Shooting prisoners – and “Tommy’s Tunes”

Elizabeth Plackett’s comment on my post about giving cigarettes to German prisoners – in which she mentioned the possibly more common practice of shooting prisoners (which was, of course, a war crime) reminded me of a text that I had been intending to mention for a while.

Online you can find the full text of an excellent 1917 collection of soldiers songs – Tommy’s Tunes. (Slight warning: The scanning of the original has meant that some of the lyrics read oddly, but a little intelligence can easily solve most of the puzzles). It’s a good collection of genuine soldiers’ songs, and considerably more varied than the Brophy and Partridge one from the late twenties.

The shooting of prisoners by British soldiers was a taboo subject in fiction during wartime (though it features in several texts of the early twenties, such as Ewart’s Way of Revelation). The Hunnish mistreatment of prisoners and civilians by Germans, on the other hand, was a fictional commonplace.

So it’s interesting to discover in this book of songs (clearly a good seller, since it is the second, expanded, edition that is online) a song that robustly encourages the practice. It goes to the tune of : ” If It’s a Lady — Thumbs Up !” (No, nor have I, but it was presumably popular at the time):

If it’s a German — Guns Up !
If it’s a German with hands up,
Don’t start taking prisoners now,
Give it ’em in the neck and say “Bow-wow”
If it’s a German — Guns Up !
Stick him in the leg — it is sublime,
If he whispers in your ear,
“Kamerad ! Kamerad !”
Guns Up—every time.

How seriously was the song intended? From what I can gather, some of the elite Guards regiments made it a point of principle not to let their attack be delayed by herding prisoners to safety. Members of other units might prefer to remember the principle: “If they know we treat their prisoners well, they’ll treat ours well.” Even those who sang this song to sound macho might not necessarily have put it into practice.

Brophy and Partridge’s collection to some extent reflects the anti-war politics of Brophy at the end of the twenties. Many of the songs in it are songs of wry endurance or passive resistance. This selection formed the basis of Oh What a Lovely War.

The editor of Tommy’s Tunes, 2nd Lt. F. T. Nettleingham, R.F.C., has included plenty of the “When this ruddy war is over/ O how happy I shall be !” type of songs, but also has some that cry the virtues of a particular branch of the forces:

We are the boys that make no noise,
Although we’re out in France.
We are the boys that make no noise,
We lead the Huns a dance.
We are the heroes of the night,
But we’d rather eat than fight.
We are the heroes of the gallant Fusiliers.

It is probably because Nettleingham was in the R. F. C. that airmen’s songs are very strongly represented.
There are also plenty of songs that are just plain silly fun, like this one, to the tune of “Tipperary”, written at the time when the introduction of gas masks meant a general shaving-off of moustaches.

It took a long time to get it hairy,
‘Twas a long time to grow ;
Took a long time to get it hairy,
For the toothbrush hairs to show.
Good-bye, Charlie Chaplin,
Farewell, tufts of hair ;
‘Twas a long, long time to get it hairy,
But now my lip’s quite bare.

Apparently Nettleingham produced a second volume. I shall try to search it out. Perhaps it will have more songs about shooting prisoners.


  1. MLR
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Google books offers PDFs of “Tommy’s Tunes” and “More Tommy’s Tunes” online. Thank you for writing about these, they are delightful.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted November 11, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    I’m fairly familiar with British and American soldiers’ songs – at least those that have been printed, many of them in privately mimeographed form owing to their frequently bawdy content. “Guns Up!”
    is the only one I can recollect that celebrates the shooting of surrendering enemy soldiers. Nor have I seen it elsewhere.

    A melodramatic Southern poem of 1861 threatened the Union generally with the “Black flag” of no quarter, and I don’t believe that that production caught on either.

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