If we cannot do him honour while he’s here to hear the praise/Then at least let’s give him homage at the ending of his days/Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say/Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.
A. Lawrence Vaincourt could not have possibly known how popular his poem “Just a Common Soldier” would become after he published it in a Montreal-area community newspaper in 1987.
Born out of a mix of sadness for the shrinking ranks of his fellow veterans and frustration at the lack of care afforded to them by the government, Vaincourt’s poem has been republished around the world each year near Remembrance Day.
While perhaps less known to Canadians than John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” Vaincourt’s Toronto-based son Randy Vancourt says that as Nov. 11 approaches, he fields hundreds of requests from newspapers, including The Washington Postand Los Angeles Times, veterans groups and artists “in literally every English-speaking country” to republish the 10-stanza poem.
“It keeps popping up in a million different locations,” he said. “My dad felt veterans were being forgotten. It was frustrating. They came back from the war and carried on with their lives, and only in later years realized how forgotten they had been.”
The poem shot to international attention after the syndicated American columnist Ann Landers, an acquaintance of Vaincourt’s with whom he had once corresponded about whether to roll toilet paper under or over, republished part of “Just a Common Soldier” in one of her columns around 1991.
Legions in Australia and the United Kingdom have asked to use it in their newsletters and as part of fundraising campaigns; American radio stations have aired it yearly on Memorial Day and Veterans Day; and, recently, singer Connie Francis did a spoken-word recording during a telethon for American soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder hosted by Alan Alda.
Vancourt, a composer and performer who incorporated some of his father’s material into a musical several years ago, almost never turns down a republishing request. He said it was ironic “and a little heartbreaking” that Vaincourt received more attention for his poem south of the border, where he was interviewed in the media, than in his home country.
The poem, also known as “A Soldier Died Today,” recounts the story of “Old Bill,” who spent his final years sharing war stories with fellow veterans at the legion, before passing away into obscurity. Vaincourt lashes out at politicians in the piece, writing that their deaths are often marked by media attention and large-scale funerals.
“Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land/A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?/Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife/Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?”
Vancourt has always been struck by the fact that his father, who died at the age of 85 in Deux-Montagnes, Que., in 2009, is best known for such a serious piece of writing, given that “over 90 per cent” of his writing was humorous.
Born in upstate New York in 1923 to French-Canadian parents and raised in a farming community in southeastern Quebec, Vaincourt enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force when he was about 17 and was stationed in England as an aircraft mechanic toward the end of the Second World War.
After the war, he moved to Montreal, where he met his future wife. They eventually settled in Deux-Montagnes, a Montreal suburb, and had five sons. At home he almost never spoke about the war, said Vancourt.
“When you asked, he would tell funny anecdotes about characters he had met,” he said.
Having dabbled in newspapers, including at the Toronto Standard, Vaincourt worked for a number of years in photography, including in the photo divisions at Rolls-Royce and ABC News. He ran his own studio in Dorval, Que., for almost 25 years.
Vancourt said his father was always a writer, but only started writing professionally after his retirement. He ended up writing a column, often about his life experiences and growing up in an impoverished family, for the Lachute Watchman. The Montreal-area community newspaper first published “Just a Common Soldier,” and Vaincourt became a syndicated columnist in a number of Canadian and American publications.
“I’ll be forever proud, forever touched by the fact that he left this legacy to the world and I get the incredible honour of being able to hear almost daily from people all over the world what this piece has meant to them,” said Vancourt. “It makes me feel like he’s not really gone.”
Just a Common Soldier
(A Soldier Died Today)
By A. Lawrence Vaincourt
He was getting old and paunchy and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion, telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he had fought in and the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies; they were heroes, every one.
And tho’ sometimes, to his neighbors, his tales became a joke,
All his Legion buddies listened, for they knew whereof he spoke.
But we’ll hear his tales no longer for old Bill has passed away,
And the world’s a little poorer, for a soldier died today.
He will not be mourned by many, just his children and his wife,
For he lived an ordinary and quite uneventful life.
Held a job and raised a family, quietly going his own way,
And the world won’t note his passing, though a soldier died today.
When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,
But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.
Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land
A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?
A politician’s stipend and the style in which he lives
Are sometimes disproportionate to the service that he gives.
While the ordinary soldier, who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal and perhaps, a pension small.
It’s so easy to forget them for it was so long ago,
That the old Bills of our Country went to battle, but we know
It was not the politicians, with their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom that our Country now enjoys.
Should you find yourself in danger, with your enemies at hand,
Would you want a politician with his ever-shifting stand?
Or would you prefer a soldier, who has sworn to defend
His home, his kin and Country and would fight until the end?
He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us we may need his like again.
For when countries are in conflict, then we find the soldier’s part
Is to clean up all the troubles that the politicians start.
