to all the military/war impedimenta and war souvenirs that we typically associate with the war’s artifacts, viz.:

(page 9)

“My old shoes! Poor, shabby, inanimate things — what memories you revive! Your uppers are scuffed, your heels run down, and your buttons long gone, but I vowed I would always keep you, and I have! for did you not share the gladdest and saddest adventures of my youth? And were shoes ever so kind to tired, travel-worn feet?

When I first glimpsed you — black velvet, dainty and impractical — reposing gracefully in that shop window in the Rue de l’Arcade in Paris that glorious June day, I knew you were meant for me.

(p. 10 )

My English oxfords [ sic ] suddenly seemed to pinch my feet. I went into the shop, and in five minutes possessed you for fifty francs.

When I decided to wear you, the salesgirl gasped, “But no, M’mselle, they are velvet — for the soiree!”

I remember how emphatically I answered, “These shoes are for all occasions! I’m tired to death of low heels. For the duration of the war, working as a V.A.D. I’ve had to wear brogues and tweeds and felt hats, and I’m heartily sick of it all! This is my first visit to Paris, and I’m going to teeter ’round on those shoes, and enjoy it.” I walked out of the place feeling like a Parisian.

Your luxurious velvet softness caressed my weary feet, and a new gay frivolity, such as I had not felt since 1914, filled my whole being. You made me want to find music, dancing and laughter.

(p. 11)

Those first smudges that marred your sleek blackness were from the army boots of my dancing partners at that queer little place in Montre Martre — “The Red Mill” — As I look at you now I imagine I can hear the strains of that French orchestra, and the harsh laughter of disillusioned youth, as they drank and danced in that overcrowded cabaret, in a feeble effort to forget the war. Forget — did I say? No, that could never be. Always they will carry in the depths of their hearts the memory like a hideous scar, and all their experiences in life will be tempered by their shaken faith. Others whom the war did not touch will think them hard and embittered, and without illusions, a generation old before their time. No, they could not, if they would, forget.

When I sat still and quite with you tucked under my chair, a young captain who had been through Purgatory, was

(p. 12)

recounting how bravely someone dear to me had died — leading his men. And the next moment we were on the floor dancing, laughing and singing in chorus, “Mademoiselle from Armentierres . . . ” — One had to be gay. It was part of the price for winning the war.

. . . .

(p. 21)

Precious old shoes! Now I shall roll you in your tissue wrappings and place you back in my box of souvenirs where I shall always keep you. You have the power to bring laughter and tears to my eyes. I think when I am old, and the world has passed me by, I shall sometimes steal up to the store room, and hold you close to my heart — and live again the historical scenes of my youth.”

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Francais sil’vous plait!

Bonjour! I will in 2017 be posting French-Canadian poets’ relevant war related poems in the French language and ideally with at least adequate English translations of same!

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Great news for 2017!

Great news for 2017! Amongst other plans I will in 2017 be cross-referencing select poems that appear in this blog on YouTube with yours truly reciting such verses! You will thus be able to not only view but hear these poems as well. Thanks everyone for your consideration and support. Please feel free to follow this blog.

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A post-war maternal muse

“Armistice /
The Woman Speaks /

Oh, Death, how kind to bid him rest!
Only his spirit stirs against my breast;
So strong he was that day and brave and gay,
Singing and swinging his sword,
Running to action like a child at play,
Peace, be still!
He must not hear my anguished cry;
Only an old sweet song,
A lullaby.”

[ sgd. ] B. M. K.

This brief but poignant plus verse was published in “ECHOES: The Official Organ Of The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire” Issue No. 87, December, 1921, page 53.
The I.O.D.E. was by far the most prominent woman’s war and post-war support group for soldiers, ex-soldiers, returned soldiers and veterans of World War I Canada. The I.O.D.E. sponsored a massive long-term and diverse War Memorial program from 1919 onwards that included scholarships or bursaries to family members of such Canadian war participants, flag presentations, war memorial or monument funding, war memorial or monument unveilings/inaugurations, school lectures/presentations, Canadian artworks (including famously reproductions of official Canadian War Artworks from WWI), etc….

