Some Sounds of the War

3 Jul

The First World War’s cultural impact can be felt quite heavily in song as well as in literature and art.

A distinction should first be cast between two different kinds of songs: those that were popular on the home front and in the musical halls, and those that had their origins in the trenches themselves. The former certainly made their way into the trenches as well — often with quite surprising additions to the lyrics — but they were not born there.

Music Hall

Songs of this sort were written for popular, public consumption, and often with a patriotic intent. Lyrics ranged from the winkingly suggestive to the nauseatingly sentimental, and much of the pleasure your average Tommy would take from it came with inventing his own additions or substitutions.

For example, the refrain to Paul A. Reuben’s popular “We Don’t Want to Lose You” (1914) ran thus:

Oh! we don’t want to lose you
But we think you ought to go
For your King and Country
Both need you so;
We shall want you and miss you
But with all our might and main
We shall cheer you, thank you, kiss you
When you come back again

The man in the trench, swiftly fed up with this kind of cloying sentimentality, had his own take on the matter:

Now we don’t want to hurry you,
But it’s time you ought to go;
For your songs and your speeches
They bore us so.
Your coaxings and pettings
Drive us nigh insane;
Oh! we’ll hate you, boo you and hiss you
If you sing it again.

In a more suggestive strain we see something like Wimperis & Finck’s “I’ll Make a Man of You”, which became a very popular recruiting song early in the war. One may perhaps see why:

The army and the navy need attention,
The outlook isn’t healthy you’ll admit,
But I’ve got a perfect dream of a new recruiting scheme,
Which I really think is absolutely it.
If only other girls would do as I do
I believe that we could manage it alone,
For I turn all suitors from me but the sailor and the Tommy,
I’ve an army and a navy of my own.

[Chorus]

On Sunday I walk out with a soldier,
On Monday I’m taken by a Tar,
On Tuesday I’m out with a baby Boy Scout,
On Wednesday a Hussar,
On Thursday I gang oot wi’ a Scottie,
On Friday, the Captain of the crew,
But on Saturday I’m willing
If you’ll only take the shilling,
To make a man of every one of you.

You’ll have to pardon me — my glasses have fogged up, here. Not content with the promises made above, the soldiers’ amended version ran something like this:

On Monday I touched her on the ankle,
On Tuesday I touched her on the knee,
On Wednesday I confess, I lifted up her dress,
On Thursday I saw it, gorblimey,
On Friday I put me ‘and upon it,
On Saturday she gave my balls a treat,
On Sunday after supper, I whopped me fucker up ‘er,
An’ now I’m paying forty bob a week!

The clips above come from the darkly satiric 1969 film Oh What a Lovely War!, which does a great deal to ape the music-hall culture of the time. It also has a complex — and at times surprising — history.

Other popular songs included:

“Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”

“Good-bye-ee”

“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”

“Oh! It’s a Lovely War”

“Roses of Picardy”

Of these, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” has had the longest life and the most sustained popularity. Originally written in 1912, it became immensely popular both on the home front and as a marching song.

Trench Music

The most usual mode, as I’ve suggested above, was one of parody. This take on “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” was popular among transport drivers:

I’ve been in the saddle for hours
I’ve stuck it as long as I could,
I’ve stuck it and stuck until I said, “Fuck it,
My arsehole is not made of wood.”

Sergeant, Sergeant, oh give back my stirrups to me, to me.
Sergeant, Sergeant, oh give back my stirrups to me.

While this one, to the same tune, was more broadly applicable:

My tunic is out at the elbows,
My trousers are out at the knee,
My puttees are ragged and frazzled
But the Q.M. says nothing for me.

My tummy knocks hard on my backbone,
My dial is as thin as can be;
Still all we get handed at mealtimes
Is bully and Maconochie.

[Bully beef = tinned corned beef; Maconochie = a widely-distributed brand of tinned vegetables.]

There were countless possibilities with a tune like this:

Last night as I lay on my pillow,
Last night as I lay on my bed,
I dreamt our old corp’ral was dying,
I dreamt the old bugger was dead.

Send him,
Oh send him,
Oh send our old corporal to He-e-ell;
Oh keep him,
Oh keep him,
Oh keep the old buffer in Hell.

Even some “official” songs had a harder edge to them. One of the regimental marches of the Royal West Surrey Regiment, for example:

Here they come, here they come,
Silly great buggers every one:
Half-a-crown a week to pay
For putting a girl in a family way.

Here they come, here they come,
Second of Foot but second to none.
Here they come, here they come,
Second of Foot but second to none.
Bullshit, bullshit,
Covered from head to foot in it.
Bullshit, bullshit,
Covered from head to foot in it.

[And so on]

The wide-ranging adventures of “Mademoiselle from Armenteers” were happily recounted by men in every branch of the service:

Mademoiselle from Armenteers, parlay-voo,
Mademoiselle from Armenteers, parlay-voo,
Mademoiselle from Armenteers,
She hasn’t been fucked in twenty years,
Hinky dinky parlay-voo

[And on and on, with many variations]

Mademoiselle was not always looked upon with such affection, however, as in “Après la Guerre Fini”:

Après la guerre fini,
Soldat Anglais parti;
Mam’sell Fransay boko pleuray
Après la guerre fini.

Après la guerre fini,
Soldat Anglais parti,
Mademoiselle in the family way,
Après la guerre fini.

Après la guerre fini,
Soldat Anglais parti;
Mademoiselle can go to hell
Après la guerre fini.

My favourite, both for its conciseness and strange pathos, is this popular riff on the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here!
Oh we’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here!

There were plenty more like all the above — including “Do Your Balls Hang Low?”, which remains weirdly well-known even today. Songs of this sort were a constant staple for the troops, who very often had to produce their own music if they wanted any at all — Decca’s charming efforts notwithstanding:

Interested parties should consult Max Arthur’s When This Bloody War is Over: Soldiers’ Songs of the First World War (2001) or Martin Pegler’s Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War (2014).

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