The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Nick Cowley

The ordinary soldier of the First World War - younger than typified by Old Bill of MOTH Club fame (pic 1) -endured hardships that are well documented.

Picture 1

I ask you to imagine you are a battle-worn private soldier moving around your boggy billet on duckboards (pic 2), unwashed for several days, wearing a filthy and tattered uniform.

Picture 2

You are granted a few hours' respite in that freezing, lice-ridden billet before you are sent back to the horrors of trench warfare. One of your chief means of keeping up your spirits is by singing a whole range of songs, ranging from the bawdy to the beautiful, the not-quite-nice to the nostalgic, and I will try to provide some context and background for those we'll be singing tonight.

But first, a joke from my conservation interests, as it leads seamlessly into my topic. An endangered species had become so rare that its original name had been forgotten and it was known only as the 'rary'. The last two male raries were battling for the favours of the last female, and one male had the other trapped against the edge of a cliff plunging down into a deep and steep gorge. The trapped male begged the other one for its life, pleading "Please don't push me over the cliff." The other rary said "Why not?" and the trapped one said "Because it's such a long, long way to tip a rary."

The song's close association with war is in fact an accident of historical timing, as it first emerged in the London music halls in 1913. The full version of the song features an Irishman named Paddy who's moved to London to make his fortune from its supposedly gold-paved streets; but back in County Tipperary, his sweetheart Molly is fed up and threatening to marry his rival Seamus, so Paddy is really lamenting an almost lost love. The following year when millions of men marched off to war and knew they'd be separated from their loved ones, the song caught on like wildfire. An Irish regiment, the Connaught Rangers - see here (pic 3) are recorded as singing it on August 10 1914, just days into the war, as they marched to embark for France. Let's sing it:

Picture 3

But once in France, of course the soldiers soon met local girls who inspired comparisons not necessarily favouring the Mary's and Molly's back home. 'Tipperary' was quickly adapted to reflect this, and the result was our next song.

Let's have a look at some of the French girls who could have taught them such things (pic 4).

Picture 4

On top and middle we have three pre-war paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Manet. The lower two prints are from the First World War - the left one depicting a real incident when a switchboard operator remained at her post under fire, As for the patriotic 'lady' mounted on a cannon, she's showing a great deal of leg for 1916, and one imagines her job was to 'comfort' the troops.

Interaction between such French girls and British soldiers inspired some ribald songs. A famous one originated with a bawdy French air about the behaviour of 'Three Prussian Officers' who were part of an invading army in the 1870 war, or possibly an earlier conflict. The British got hold of this and rendered it into an equally ribald English version, keeping the blame for civilian abuse on the Germans. The repeated 'Parlez-vous' reflects the efforts to speak each other's languages as well as, no doubt, a handy pick-up line for the British soldier in France. As this is a respectable Society, we'll sing only the first verse - skipping what happened to the landlord's daughter and later the Devil - and the French women will only be 'kissed'. OK

However, these words were gradually superseded by others, using the same tune, that listed the virtues or otherwise of Mademoiselles from various French cities. The reason Armenteers - as the Tommies pronounced it - enjoys pride of place, apparently reflects a real dalliance between a lady there of a certain age - hence the 40 years of chastity, which you may have wondered about - and a British colonel, no less. The three verses we'll sing are one about the lady from 'Armenteers'; one about the Colonel who apparently spent more time with her than on the battlefield and was still awarded the Croix de Guerre, France's highest award; and finally a verse about a lady from Agincourt, site of one of England's most famous victories 500 years earlier.

The colonel being awarded France's equivalent of the V.C. for being at headquarters, in bed with someone, or anywhere but the front line, reminds us that one's rank had an immense influence on what sort of war one had. One of the least enviable ranks to hold, though it may not have seemed that way at first, was that of Second Lieutenant, a one-pipper. These young men, drawn usually from the middle and upper classes, had to lead their platoons over the top and into withering enemy fire with the result - or so I've read - the per capita mortality rate among them was higher than for any other rank.

Typical of them in some ways, very untypical in others, was the war poet Wilfred Owen seen here, (pic 5).

Picture 5

Owen's poems, which we'll hear at a later Society evening, pretty much foretold his own death in the trenches, just a week before the Armistice. A similar ominous note echoes through our next song, about a young lieutenant taking his leave of all he holds dear. Superficially the song sounds like a bouncy, jolly music hall item, typical of the era, with all the cocktail slang of the smart set. But underlying this is the poignant sadness of a likely final parting, vividly expressed by some of Bertie's 'pathetic' parting words - 'tickled to DEATH to go', 'Bonsoir' meaning Good Night - and 'Napoo' - an army slang word of the time for 'no more', 'all over', 'finished and klaar', as we would say.

The newly recruited soldier had first to get used to the strict discipline of army life. Many of us know the agony of being roused in the small hours from a warm bed by an ogre-like corporal yelling 'Word Wakker, Word Wakker!' Gister was ...." and so on. Before our time, though, the shrill note of a bugle would convey the wake-up call or reveille, in a throwback to earlier centuries when the bugler conveyed many other military commands.(pic 6).

Picture 6

The new recruit had to remember, as Vera Lynn would remind Mr Jones in the next war, that the bugler was not a civilian bandsman. The impulse to take out your irritation on the bugler was well captured by Irving Berlin in a 1918 hit that remained popular in the next war.

As he went to war, the soldier experienced far worse things than early rising. We all know how trench warfare involved the perils of charging 'over the top' toward the enemy machine guns, with perhaps a 50% chance of survival. There was of course a bitterness that some of the senior ranks were less exposed to risk, - as we saw earlier with the decorated philandering Colonel - and this was most poignantly captured in the following song. It evokes one of the most horrible images of The Great War - the soldier trapped helplessly impaled on barbed wire in No Man's Land. (pic 7).

Picture 7

Despite the army's best efforts to suppress this song as insubordinate and bad for morale, it was often sung by troops on the march to the front line and this possible fate.

But the unquenchable spirit of the common soldier dealt with all of it, and in our next song his inseparable companion, his kitbag - this one is almost that old - his kitbag became a symbolic receptacle for all the emotional baggage that went with this terrible life. By way of glossary, a 'lucifer', Latin for light-bringer, was a matchstick, and a 'fag' here means a cigarette, although both words had other connotations.

Another way to deal with your troubles was of course alcohol, as and when the soldier could get it, whether in a French bistro or country tavern, the company canteen, or somehow smuggled into the trenches. We'll now sing a very popular drinking song that goes back to at least the 19th century, but was widely sung during the Great War and even up to the present day. Please excuse an anachronism here (pic 8), as I wanted an excuse to show you this remarkable photo from the next World War.

Picture 8

The Spitfire is carrying not bombs but two kegs of beer under its wings, which no doubt were well chilled by the time it landed.

'Good old brandy', of course, had a similar effect to the Mademoiselles. Yet none of this could ever quench the memories and yearning for home. The most hauntingly beautiful invocation of the soldier dreaming of his sweetheart back home, was actually written by an American student at Yale University in 1913, but, as with 'Tipperary', the timing was such that it inevitably became a war song. It's extremely sentimental, but soldiers in the trenches doubtless became just as sentimental at this expression of nostalgic longing suggests.