This short verse is interesting socially as overtly manifesting the bereaved immediate family member’s sorrows in contrast to war-time “hero’s death glorification” verses. During the war several I.O.D.E. members penned verses written specifically for their died in the war male relatives in contrast to B. M. K.’s real emotional wallop of loosing her own flesh and blood. How women for such a long period of unanticipated time (several years instead of the few months initially expected in the summer of 1914) coped with such highly stressful life occurrences has never been properly researched. Without question this aspect of the war’s social history encompasses what we now call “secondary trauma.” Even the final word: “lullaby” is symbolic of pathetic family loss of those who have passed on far too young.

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Cannon’s roar: Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson’s verse volleys from his “The Glory Of The Trenches” 1918


Photo of Dawson circa 1916 – 1917 taken in Newark, New Jersey, USA by Walters

Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson (born: February 26, 1883 High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, England – died: August 10, 1959) was a 1905 University of Oxford graduate who dropped out of his post-graduate theological studies and travelled to the United States to attempt becoming a writer. In fair measure successful Dawson focused on writing about Canadian subjects for the British press. When the war broke out he traveled to Ottawa and after a long training course at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario he was commissioned in 1916 as a Lieutenant into the Canadian Field Artillery. Serving overseas he was wounded a couple of times and during latter 1917 – 1918 toured the United States to foster recruiting and Allied war support. He published several books during the war about his war experiences and while his prose work is known he did write several poems. From his book “The Glory Of The Trenches” 1918 he published the following war poems,viz.:

p. 5 “To You At Home”
p. 18 “In Hospital”
p. 52 “The Lads Away”
p. 104 “The Glory Of The Trenches”

“To You At Home

Each night we panted till the runners came,                                                                                       Bearing your letters through the battle-smoke.                                                                                 Their path lay up Death Valley spouting flame,                                                                                 Across the ridge where the Hun’s anger spoke                                                                               In bursting shells and cataracts of pain;                                                                                             Then down the road where no one goes by day,                                                                               And so into the tortured, pockmarked plain                                                                                 Where dead men clasp their wounds and point the way.                                                           Here gas lurks treacherously and the wire                                                                                         Of old defences tangles up the feet;                                                                                                     Faces and hands strain upward through the wire,                                                                       Speaking the anguish of the Hun’s retreat.                                                                               Sometimes no letters came; the evening hate                                                                                 Dragged on till dawn.   The ridge in flying spray                                                                               Of hissing shrapnel told the runner’s fate;                                                                                    We knew we should not hear from you that day —                                                                           From you, who from the trenches of the mind                                                                           Hurl back despair, smiling with sobbing breath,                                                                           Writing your souls on paper to be kind,                                                                                         That you for us may take the sting from Death.”

“In Hospital

Hushed and happy whiteness,                                                                                                               Miles on miles of cots,                                                                                                                             The glad contented brightness                                                                                                             Where sunlight falls in spots.

Sisters swift and saintly                                                                                                                           Seem to tread on grass;                                                                                                                           Like flowers stirring faintly,                                                                                                                   Heads turn to watch them pass.

Beauty, blood and sorrow,                                                                                                                     Blending in a trance —                                                                                                                             Eternity’s to-morrow                                                                                                                               In this half-way house of France.

Sounds of whispered talking,                                                                                                                 Laboured indrawn breath;                                                                                                                     Then like a young girl walking                                                                                                               The dear familiar Death.”

“The Lads Away

All the lads have gone out to play                                                                                                         At being soldiers, far away;                                                                                                                   They won’t be back for many a day,                                                                                                     And some won’t be back any morning.

All the lassies who laughing were                                                                                                         When hearts were light and lads were here,                                                                                       Go sad-eyed, wandering hither and there —                                                                                       They pray and they watch for the morning.

Every house has its vacant bed                                                                                                               And every night, when sounds are dead,                                                                                             Some woman years for the pillowed head                                                                                           Of him who marched out in the morning.

Of all the lads who’ve gone out to play                                                                                                 There’s some’ll return and some who’ll stay;                                                                                     There’s some will be back ‘most any day —                                                                                         But some won’t wake up in the morning.”

