Joyce Kilmer

: Winning A Cause World War Stories

The first poet and author in the American army to give up his life for

the cause of freedom was Joyce Kilmer. Like Alan Seeger, another

American poet who fell fighting in the Foreign Legion of France, Joyce

Kilmer greatly loved life. He loved the flowers and birds and trees.

Probably his finest poem is one which he wrote about trees. He loved

the people around him, impatient only with those who did not love and

the most of the life that God had given them. He loved children,

and simple everyday things, as he shows in one of his latest poems,

The Snowman in the Yard.

But I have something no architect

or gardener ever made,

A thing that is shaped by the busy touch

of little mittened hands;

And the Judge would give up his lovely estate,

where the level snow is laid,

For the tiny house with the trampled yard,

the yard where the snowman stands.

After his graduation from Columbia University in 1908, he became a

teacher of Latin in the high school at Morristown, New Jersey, his home

state. He seemed but a lad himself,--tall, with stern, dark eyes, a

clear, musical voice, and a winning smile. Jovial, gracious, and

gentlemanly in his manners, he made many friends both in his home state

and in New York, where he soon took his wife and little son to live.

In college he had written some poetry. In New York he hoped to write

more. He began his career there as editor of a journal for horsemen.

But he did not remain at this work long. He became in turn a salesman

in a large New York book store, an assistant editor, and then an

editor. When the war broke out, he was a member of the staff of the

New York Times. He had written several poems, and prose articles for

popular magazines and periodicals. At the age of twenty-five he was

widely known, enough of a celebrity, in fact, to have his name appear

in Who's Who in America.

He liked adventure, as does any American youth. He was always glad to

visit a friend who had met with an accident or any other unusual

circumstance. He found himself in what he considered an interesting

and entertaining predicament when in New York he was struck by a train

and had to be carried to a hospital. Such things did not happen every

day, he said, and he took the experience in good humor.

Soon after landing in France, he wrote a description of a long march

made by his regiment. At the end of the march, the men were too weary

even to spread out their blankets, but dropped down to rest on the

floor of the loft in the French peasant home where they were billeted

for the night. But even that experience was new and interesting.

Later, when the men were somewhat rested, they missed one of their

mates, and on going down stairs found him with his frozen feet in a tub

of cold water furnished him by the peasant woman. The little girl of

the home was on his knees, and the two boys were standing beside

him--as Joyce Kilmer described them--envying him his frozen feet.

He also found interesting work at the front, in connection with the

trench newspaper, The Stars and Stripes.

At the dawn of a dark and misty Sunday morning in July, his regiment

was ordered to charge across the river Ourcq and take the hill beyond,

from where the enemy's machine guns were pouring down a withering rain

of bullets. His own battalion, he learned, was not to be in the lead.

So he promptly asked and obtained permission to join the leading


Across the river they charged and for five days fought for the heights.

But Joyce Kilmer was not there to witness the victory.

In the fiercest battles, the bravest officers often go before and lead

their men into the fight, thus encouraging them more than if following

them or charging at their side. The fight beyond the Ourcq was a

fierce one, and the chief officer dashed on ahead of his men. Touching

elbows with him was Sergeant Kilmer. When the battalion adjutant was

killed, he served, although without a commission, as a sort of aid to

the battalion commander.

To the very heights he rushed, and threw himself down at a little ridge

where he might peer over and seek out the hidden enemy machine gun

battery. It was there, lying as if still scouting, that his comrades

found him, so like his living self that they did not at first think him


They buried him at the edge of a little wood, called the Wood of the

Burned Bridge, close to the rippling waters of the Ourcq, and at the

foot of the unforgetable hill.

Deep and keen was the loss felt by his comrades and his officers. From

their pockets many of the men drew forth verses written by the poet

about some incident in the trenches or some comrade who had been lost.

One of the poems to a lost soldier was read over the poet's grave. A

refrain, supposed to be sounded by the bugle, is repeated through the

verses, and as these lines were read the sad notes of taps sounded

faintly from the grove. On his little wooden cross were written the

simple words: Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, then his company and regiment,

and Killed in Action, July 30, 1918.

But Joyce Kilmer and his verses will long live in the minds and hearts,

not only of his comrades in battle, but of all Americans.

Such a buoyant, happy life does not seem to have passed away. Some

beautiful tributes to him, written by other American poets, express

this thought.

One friend at the news of Kilmer's death was reminded of his poem,

Main Street.

God be thanked for the Milky Way that runs across the sky;

That is the path my feet would tread whenever I have to die.

Some folks call it a Silver Sword, and some a Pearly Crown,

But the only thing I think it is, is Main Street, Heaventown.

Then the friend touchingly added, Perhaps Seeger and Kilmer are

strolling down Main Street together tonight.