Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride

Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside

And rest for a while in the warm summer sun

I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done

These are the opening lines of The Green Fields of France/No Man’s Land, a searing anti-war balled written and recorded by Scottish/Australian folk singer Eric Bogle in 1976. I came across it first in the early 80s when it was recorded by The Fureys and became a huge hit in my native Ireland. Since then I have sung it myself on numerous occasions and it rarely fails to move an audience.

The song was inspired by Bogle’s trip to Flanders in the mid 70s and his experiences within the massive cemeteries he visited there. The song takes the form of a monologue directed at the gravestone of young soldier who died in World War I.

I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen

When you joined the great fallen in 1916

Well I hope you died well

And I hope you died clean

Or young Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene

Having introduced the framework of the song Bogle moves on to the chorus where he hopes, at least, for a dignified burial.

Did they beat the drums slowly

Did they play the fife lowly

Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down

Did the band play the last post and chorus

Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

The second verse becomes more intimate with the singer wondering about the cost to those left behind.

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind

In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined

And though you died back in 1916

To that loyal heart you're forever nineteen

And there the song ends. Or so you would think if you had only ever heard the absolute travesty of a cover version that has just been released by Joss Stone. Stone’s version is a part of this year’s Poppy Appeal and it has been commissioned by the British Legion as part of its annual fund raising venture. The musical arrangement is bad enough, a second rate X-Factor influenced R’n’B travesty but it is the lyrics where the real crime has been committed, because the rest of the song has been cut. And it is the remainder of the lyrics where the anti-war sentiment comes to the fore.

The remainder of the second verse deals with the grim possibility that no-one remembers the dead soldier at all.

Or are you a stranger without even a name

Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane

In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained

And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

From there on the words allow for no mistaking of intent. The third verse contrasts the peaceful nature of the cemetery with the obscenity of the mass death sentence inflicted on the youthful solders who lie there.

The sun shining down on these green fields of France

The warm summers breeze makes the red poppies dance

The trenches have vanished long under the plow

There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now

But here in this graveyard it’s still no mans land

The countless white crosses lie mute in the sand

To man's blind indifference to his fellow man

And a whole generation that were butchered and damned

The final verse deals with futility. The sheer pointless futility of both the war and the “sacrifice” that these men thought that they were making.

Young Willy McBride, I can't help wonder why?

Do those who lie here know why that they died

Did they really believe when they answered the call

Did they really believe that this war would end wars

For the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame

The killing and dying was all done in vain

For young Willy McBride it all happened again

And again, and again, and again, and again

That last line is not subtle. It just hammers home the point that wars don’t end wars. Never have. Never will.

So why did the British Legion gut the lyrical content of this song? They can hardly blame it on the artist herself. Joss Stone has spent her career mining a rich seam left behind by the likes of Aretha Franklin. I could hardly imagine a song further from her personal milieu than No Man’s Land. No. The Legion chose the song and had the final sign-off on its lyrical interpretation.

It’s possible that the Legion was being cynical in a financial sense only. The song might have been shortened to make it pop friendly. But then it would be sheer co-incidence that the most meaningful part of the lyrics were stripped away. The song is viciously anti-war. But the main thrust of that anti-war sentiment is contained in the lyrics that were omitted. The lyrics that remain are personal, the deleted lyrics are political.

No. The British Legion stripped those words out of the song because it is actively pro-war. In fact, outside of the state and various arms companies you would be hard put to find a more pro-war organisation.

That might sound like blasphemy to some. The Legion does good work. In it's own words from the British Legion website, “We provide practical, emotional and financial support to all members of the British Armed Forces past and present, and their families.

But the next paragraph from the same website is disturbing.

We actively campaign to improve their lives and safeguard the Military Covenant between the nation and its Armed Forces.

The Military Convenant between the nation and its Armed Forces is a term invented by the Ministry of Defence 14 years ago which demands that the armed forces should expect the support of the nation, society and the government. In reality, no such Convenant exists, because the armed forces serve the interests of the state, not the nation, and the two things have never been the same.

The state of course, has no intention of honouring the convenant in any other fashion besides lip service. Both Labour and Coalition governments have refused to enshrine the convenant into law for the simple reason that they would then have to deal with the enormous financial burden which properly caring for ex-military men and women would entail.


Nevertheless the British Legion continues to campaign for the promotion of the Military Convenant. All of this is part of the increased militarisation of UK society. This process whereby the army is routinely hailed as heroes and portrayed as part of the nation’s fabric has been the political class’s response to the sheer unpopularity of it’s Imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s no co-incidence that Armed Forces Day suddenly appeared in 2006. Nor is it a co-incidence that wearing a poppy is increasingly an act of patriotism rather than remembrance. We have gotten to the stage where the BBC rigidly enforces poppies for its presenters each November in an effort to keep the Daily Mail at bay and to prevent accusations of an anti-military bias. Even Muslim women are now being given a chance to prove their ‘Britishness’ by wearing a poppy hijab.

Remembrance day is sham because it has become a glorification of war rather than a commemoration of the dead. This is shown in its selective nature. The Empire’s dead soldiers are worthy of remembrance but not our allies such as France. Army dead can be venerated but not the civilian dead. And the less said about the 16,000 conscientious objectors the better.

To promote this glorification of war, the UK state needs to portray the military as an integral cultural component of the United Kingdom and this lies perfectly alongside the British Legion’s ambitions.

The Legion needs war. Without war the Legion has no purpose. Anti-war sentiments have no place in the Legion’s approach. They made that perfectly clear when they adopted the slogan, “Shoulder to shoulder with all who serve”, which has nothing to do with remembering the fallen. If you want proof of their military leanings just check out the sponsor for the British Legion Young Professionals' Poppy Rocks event. It’s Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest arms companies in the world.

How on earth could the Legion justify taking money from a company that profits from war and conflict? Well, consider that the former Legion president, Gen Sir John Kiszely, told journalists in 2012 that he could use Remembrance Sunday to lobby the government for arms contracts. Kiszely was forced to resign as a result of the subsequent scandal.

So that’s Remembrance Sunday, an opportunity for politicians to bow piously beneath the Cenotaph before getting back to the business of buying and selling war.

It’s no wonder that the Legion wants no part of any anti-war sentiment. World War 1 needs to be remembered as the Legion wishes it, not as it was.

Among the tears and the hollow promises of “Never again” it’s easy to forget that the end of the first word war saw this country on the verge of a revolution. A revolution spearheaded by the very armed forces the government pretends to venerate. History seems to have forgotten about the various strikes and mutinies that occurred in 1918-19. Mutinies at Pirbright in
Sussex and Shoreham. Troop riots at Le Havre. A Strike at Valdelièvre camp. A walkout by 2000 soldiers in Vendreaux which soon grew to a 20,000 troop strike in Calais. The success of the Calais mutiny was followed by further actions at a dozen barracks through southern England. Things got so bad that the government was forced to abandon its plans to send its exhausted men to Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Instead conditions were improved and demobilization was finally brought up to speed.

The legion doesn’t remember such things. It remembers heroes and sacrifice. It does not remember working class men and women being betrayed before, during and after the conflict. That kind of narrative has no place in the Legion’s Britain.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 11 November 2014 16:06 )