RAGTIME ARMIES: TRENCH SONGS OF THE GREAT WAR




Singing was a pronounced feature of the Great War, 1914-18. Soldiers sang in camp, on the march, in the trenches and wherever else they felt the need. 1st Lieut. Elmer Hess of the 15th Field Artillery wrote in his diary:
‘The battalion moved again to the front.  The left side of the road was filled with trucks, ammunition, retreating French soldiers, field hospitals-all in great confusion.  We marched until midnight with practically no rest and on into the morning.  We could hear the songs sung by the American artillery marching ahead.’
Many of these songs were made by the soldiers themselves. They were based on their experiences and attitudes to the war and to the authority of officers and were circulated among themselves without commercial involvement or intention. Rifleman Patrick MacGill of the London Irish fought at Loos and left a brief but evocative account of such songs and their singers. He wrote:
‘Their origin is lost; the songs have arisen like old folk tales, spontaneous choruses that voice the moods of a moment and of many moments which are monotonously alike. Most of the verse is of no import; the crowd has no sense of poetic values; it is the singing alone which gives expression to the soldier’s soul.’
One of MacGill’s comrades observed the essential difference between trench songs and those sung elsewhere: ‘”These ‘ere songs are no good in England,” my friend Rifleman Bill Teake remarks. “They ‘ave too much guts in them.”’
Here are some of the most widely sung songs among British, Canadian, Australian and, later, American troops in the trenches …
The Ragtime Infantry
One of the earliest and eventually most widely-heard trench ditties of the war was known variously as Fred Karno’s Army’ or ‘The Ragtime Army’. Sung to the hymn tune ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, its lyrical variations were many, though the core of satirical self-deprecation remained the same. Ragtime was a form of popular music of the period and Fred Karno was a renowned comic, whose crazy stage antics were the perfect metaphor of the madness in which the soldiers found themselves:
We are Fred Karno’s army, the ragtime infantry,
We cannot shoot, we cannot fight, what bloody use are we?
And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:
‘Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody useless lot
Are the ragtime infantry’.
The Bells of Hell
A Royal Welch Fusilier wrote home in December 1917 describing the songs he heard in the trenches. He thought they expressed ‘the men’s stoical cynicism, which is always cheerily, and usually blasphemously expressed’. He gave the lyrics of ‘The Bells of Hell’:
The bells of hell ring ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me;
The herald angels sing ting-a-ling-a-ling,
They’ve got the goods for me.
Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling
Oh grave, thy victoree!
The bells of hell ring ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me.
Hush, Here Come a Whizzbang
A whizzbang was any kind of artillery shell, as in the trench parody of a pre-war pop song titled ‘Hush, Here Comes the Dream Man’:
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
Now, you soldiers get down those stairs,
Down in your dug-outs and say your prayers.
Hush, here comes a whizzbang,
And it’s making straight for you,
You’ll see all the wonders of no-man’s land
If a whizzbang – crump! – hits you.
Keep Your Head Down, Allemand
One of the popular trench ditties of the war, referring to the enemy as Alleymand (Allemand) from the French for German, described what each side did when the other was erecting barbed wire defences:
Keep your head down, Alleymand,
Keep your head down, Alleymand,
Last night in the pale moonlight
I saw you, I saw you,
You were fixing your barbed wire
So we opened rapid fire
Keep your head down, Alleymand.
I Want to go Home
A widespread trench ditty summed up the effect that machine guns had on morale:
Machine guns they rattle, Jack Johnston’s they roar,
I don’t want to fight with these Fritz anymore,
Take me over the sea where the Germans they can’t get at me,
O my, I don’t want to die
I just want to go home.
My Little Wet Home in the Trench
A soldier parody of the pre-war hit song ‘My Little Grey Home in the West’, this ditty was known not only to Canadian, but also Australian troops and would probably have been sung by British soldiers as well. ‘Jack Johnson’s’ were large, loud shells that left dark smoke in their wake, named after the African American boxer of the period.
I’ve a little wet home in the trench,
Where the rainstorms continually drench,
There’s a dead cow close by,
With her hoofs towards the sky
And she gives off a beautiful stench.
Underneath in the place of a floor,
There’s a mass of wet mud and some straw,
And the ‘Jack Johnsons’ tear
Thro’ the rain sodden air,
O’er my little wet home in the trench.
There are snipers who keep on the go,
So you must keep your napper down low,
And their star shells at night
Make a deuce of a light,
Which causes the language to flow.
Then bully and biscuits we chew,
For its [sic] days since we tasted a stew,
But with shells dropping there,
There’s no place to compare
With my little wet home in the trench.
The Purple Platoon
Some ditties were even more directly critical of the war and those running it, as in the Australian version of some short but pointed couplets:
Our officer’s out on his favourite stunt,
Taking us out for a souvenir hunt,
Taking us out in front of the wire,
Getting us killed by our own rifle fire.
We used to be fifty-odd non-coms and men,
We used to be fifty but now we ae ten,
And if this cross-eyed war doesn’t end ruddy soon,
There’ll be no Aussies left in our purple platoon
The Wrong Way to Tickle Marie
There were few subjects that the Tommies, Poilu’s, Diggers and, later, the Doughboys, did not subject to musical mistreatment. Usually their ditties were to the tune of popular songs of the war or immediate pre-war period, such as ‘Tipperary’ and were often sexually suggestive:
That’s the wrong way to tickle Marie,
That’s the wrong way to kiss!
Don’t you know that over here, lad,
They like it best like this!
Hooray pour le Francais!
Farewell, Angleterre!
We didn’t know the way to tickle Marie,
But we learned how, over there!
Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire
Comments on the perceived inequities between officers behind the liens and the fighting men at the front were not uncommon in trench songs. In one or another of many versions, this one was very popular:


