Mercoledi Musicale

When This Ruddy War is Over

In 1962 Charles Chilton created The Long, Long Trail a musical programme for BBC Home 1917_tommys_tunes_1st_edition_01radio using historical facts, statistics, reminiscences and  songs from The Great War.  It was amongst the first examinations of that war to end war that stripped off the jingoism of the glorious fight for “King and Country” and tried to give a more realistic view of the battlefields of 1914-1918. The songs were mostly popular numbers of the times with lyrics rewritten by the men in the trenches and came from Tommy’s Tunes: A Comprehensive Collection Of Soldiers’ Songs, Marching Melodies, Rude Rhymes, And Popular Parodies, an 1917 compilation by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham, 2 Lt Royal Flying Corps.

Nettleingham collected and arranged some 92 songs while, he notes, “on active service with the B. E. F.”.  They are largely parodies of music halls songs, hymns and popular drawing room pieces of the time.  What is remarkable about most of them is the total lack of sentiment or, more surprisingly, longing for hearth and home.  Most of them are tinged with black humour at the precariousness of their situation: authority is twitted, religion is mocked, danger laughed at, and the “Hun” reduced to a comic enemy.  The first edition was published by Erskine Macdonald, Ltd in October 1917; a second revised edition with 100 songs was printed November of that same year.

Oh What A Lovely War – National Arts Centre, Ottawa – 1973
Photo: Colin Price – Photo Features

In his Introduction Nettleingham begins by saying:   I am given to understand that some dear old ancient with a taste for biographies once exclaimed that, if he knew a people’s songs, he could write their history.  In 1963 Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East took Tommy’s songs and wrote, acted and performed the history of the people who created and sang them.  But Oh What A Lovely War also took Chilton’s statistics and historical facts and placed them in stark contrast to the lighthearted words and melodies.  As the cast in Pierrot costumes sang about staff officers “only playing leapfrog” an electric board recorded the number of dead, territory gained (or more often lost or of negligible consequences) and projections of the trenches and war scenes painted the reality of the battles.  The show became a popular success and transferred (after some Royal intervention) to the West End, then went on to Broadway and spawned productions in regional theatres.

Your songs were ribald,
Your rhymes were rude,
Your ditties doubtful,
Your quips quite crude,
But ye fought.
Heroes all.

In 1969 Richard Attenborough gathered a cast of some of the best known actors in the United Kingdom at various locales in Sussex – including a garbage dump and a disused Holiday Pier –  and directed his first film:  Oh What a Lovely War.  It was a strange mixture of stylized settings, end-of-pier seaside entertainment and stark realism that somehow worked.  Scriptwriter (and co-producer) Len Deighton centred the film on a nice middle class British family – the Smiths, sending each of the men off to the war and eventually death.  Between enlistment and the grave they and their colleagues sang, danced and joked their way from 1914 to 1918.

By 1917 the black humour that came out of the trenches had found its way into the entertainment of the day.  The patriotic enthusiasm for war of 1914 gave way to a smiling, good-bye-ee_sheet_music_coverif grim, fatalism.  Popular songs, particularly in the working class music halls, encouraged people to laugh at the war.  Composed in 1915 R. P. Weston and Bert Lee’s Goodbye-ee was said to have been inspired by Lee hearing a crowd of factory girls imitating comedian Harry Tate and carolling his catchphrase “good bye ee” when a troop of soldiers marched past.  The lyric also has echoes of another favourite of the time Burlington Bertie with its use of upper-crust slang and the suggestion that his commission doesn’t excuse him from a pathetic farewell.  Goodbye-ee became popular in 1917 when Florrie Forde, the great music hall star of the time, made it part of her popular sing-along act.  Only the first verse of was included in both the stage and film versions of Oh What A Lovely War.  The remaining verses include the story of “Little Private Patrick Shaw” – a prisoner of war who escapes by knocking a “Hun” out and making his way for Holland calling out:  Goodbye-ee!  No doubt a sentiment that sent the audience to cheering as they joined their Florrie in the chorus.

Ye that have sung,
Ye that have laughed,
Ye that were happy,
Amateurs at warcraft,
Amateurs all.
Ye that have cursed,
Ye that have prayed,
Ye that have joked,
And joking—were laid
Side by side.
Britons all.
Your songs were ribald,
Your rhymes were rude,
Your ditties doubtful,
Your quips quite crude,
But ye fought.
Heroes all.
1917                                                           F.T.N.

In 1918 Cole Porter, who was stationed in Paris with the French Foreign Legion (?), changed Herbert Reynolds lyrics to They Didn’t Believe Me and Jerome Kern’s first big hit became We’ll Never Tell Them, an ironic comment on the allegedly ‘easy’ life in the trenches.  Attenborough used it in the moving final scenes of his film*.

*This was not trick photography but a sequence filmed from a helicopter – each of the 100,000 crosses had to be inserted in hand-dug holes in the chalky soil of the South Downs.

On this day in 1918:  Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicates after the German Revolution, and Germany is proclaimed a Republic.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

2 thoughts on “Mercoledi Musicale”

  1. Another interesting and thoughtful post. I can’t get the words “only playing leapfrog” out of my head. All so chilling but the ending sequence especially so.

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