The Anti-War Songs Our Great-Grandparents Sang

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When we think
of the songs of World War I, what comes to mind? There is, of course,
“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which concerns an Irishman in London
pining for his sweetheart back home. Although popular with the troops,
it has nothing to do with soldiering and was actually written two
years before the war began. We all know “Mademoiselle from
Armentieres,” with its nonsense lyrics: “She hasn’t been kissed
in forty years, Hinky, dinky, parley-voo." And who could forget
George M. Cohan's ber-patriotic “Over There” (“Hear them calling,
you and me, every son of liberty”)?

But what of
the anti-war songs of the period or even songs that expressed
some skepticism about the war effort? Were there any?

It turns out
that the Great War gave rise to quite a few — even if public
schools and the entertainment industry have done little to preserve
their memory. For example, before President Wilson dragged a reluctant U.S.
into the European conflict, “I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be A Soldier”
was one of the most popular American tunes of 1915:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder
To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

In Great Britain,
too, even at the height of the war, a number of songs captured the
discontent of those on the home front and the frontlines. “Far from
Wipers” was sung to the tune of “Sing Me to Sleep”:

Far from
Wipers, I long to be,
Where German snipers can’t get at me,
Damp is my dugout, cold are my feet,
Waiting for the whizzbangs to put me to sleep.

And this one:

If you want
the old battalion
We
know where they are,
They’re
hanging on the old barbed wire.

Hard
to imagine Jimmy Cagney singing these lines on the Warner Brothers
lot.

Many of these
songs, along with a few pro-war ones, were incorporated into the
Theatre Workshop Company's 1963 London stage musical Oh!
What a Lovely War
. Director Richard Attenborough brought
the work to the screen in 1969, and this month Paramount has released
a DVD of the movie, uncut and restored to its original brilliance.

The cast list
is a virtual Who's Who of British thespians: Laurence Olivier, Ralph
Richardson, John Mills, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave,
Ian Holm, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York and many more.

The script
by spy novelist Len Deighton reimagines World War I as the newest
attraction at the English seaside resort of Brighton. An eager public
stands in long queues for a look. There is a marching band with
red coats and bearskin hats, a children's train, a carousel, a shooting
gallery, and fireworks. But then the action shifts to the battlefields
of France. The fireworks become exploding mortar shells, the children's
train a railcar full of men headed to the front, the shooting gallery
a line of soldiers in a dismal trench, and the carousel a butchered
division of cavalry. The stuff of fantasy comes crashing down on
the real world's unforgiving surface. Glories promised by the “unreality-based
architects of war are replaced by corpses beyond number.

The process
of recruiting cannon fodder is staged as a seductive music hall
performance by Maggie Smith who hints at her easy virtue in “I’ll
Make a Man of You”:

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

She adds, “Be
a man; enlist today,” the none too subtle suggestion being that
battle experience is a rite of passage as necessary to attaining
manhood as losing one's virginity.

Meanwhile across
the Channel, British generals Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave
prepare to meet their counterparts in the French army:

OLIVIER: One
must always remember the class of people these French generals come
from . . . Mostly tradesmen. Shan’t understand a damn word they
say, anyway.

REDGRAVE: With
regard to that, sir, do you think I ought to organize an interpreter?

OLIVIER: Don’t
be ridiculous . . . the essential problem at the moment is we must
have utmost secrecy.

Later,
we see a British soldier carried homeward on a stretcher. A nurse
tells him tenderly, “Don’t worry, we’ll have you back on the firing
line within a week.” At that a chorus of bandaged and crippled men
belt out,

Pack up your
troubles in your old kit bag,
And
smile, smile, smile . . .

But not all
scenes are played for laughs. Vanessa Redgrave, as the suffragette
Sylvia Pankhurst, braves a crowd of hecklers to warn, “The politicians
chatter like imbeciles while civilization bleeds to death.”

The movie also
briefly covers the spontaneous 1914 Christmas truce between Scottish
and German soldiers. Its version is as poignant as last year's Joyeux
Nol (which
I reviewed here
).

Hearing “Silent
Night” sung in German on Christmas Eve, one soldier asks his companion
if it's the Welsh soldiers in a nearby trench. “No,” says the second
soldier, “it's Jerry. It's a carol.” Says the first soldier, “Wouldn’t
have thought they had them.”

Yet at sunrise
the next day, these Christians from two warring nations meet in
no-man's land to share wine and tobacco.

As in Joyeux
Nol, the vital role of the clergy in exempting government and
its agents from the “Thou Shalt Not Kill” commandment is shown.
A chaplain stands before a congregation in uniforms and announces,
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has made it known that it is no sin
to labor for the war on the Sabbath.”

Then the choir
launches into “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But as the camera moves
through the ranks, we see that some soldiers have replaced the traditional
lyrics with an irreverent version:

Forward Joe
Soap's army, marching without fear,
With
our old commander, safely in the rear.

As the casualties
mount, even some within the high command begin to question the wisdom
of the campaign. One officer asks Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
(John Mills) if he would reconsider the strategy of attrition.

But Haig is
adamant: “Our population is greater than theirs, and their losses
are greater than ours. In the end we shall have 10,000 left. They
shall have 5,000, and we shall have won.”

These words
are ruefully underlined by the film's spectacular closing shot: 
a post-war family picnics in a field where tens of thousands of
crosses mark the final resting place of those “winning” losses.

Of the film,
I have only one cavil. At several points the movie hawks the notion
of “rich man's war, poor man's fight,” implying that English
aristocrats sent their gardeners and chauffeurs — but not their
sons — to battle. In fact, the war took a ghastly toll on the
undergraduates and alumni of Cambridge and Oxford.

Because the
dialect and period slang of Oh! What a Lovely War may present
a challenge to American viewers, I recommend engaging
the “English Subtitles” feature on one's DVD player. This option,
unfortunately, does not provide a complete transcription
of every word sung and spoken, but it will help an American ear
keep pace with the script.

If terrible
wars at least give us good movies, perhaps we can look forward to
many to come from the present Anglo-American crusade.

November
20, 2006

David
Rosinger [send him
mail
] writes from Roswell, GA.

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