The Anti-War Songs Our Great-Grandparents Sang


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