War was an issue Robert Burns felt strongly about. He wrote many poems and songs on the subject, as well as spending the latter part of his life with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. Since his death, his works and actions have been interpreted very differently at various points in history, and by a range of governments and societies. This capacity to re-interpret his works was very apparent during the Great War.
Throughout World War One, Burns continued to be celebrated. Although activities at Burns clubs dwindled during the war years, their actual numbers increased from 227 in 1915, to 254 in 1918. Events such as the garlanding of his statue in Glasgow and the placing of the floral tribute in Dumfries continued, and Burns concerts and celebrations were held throughout the war, now often in aid of troop entertainment and charitable fundraising. Burns suppers also continued, and were even held at the front.
During the war the militaristic aspects of the Bard’s work were emphasised, as well as his desire to stand up to tyranny and oppression. Scots Wha Hae was included in several martial anthologies, including Oxford University Press’s ‘Poems of War and Battle’, published in 1914. His time spent as a volunteer was also very useful for those claiming he was an ardent militarist, and he appeared on recruitment posters such as this one, which encouraged men to join up.
At a Burns Supper in London in 1918, John Buchan made this declaration in his Immortal Memory: ‘If you wish for a statement of the Allies’ War Aims you will find it through the poetry of Burns. Freedom, tolerance, sympathy in the State; devotion, courage, sacrifice in the citizen – it is all there’.
However, it should be noted that this idealised view of Burns’s poetry was not shared by all. An American ambassador who heard Buchan’s speech remained sceptical, saying: ‘it is not quite clear to my mind how a man can work in a speech about the Allies on a Robert Burns background’.
Other groups sought to distance themselves from the official view of Burns, emphasising the radical, rather than military, elements of poems like Scots Wha Hae, and also pointing out how Burns often wrote about the negative aspects of war and the hardship it brings. Willie Steward, organiser of the Scottish Independent Labour party, believed that Burns was being misrepresented by the government, and declared: ‘I cannot help but think if [statesmen] had ranted of Burns less and imbibed his spirit more, it had been better for us all to-day’.
As is often the case with our Bard, his views are difficult to pin down. He wrote many poems emphasising the negative aspects of war, but also supported the American and French revolutions. His time spent with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers may have been for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, as he was probably attempting to make amends for earlier ill-advised comments supporting the French Revolution. However, as can be seen above, whatever his views during his lifetime, his legacy after his death continued in ways beyond his control.