If you want to see the infantry, I know where they are,

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,
I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them,
Hanging on the old barbed wire I’ve seen them,
Hanging on the old barbed wire.
If you want to see the generals, I know where they are,
They’re miles and miles behind the lines,
I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them,
Miles and miles behind the lines I’ve seen them,
Miles and miles behind the lines.
The fresh troops arriving from America in 1917 were full of the same confident enthusiasm that the British troops had initially possessed. An American ditty to the tune of ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie’ expressed a no-nonsense approach to winning the war by finishing off, or ‘canning’, the German leader:
We’re off to can the Kaiser,
Hurray! Hurray!
In Kaiserland we’ll take our stand,
Until we can the Kaiser.
Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go and can the Kaiser.
The following year allied troops did exactly that.

MORE: Graham Seal, The Soldiers’ Press: Trench Journals in the First World War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
KEYWORDS: World War One; Great War; trench songs; soldier songs

CONSENTING TO DIE IN THE GREAT WAR

Why did men consent to fight the First World War? This is one of the most difficult of all questions about a conflict that remains an enigma despite the millions of words written about it.

Patriotism is one answer. Glory another, though soldiers soon discovered there was little, if any, of that in the trenches. Social pressure from the White feather fanatics was a factor for some.

But a more surprising answer lies in the mechanism that frontline soldiers created to negotiate their consent to fight and quite possibly die. This mechanism took the form of sometimes rough and ready magazines and newsheets written, illustrated and edited by soldiers themselves.

The Dead Horse Corner Gazette, the Bran Mash and The Whizzbang were just some of the many hundreds of titles in the trench press. In the sometimes scribbled sometimes printed pages appeared verse, short stories, songs, pays and a host of parodic and satirical items written by soldiers. These squibs were often illustrated with cartoons and sketches that made the sharp toothed humour even more pointed.




Nursery rhymes were recast for gallows humour effect:

Little Jack Wrench
Sat down in a trench,
With a ‘pork and beans’ and some bread,
When an Allemande shell
On the parapet fell,
So he got ‘iron rations’ instead.

Trench songs expressed the universal desire to be ‘out of it’, as in this version from the Canadian The Sling:

I want to go home, I want to go home,
The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar,
I don’t want to go up the line any more.
Take me over the sea, where the enemy can’t get at me.
Oh! my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.

Officers might be called to account, if to little effect, as recorded in The Swell, ‘The Regimental Rag of the 13th Battalion the King’s Liverpool Regiment’ in January, 1916:

On Monday we had bread and bully,
On Tuesday we’d bully and bread,
On Wednesday and Thursday we’d bully and toast,
Well that’s only bully and bread;
So on Friday we called out the major,
And asked him for a change, so he said
Alright, so on Saturday we got for a change
Some bully without any bread.

The humble classified advertisement provided endless opportunities to spoof the war a specialty, though not a monopoly of the British Wipers Times:

“TRY OUR NEW CIRCULAR TOUR, EMBRACING ALL THE HEALTH RESORTS OF LOVELY BELGIUM. Books of Coupons Obtainable From R. E. Cruting & Co., London. Agents Everywhere.”

WANTED – to rent for the winter season, DRY WARM DUG OUT. Must be commodious and in healthy locality untroubled by hawkers and Huns. Good price offered for suitable residence. Apply – Reggie, c/o this paper.

Although these publications were primarily for soldiers they had a less obvious but even more important readership. The trench press was a back channel of communication between the trenches and the generals, politicians and home front press. Many trench newspapers went home to wives, mothers, brothers, sisters and friends. Some were even featured in the mainstream press. This gave trench soldiers a way to let those for whom they were fighting the conditions on which they would consent to do so.

They would do it on their own terms. Not for the pap of patriotism spouted by the blimps in politics. Not for the bloodlust of the generals. Not for the risible rubbish in the popular press. They would do it for their families, for their homes and for their conception of a way of life that they desperately wanted to return to as quickly as possible. They would therefore take the piss out of the military, the war and the press at every opportunity. They would crack their grim jokes about death, maiming, gas, tanks and anything else they could possibly laugh about in a war of numbing horror. And those who were the targets of their jests would take it. By and large they did, as discussed in my The Soldiers’ Press: Trench Journals in the First World War.

This was not revolution or insubordination but a reactionary defence mechanism. Trench soldiers rarely rose up against the war. Instead they sent it up, if within certain well defined and mutually understood limits. Criticism and complaint were tolerated as long as it was masked in rumour and humour. This displacing and distancing technique was used to perfection by the trench journalists in the ‘Things we want to know’ or equivalent column carried by virtually every soldiers’ newspaper. And if the message was not clear there, the spoof advertisements, dark parodies and sharp satire that crammed the remaining pages did the job.

The end result was a negotiation of the terms on which trench soldiers would fight the war so strongly prosecuted by their superiors.  They fought not for them but for those intangibles that made life worth living. Only for that were the soldiers of the trench willing to die.

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