Kelly of the Legion by Robert Service

KellyThe following verse was written by Robert W. Service, a Canadian writer (though from England of Scottish heritage) known for his poems that were set in the Yukon and the Northwest Canadian wilderness during the early 1900’s.  The literary snobs undoubtedly look down their noses at his work today much as their antecedents did a century ago because Service wrote poetry that the average people liked.  In fact they liked his work so much that he became one of the most commercially successful poets of all time.  When World War One broke out, Robert Service sought to enlist in the British Army but was deemed too old (at 41) so he instead went to France to observe the war as a writer and later volunteered for the Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross and the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Kelly of the Legion was included in Ballads of a Bohemian which was published in 1921 and is based on Service’s experiences during the war although he chose to create a fictional American ambulance driver to narrate between the poems.  (Thanks to Eugene for tipping me off to this one.)  (.pdf Kelly of the Legion)

Probably not by coincidence there is also a book by the same name.  It’s actually a collection of letters written by Russell A. Kelly, an American who joined the Foreign Legion in November of 1914 who was later killed in action at Souchez, in June 1915.  This Kelly of the Legion was published posthumously in 1917 and I have no doubt that Service wrote his poem in honor of Kelly though I can’t find any reference to confirm this. 

Kelly of the Legion

Now Kelly was no fighter;
He loved his pipe and glass;
An easygoing blighter,
Who lived in Montparnasse.
But ‘mid the tavern tattle
He heard some guinney say:
” When France goes forth to battle,
The Legion leads the way.

     “The scourings of creation,
Of every sin and station,
The men who’ve known damnation,
Are picked to lead the way.”

Well, Kelly joined the Legion;
They marched him day and night;
They rushed him to the region
Where largest loomed the fight.
” Behold your mighty mission,
Your destiny,” said they;
” By glorious tradition
The Legion leads the way.

     “ With tattered banners flying
      With trail of dead and dying,
      On! On! All hell defying,
      The Legion sweeps the way.”

With grim, hard-bitten faces,
With jests of savage mirth,
They swept into their places,
The men of iron worth;
Their blooded steel was flashing;
They swung to face the fray;
Then rushing, roaring, crashing,
The Legion cleared the way.

     The trail they blazed was gory;
     Few lived to tell the story;
     Through death they plunged to glory;
     But, oh, they cleared the way.

Now Kelly lay a-dying,
And dimly saw advance,
With split new banners flying,
The fantassins of France.
Then up amid the mêlée
He rose from where he lay;
“Come on, me boys,” says Kelly,
“The Layjun lades the way!”

     Aye, while they faltered, doubting
     (Such flames of doom were spouting),
     He caught them, thrilled them, shouting:
     “The Layjun lades the way!”

They saw him slip and stumble,
Then stagger on once more;
They marked him trip and tumble,
A mass of grime and gore;
They watched him blindly crawling
Amid hell’s own affray,
And calling, calling, calling:
“The Layjun lades the way!”

     And even while they wondered,
    The battle-wrack was sundered;
    To victory they thundered,
    But .  .  .  Kelly led the way.

Still Kelly kept a-going;
Beserker-like he ran;
His eyes with fury glowing,
A lion of a man;
His rifle madly swinging,
His soul athirst to slay,
His slogan ringing, ringing,
“The Layjun lades the way!”

     Till in a pit death-baited,
    Where Huns with Maxims waited,
    He plunged . . .  and there blood-sated,
    To death he stabbed his way.

Now Kelly was a fellow
Who simply loathed a fight;
He loved a tavern mellow,
Grog hot and pipe alight;
I’m sure the Show appalled him,
And yet without dismay,
When death and duty called him,
He up and led the way.

     So in Valhalla drinking
    (If heroes meek and shrinking
    Are suffered there), I’m thinking
    ’Tis Kelly leads the way.

About Jack Wagner

Retired Army.
This entry was posted in Legion Poetry, World War One. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Kelly of the Legion by Robert Service

  1. S M Cullen says:

    Oh, top stuff! That’s the sort of verse to cheer a fellow up. (P.S., as an Englishman married to a Highlander, I suggest you edit ‘Scotch’ to Scot, or Scottish. You wouldn’t want a dirk in the ribs, now would you?!).


  2. K. Quesenberry says:

    One reason I like Robert Service is because he said it’s safer in the woods than in the cities. Be that as it may be, my wife’s uncle’s father also served in the ambulance corps in WWI. He passed away probably well over ten years ago.


    • Jack Wagner says:

      Your relative sounds like one of the last of the last of the last WWI veterans to pass away. I have to note that the last surviving French veteran of the Great War was Lazare Ponticelli who spent his first year of the War (at 16 years old) with the 1st RMLE (1st Régiment de Marche Légion Etrangère). He passed away in 2008.


  3. My Great Uncle was Russell Kelly who left VMI to join the FFL his letters were published after his death. Many times during my two tours in Vietnam his brother my grandfather wrote me and mentioned him. I thought maybe crazy genes ran in our blood. His grandfather was Col Patrick Kelly of the Irish Brigade who died in the Civil War.


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