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.
Poet Walt Whitman, seen in an undated portrait. Associated Press hide caption
Poet Walt Whitman, seen in an undated portrait.Associated Press
Walt Whitman wrote letters for soldiers he visited in hospitals. This is one of three researchers have found with Whitman's name on it. Courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration hide caption
Walt Whitman wrote letters for soldiers he visited in hospitals. This is one of three researchers have found with Whitman's name on it.Courtesy U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
While combing through various Civil War files at the National Archives, a volunteer recently discovered a letter written by poet and essayist Walt Whitman on behalf of a Union soldier dying in a hospital far from home.
The National Archives is the repository of the nation's most important documents, including some they didn't even know they had, like said letter.
Washington, Jan. 21, 1865(6)
My Dear Wife,
You must excuse me for not having written to you before. I have not been very well + did not feel much like writing – but I feel considerably better now – my complaint is an affection of the lungs. I am mustered out of service, but am not at present well enough to come home. I hope you will try to write back as soon as you receive this + let me know how you all are, how things are going on – let me know how it is with mother. I write this by means of a friend who is now sitting by my side + I hope it will be God's will that we shall yet meet again. Well I send you all my love + must now close.
Your affectionate husband,
Written by Walt Whitman
The post-Civil War letter was discovered in February. Despite Whitman's claims to have written hundreds of letters for soldiers he would visit in hospitals, it is one of only three that researchers have been able to find with Whitman's name on it, says Jackie Budell, a specialist with the National Archives.
"He just literally visited people. And he bought stationery and he would bring it with him and he would offer to write letters home for them," she tells NPR's Michel Martin. "Many [soldiers] were illiterate but also many were just too sickly to write so he would offer to do that."
Whitman described his visits to wounded soldiers in an 1864 article in The New York Times.
Many sick and wounded soldiers have not written home to parents, brothers, sisters, and even wives, for one reason or another, for a long, long time. Some are poor writers, some cannot get paper and envelopes; many have an aversion to writing because they dread to worry the folks at home — the facts about them are so sad to tell. I always encourage the men to write, and promptly write for them.
"Hospitals during the Civil War were not a safe place to be, so it's really very admirable that he chose to be a volunteer in the hospitals," Budell says. Whitman had a government job but would frequently leave work early to visit the men.
"My custom is to go through a ward, or collection of wards, endeavoring to give some trifle to each, without missing any," Whitman writes in the Times. "Even a sweet biscuit, a sheet of paper, or a passing word of friendliness, or but a look or nod, if no more."
Whitman gave out fruit, candy or small amounts of change, Budell says. "But I do think it was his investment of time and the emotion that he showed the boys that was probably what they were looking for the most."
The newest discovery is believed to have been written in 1866, despite the 1865 date, according to The Washington Post.
Whitman was writing on behalf of Robert Nelson Jabo, a French Canadian who had been living in Clinton County, N.Y. The letter is addressed to Jabo's wife, who was named Adeline. The couple had six children at home, Budell says. Jabo spent most of his time between 1861 and 1866 in the service, and died in 1866.
"I think Walt's time was the most important gift that he was giving these men," Budell says. "Really they just needed someone to sit by their side."
More of Whitman's diary entries from his time during the war are collected in the book Memoranda During the War. Whitman wants readers to remember (though maybe not too much) the "lurid interiors" and "Hospital part of the drama" — those struggles of the Civil War apart from the dramatic outdoor battles.
Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not. In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.
"I'm sure many of [the soldiers] kind of knew what was about to happen to them," Budell says. "And so they didn't want to worry family at home, but at the same time still wanted to give some parting thoughts to a wife or a mom who wondered where they were."
Whitman's skill as a poet and writer also helped the men, who may not have been able to fully express themselves, Budell says. "You can envision that he was, in effect, kind of helping them to verbalize maybe what they weren't able to say."
Correction March 16, 2016
In the audio version of this story, we say that Nelson Jabo was able to return home to New York state sometime after the letter was written. In fact, he did not make it back home. He died of tuberculosis as a charity patient at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1866.