If we cannot do him honor while he’s here to hear the praise,
Then at least let’s give him homage at the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say,
Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.
Republished with permission of Randy Vancourt.
Siegfried Sassoon is best remembered for his angry and compassionate poems of the First World War, which brought him public and critical acclaim. Avoiding the sentimentality and jingoism of many war poets, Sassoon wrote of the horror and brutality of trench warfare and contemptuously satirized generals, politicians, and churchmen for their incompetence and blind support of the war. His later poems, often concerned with religious themes, were less appreciated, but the autobiographical trilogy The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston won him two major awards.
Born into a wealthy Jewish family, sometimes called the "Rothschilds of the East" because the family fortune was made in India, Sassoon lived the leisurely life of a cultivated country gentleman before the First World War, pursuing his two major interests, poetry and fox hunting. His early work, which was privately printed in several slim volumes between 1906 and 1916, is considered minor and imitative, heavily influenced by John Masefield (of whose work The Daffodil Murderer is a parody).
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Sassoon served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, seeing action in France in late 1915. He received a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded soldier during heavy fire. After being wounded in action, Sassoon wrote an open letter of protest to the war department, refusing to fight any more. "I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it," he wrote in the letter. At the urging of Bertrand Russell, the letter was read in the House of Commons. Sassoon expected to be court-martialed for his protest, but poet Robert Graves intervened on his behalf, arguing that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and needed medical treatment. In 1917, Sassoon was hospitalized.
Counter-Attack and Other Poems collects some of Sassoon's best war poems, all of which are "harshly realistic laments or satires," according to Margaret B. McDowell in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The later collection The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon included 64 poems of the war, most written while Sassoon was in hospital recovering from his injuries. Public reaction to Sassoon's poetry was fierce. Some readers complained that the poet displayed little patriotism, while others found his shockingly realistic depiction of war to be too extreme. Even pacifist friends complained about the violence and graphic detail in his work. But the British public bought the books because, in his best poems, Sassoon captured the feeling of trench warfare and the weariness of British soldiers for a war that seemed never to end. "The dynamic quality of his war poems," according to a critic for the Times Literary Supplement, "was due to the intensity of feeling which underlay their cynicism." "In the history of British poetry," McDowell wrote, "[Sassoon] will be remembered primarily for some one hundred poems ... in which he protested the continuation of World War I."
After the war, Sassoon became involved in Labour Party politics, lectured on pacifism, and continued to write. His most successful works of this period were his trilogy of autobiographical novels, The Memoirs of George Sherston. In these, he gave a thinly-fictionalized account, with little changed except names, of his wartime experiences, contrasting them with his nostalgic memories of country life before the war and recounting the growth of his pacifist feelings. Some have maintained that Sassoon's best work is his prose, particularly the first two Sherston novels. Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man was described by a critic for the Springfield Republican as "a novel of wholly fresh and delightful content," and Robert Littrell of Bookman called it "a singular and a strangely beautiful book."
That book's sequel was also well received. The New Statesman critic called Memoirs of an Infantry Officer "a document of intense and sensitive humanity." In a review for the Times Literary Supplement, after Sassoon's death, one critic wrote: "His one real masterpiece, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer ... is consistently fresh. His self scrutiny is candid, critical, and humourous.... If Sassoon had written as well as this consistently, he would have been a figure of real stature. As it is, English literature has one great work from him almost by accident."
Sassoon's critical biography of Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith was also well received. In this volume, he recounted numerous anecdotes about Meredith, portraying him vividly as a person as well as an author: "The reader lays the book down with the feeling that a great author has become one of his close neighbors," wrote G. F. Whicher in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review. The critical portions of the book were also praised, though some found the writing careless. But the New Yorker critic noted Sassoon's "fresh and lively literary criticism," and the reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement declared that "Mr. Sassoon gives us a poet's estimate, considered with intensity of insight, skilfully shaped as biography, and written with certainty of style."
In 1957 Sassoon became a convert to Catholicism, though for some time before his conversion, his spiritual concerns had been the predominant subject of his writing. These later religious poems are usually considered markedly inferior to those written between 1917 and 1920. Yet Sequences (published shortly before his conversion) has been praised by some critics. Derek Stanford, in Books and Bookmen, claimed that "the poems in Sequences constitute some of the most impressive religious poetry of this century."
Speaking of Sassoon's war poetry in a 1981 issue of the Spectator, P. J. Kavanagh claimed that "today they ring as true as they ever did; it is difficult to see how they could be better." Looking back over Sassoon's long literary career, Peter Levi wrote in Poetry Review: "One can experience in his poetry the slow, restless ripening of a very great talent; its magnitude has not yet been recognised.... He is one of the few poets of his generation we are really unable to do without."