“The Glory Of The Trenches

We were too proud to live for years                                                                                                       When our poor death could dry the tears                                                                                           Of little children yet unborn.                                                                                                                 It scarcely mattered that at morn,                                                                                                       When manhood’s hope was at its height,                                                                                           We stopped a bullet in mid-flight.                                                                                                         It did not trouble us to lie                                                                                                                       Forgotten ‘neath the forgetting sky.                                                                                                     So long Sleep was our only cure                                                                                                           That when Death piped of rest made sure,                                                                                         We cast our fleshly crutches down,                                                                                                       Laughing like boys in Hamelin Town.                                                                                                 And this we did while loving life,                                                                                                         Yet loving more than home or wife                                                                                                     The kindness of a world set free                                                                                                       For countless children yet to be.”









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The Debt a Canadian Anglophile bucolic verse

As the war dragged on and casualties mounted how did Canadian born or longer term residents in Canada poetically respond to the ultimate sacrifices made? Here is a late war probably written in latter 1917 or the first half of 1918 example of such a poetic response published by the Great War Comrades of Canada in a small undated pamphlet but probably dating from early or mid-1918: “A Treasury of War Poetry.” [ no place / no date ]: Distributed by the Great War Comrades of Canada 32 pages “The Debt” page 15. Unfortunately no author/poet is given! Athough presumably published in Canada with Canada the presumed focus Bignor Hill is of course in Sussex, England on the famous South Downs and the topographical textual focus is distinctly bucolicaly Anglophile!

The Debt

No more of Canada will they see —
Those men who’ve died for you and me.

So lone and cold they lie; but we,
We still have life; we still may greet
Our pleasant friends in home and street;
We still have life, are able still
To climb the turf of Bignor Hill,
To see the placid sheep go by,
To hear the sheep-dog’s eager cry,
To feel the sun, to taste the rain,
To smell the Autumn’s scents again
Beneath the brown and gold and red
Which old October’s brush has spread,
To hear the robin in the lane,
To look upon the Canadian sky.

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“On Patrol” rare HMCS Grilse 1916 poem

Here is a very rare 1916 poem written by Bertrand Lawrence Twinn (born August 27, 1887 near London, England – died: 1972) who served as a clerk in the Canadian Navy during WWI. The poem appeared inside a 1916 Greetings card from the ship. He had previously served in the Royal Navy from 1902 and marrying in 1909 with a daughter born in 1910 and a son in 1912 he probably was one of the huge wave of British immigrants in the few years just before WWI broke out to Canada. This is the first maritime / naval Canadian war poem to appear on this blog and it is fortuitously from a distinctively interesting ship history. HMCS Grilse was a donated American yacht bought by one of Canada’s wealthiest men from Montreal, Quebec and given to the Canadian Navy in July 1915. She served until decommissioned on December 10, 1918. What makes this 1916 dated in print poem quite interesting is that it was written probably whilst the ship was still in Canadian waters and before she departed Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 11, 1916 for the Caribbean Sea and the West Indies (given her structure which with an open bridge and deck was considered a more suitable cruising area for her). Steaming in a major winter North Atlantic storm in mid-December 1916 she was actually reported lost at sea though she entered Shelburne, Nova Scotia 3 days after leaving Halifax (though losing 6 men who had been swept overboard).

“On Patrol”

Out on the deep when the waves roll high,
When storm clouds scurry o’er sombre sky,
Plunging and rolling this way and that,
Scanning the seas for periscope’s cap.

Steaming along when folks are at rest,
Scorning each danger with many a jest,
Searching for mine or submarine’s lair.
By darkest night and the noonday glare.

Patrolling our beat on trembling keel,
With cheerful hearts and our nerves like steel,
Raging storm or foe — fear there is none;
Our duty’s clear and it SHALL BE DONE.

We dream of our loved ones so far away,
‘Tis them we’re guarding each night and day,
Our glorious Empire to Britons dear,
Her honour’s at stake, we’ll show no fear.

We’ll stick to our task till Vic’trys won,
Bring to his knees the treacherous hun,
Singing songs of the free and the Brave;
Britannia ever shall rule the wave.

Bertrand L. Twinn / 1916″

The Canadian War museum have an excellent collection of contemporary WWI artifacts including even a very unusual cap tally or ribbon for the sailor’s hats of the GRILSE online.


Arthur Lismer one of the Group of Seven and an official Canadian War Artist in WWI also did an often reproduced 1919 dated lithograph of the GRILSE :


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