‘One of England’s Broken Dolls’

Joanna Bourke, in Dismembering the Male mentions ‘a popular song’ about a maimed soldier:

“A man and maiden met a month ago;
She said there’s one thing I should like to know;
Why aren’t you in khaki or navy blue;
And fighting for your country like other men do?
The man looked up and slowly shook his head
Dear madam, do you know what you have said?;
For I gladly took my chance
Now my right arm’s in France;
I’m one of England’s Broken Dolls.”

Trying to find the source for this, I did some googling, and found on the National Archive website a reference to a collection of family photos, property of a Mrs Aspin, in the Manchester Record Office. Some of these relate to her father, W. M. Harris, who was killed in the War. A note is appended:

The donor’s father often sang in public for charity parties etc. Often he would borrow a kilt and do Harry Lauder songs. He also wrote some verses and this is a satire he wrote on a well-known song of the time. The original began: “You called me baby doll a year ago; And told me I was nice to know ……”; Using the same tune the donor’s father wrote:

“A lady spoke to me the other day;
She told me I was looking bright and gay;
Why ar’nt you in Karki or Navy Blue;
Fighting for your country as other men do.
I turned around and answered with a smile;
My dear young lady you don’t understand;
I once took my chance.
My right arm’s in France;
I’m one of England’s broken dolls.”

Both sets of words roughly fit the tune of the Al Jolson 1916 hit:

You called me baby doll a year ago
You told me I was very nice to know
I soon learnt what love was – I thought I knew
But all I’ve learnt has only taught me how to love you
You made me think you loved me in return
Don’t tell me you were fooling after all
For if you turn away you’ll be sorry some day
You left behind a broken doll.

Which indicates that this is a parody, rather than, as I originally assumed from Bourke’s reference, a popular song in its own right. (In her book, the footnote refers us to various mentions of the song in the IWM correspondence archives, rather than to any printed source). Was it indeed composed by W.M. Harris, or was it just part of his repertoire, and assumed by his family to be his own?

Does anyone else know anything about this song? I’m interested by the way that the wartime parody adapts one of the most popular of wartime anecdotes, about the ‘white feather’ woman who asks a man why he isn’t in France, only to be shown up when he reveals that he has already lost a limb, or won the V.C., or given some other proof of manhood.

More googling produces a different version, from Scotland. An internet poster writes:

The best man at my wedding, an ex-Seaforth Highlander, used to sing two or three versions of this song. The fragments I can recall are as follows;

A fellah came up to me a year ago,
He said ‘There’s something I would like to know.
Why aren’t you in khaki or Air Force blue,
Fighting for your country like the other fellahs do?’
I, of course, immediately replied,
‘I’d like to have the chance,
but my left leg’s left in France,
I’m one of Scotland’s broken dolls.

He then (with an apology) offers another, very alternative version:

Her glass eye, her false teeth she laid on the chair,
When she took her wig off, baby, she wasn’t there.
She then unscrewed her arm and wooden leg,
And what was left of her hopped into bed,
And when I awoke, I found it was no joke,
I was married to a broken doll.

6 Comments

  1. Carole Jones
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I remember a version of ‘Broken Doll’ that used to be sung by a chap at the Co-op Folk club in Nottingham. The last line was: ‘So I slept on the chair, there was more of her there’ and it was sung to the tune of ‘Side by Side’.

    With reference to the original suggestion by Joanna Bourke, don’t we need the dates of the IWM correspondence? Perhaps a war time song predated the use of the tune by Jolsen?

    PS Thanks for the extra info on the AQA AS papers.

    • Posted May 29, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      She cites letters from July and October 1916, the year when Al Jolson had a hit with the original – which is American, so I don’t think a wartime British song would have inspired it.

  2. Tom Deveson
    Posted May 23, 2013 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Two tangential and probably unoriginal thoughts:

    a] The Jolson song is echoed in pastiche by TS Eliot in The Waste Land [1922]:

    “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
    They called me the hyacinth girl.”

    b]The ‘broken doll’ who takes herself apart on going to bed seems to echo Swift’s poem of 1734 on a similar topic: http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/nymphbed.html

  3. Richard Eastbourne
    Posted October 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    The song ‘A Broken Doll’ [words by kind permission of Webber Francis Day & Hunter] was illustrated in a series of 3 postcards published by Bamforth as part of their ‘SONGS’ series, several sets of which are currently on sale on eBay under collectibles / postcards. This version of the song is about lost love (well almost lost love, as lyrics in the last card in the series hints). These postcards seem to have been collected and put in albums rather than posted.

  4. Abbie
    Posted October 11, 2014 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    my grandad always sings a funny version of this it’s great it goes:

    A lassie met a fella in the street
    How’s yer bum? How’s yer bum?
    She looked at him from head to feet
    She said why you not in khaki, navy blue?
    Fighting for your country like your country fought for you?
    He looked at her with some surprise
    How’s yer bum? How’s yer bum?
    And listen and I’ll tell you why
    He said I never had a chance because my left legs left in France
    I’m one of britains broken dolls


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