|Rouge Bouquet Memorial Service, Fighting 69th, March 1918|
On March 7, 1918 in a wood in France near Baccarat, German shellfire buried 21 American soldiers. The men of the regiment were unable to rescue their comrades immediately due to the heavy artillery bombardment, and by the time they were able to excavate those who had been trapped, 19 had died—only two soldiers of the Fighting 69th were rescued alive.
Serving with the Irish heritage regiment was one of the best-known writers and poets in America: Joyce Kilmer (known for his poem “Trees,” written before the war). Immediately after the tragedy, Kilmer composed a poem to honor those who had died, and “The Woods Called Rouge-Bouquet” was read at their memorial service. Less than five months later, it was again read over Kilmer’s grave by the regiment’s famous chaplain, Father Duffy. First published in The Stars and Stripes military newspaper on August 16, 1918, the poem included here differs slightly from the version anthologized in collections of Kilmer’s poetry.
The Woods Called Rouge-Bouquet
In the woods they call the Rouge Bouquet
There is a new-made grave today,
Built by never a spade or pick
Yet covered by earth ten meters thick.
There lie many fighting men,
Dead in their youthful prime,
Never to laugh nor love again
Or taste of the summer time.
|Joyce Kilmer's original grave|
For death came flying through the air
And stopped his flight at the dugout stair,
Touched his prey—
And left them there—
Clay to clay.
He hid their bodies stealthily
In the soil of the land they sought to free,
And fled away.
Now over the grave abrupt and clear,
Three volleys ring:
And perhaps their brave young spirits hear:
The bugle sing:
Go to sleep—
Go to sleep—
(Taps sounding in distance)
There is on earth no worthier grave
To hold the bodies of the brave
Than this place of pain and pride
Where they nobly fought and nobly died.
Never fear but in the skies
Smiling with their holy eyes
On this new-come band.
St. Michael’s sword darts through the air
And touches the arrival on his hair,
As he sees them stand saluting there,
His stalwart sons;
And Patrick, Bridget and Columbkill
Rejoice that in veins of warriors still
The Gael’s blood runs.
And up to Heaven’s doorway floats,
From the wood called Rouge Bouquet,
A delicate cloud of bugle notes
That softly say:
(Taps sounding in distance)
Peace to you;
Your soul shall be where the heroes are,
And your memory shine like the morning-star,
Brave and dear,
Shield us here—
At times, the rhythm of the poem echoes that of the American bugle call played at military funerals, and the Stars and Stripes reported that during the first reading of the poem at the men’s funeral, “Taps” could be heard echoing “from a distant grove.”* When the poem was read at Kilmer’s funeral, a friend of the poet’s reported, “those who were there told me the tears streamed down the face of every boy in the regiment.”**
When the U.S. entered the war in the spring of 1917, Kilmer was thirty-years old with four children, and his wife was pregnant with their fifth. Yet Kilmer was not drafted, but volunteered to join the American Expeditionary Force. The couple’s young daughter Rose, who had been paralyzed since 1913, died just weeks before Kilmer departed for France with his unit in 1917, and he left for war in mourning before ever reaching the front lines. In one of his last letters home, Kilmer shared with the Reverend Edward F. Garesché how the war had changed him:
I have written very little—two prose sketches and two poems—since I left the States, but I have a rich store of memories. Not that what I write matters—I have discovered, since some unforgettable experiences, that writing is not the tremendously important thing I once considered it. You will find me less a bookman when you next see me, and more, I hope, a man…. Pray for me, dear Father, that I may love God more and that I may be unceasingly conscious of Him—that is the greatest desire I have.***
After his death, Joyce Kilmer’s wife, Aline, published her first collection of poetry in 1919, dedicating Candles that Burn to her husband. It includes her poem “In Spring”:
I do not know which is worse when you are away:
Long grey days with the lisping sound of the rain
And then when the lilac dusk is beginning to fall
The thought that perhaps you may never come back again;
Or days when the world is a shimmer of blue and gold,
Sparkling newly all in the dear spring weather,
When with a heart that is torn apart by pain
I walk alone in ways that we went together.
* “The Woods Called Rouge-Bouquet,” The Stars and Stripes, 16 Aug. 1918, p. 6.
** Alexander Woolcott letter, quoted in Joyce Kilmer: Poems, Essays and Letters in Two Volumes, Volume One: Memoir and Poems, edited with a memoir by Robert Cortes Holliday, George H. Doran, 1918, p. 100.
*** Joyce Kilmer to Rev. Edward F. Garesché, quoted in Joyce Kilmer: Poems, Essays and Letters in Two Volumes, Volume One: Memoir and Poems, edited with a memoir by Robert Cortes Holliday, George H. Doran, 1918, p. 90.