Sharpshooter poet just a little to good

This fascinating tribute to the “Poet of the Pats” appeared in the Times-Colonist, Feb. 3, 2015

In Memoriuam: BROWN, Frank Smith

1893 – Feb. 3, 1915

 

This fascinating tribute to the “Poet of the Pats” appeared in the Times-Colonist, Feb. 3, 2015

Scoutmaster, poet, sharpshooter, Frank Smith Brown went to war at the outset with the first Canadian contingent shipped overseas in 1914. He was a charter member of the newly-formed Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, entering with the rank of sergeant from the militia.

What we know about the sergeant today has been presented by the editor of a London literary magazine, T.P.’s Weekly, whose preface to a book of Frank’s soldierly poetry provides the only glimpse we have of this young man’s life and death.

Brown met the editor through letters sent by the 22-year-old soldier who was convalescing at the time from a bout of flu in hospital in the Salisbury Plain. Due to his illness, he missed joining his unit as it proceeded to France just before Christmas, 1914. According to the editor, Holbrook Jackson, Brown called at the publication’s Covent Garden office in early January “with a packet of poems under his arm”. They met on three or four occasions and Jackson formed a strong impression of the “sturdy, keen-eyed, self-confident, but unassuming…son of Empire”. And he was quite impressed with his work. Jackson published Brown’s slim book of poems under the title Contingent Ditties and Other Soldier Songs of the Great War, later that year.

Because he had yet to taste trench life, Frank wrote of the army life he knew. His poetry reflected the spirit of an earlier imperial age, more of Kipling than of Owen and Brooke. The sergeant was no jingoist but he had a patriotic spirit shared by the early recruits. It might seem quaint today to find Canadian-born soldiers of that time refer to themselves as British and unabashedly state they were fighting for the Empire.

Jackson said Brown’s two immediate wishes were to get to the front with his comrades and to have his poems published.

“Both wishes have now been gratified,” wrote Jackson, but the first was to last only a few hours. Brown went into the trenches near St. Eloi Feb. 3. In his letter to Frank’s parents, Rev. Samuel Gorley and Josephine Brown, in Almonte, Ont., Frank’s commanding officer, Capt. Talbot M. Papineau (great grandson of Lower Canadian rebellion “patriote” leader Louis-Joseph Papineau, and a hero himself who died in 1917 at Passchendaele) wrote glowingly of Frank and described in detail that day.

“As you know,” wrote Papineau, Sgt. Brown “was an expert shot, and he showed at once the most commendable enthusiasm in his work. Indeed, it was this which caused his death. During his first day he fired nearly 80 rounds at the enemy, probably as much as the rest of the Company put together, and undoubtedly attracted the attention of the German sharpshooters to himself.

“About 3:30 that same afternoon, he was struck in the head and died instantly and without pain. That evening we reverently buried him behind the firing line…with his feet to a large tree and his head to the enemy. A wooden cross was erected to his memory. Either myself or Corporal Smithers of my Company could direct you to the exact spot.”

But that spot was plowed over countless times as the tide of battle passed back and forth in the Ypres Salient and Brown’s remains were never found. The name of the “Poet of the Pats” remains on memorials such as Belgium’s Menen Gate, the Almonte town cenotaph, and in the Book of Remembrances that resides high in Ottawa’s Peace Tower. The book of poems is in my possession (I am David A. Brown of Victoria) but its contents can be accessed from the University of Toronto website.

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