Robert Service, the son of a Glasgow banker and his English wife, was born in Preston but spent his childhood in Scotland, at his grandfather’s house in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, and then with his parents in Glasgow. He attended Hillhead School but left at 15 to work in a bank. In 1896 he left to seek work and adventure in America and Canada, trying his hand at various jobs before taking up bank work again in various towns, including Whitehorse in the Yukon. Here the recent history of the locality inspired him to write ballad-style poems of the hard-living characters and exciting times of the gold rush; they were instantly popular and earned him the title ‘the Bard of the Yukon’. Songs of a Sourdough, published in 1907, was a huge success.
In 1913 Service moved to Paris where he married and settled, living in France for most of the rest of his life. Despite being 41 and therefore past the age for active service, when war was declared Service applied at the Expatriate Recruitment Office in Paris to join the Seaforth Highlanders, only to be turned down on medical grounds. He worked briefly as war correspondent for the Toronto Star, then from 1915 served as an ambulance driver for the American Red Cross. His war poetry was published in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916) and Ballads of a Bohemian (1921). The poems tell the stories of the ordinary soldier, from the kilted jocks of ‘The Haggis of Private McPhee’ to the gallant French poilus, but woven in to the stories are evocative descriptions of the marching, the fighting, the dying. The long series ‘Les Grands Mutilés’ explores the brave faces and the inner sufferings of the wounded with insightful sympathy.
Service was a prolific poet and continued bringing out collections almost until his death. He claimed that he wanted to write verse as opposed to poetry, and that he wrote to please ‘simple folks’. He has succeeded; his verse is known, loved, and still recited all round the world.