Singing on the march

I’ve undertaken to write an article about the  soldiers’ songs of the Great War. I’m finding plenty of interesting references to songs, and to how they lifted morale on the march, or reinforced community spirit in concert parties, or in informal gatherings.

I’m tantalised, though, by the memory of an anecdote I read some years ago,  whose source I can’t remember. It’s about a platoon singing a raucously obscene song on the march (possibly “Do your balls hang low”). The second lieutenant in charge joins in with a resounding tenor, and is enjoying himself so much that he doesn’t notice that the men have gone silent, and he is singing solo, being stared at furiously by a puritanical colonel.

I think that this was from a war memoir, and I’m sure that it was presented as fact. Any ideas of the source would be gratefully received, as would other anecdotes about soldiers singing.


  1. Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Aside from Gurney’s own songs, he makes mention in both correspondence and poetry of some of the songs sung by the men. There is talk of ‘I wanna go home’ in a letter of 22 June 1916, recounting, ‘Here follows / The Song that Signallers Sung and Stretcher bearers of C Company [2/5 Gloucesters], when the great guns roared at them, and the Germans thought to attack’, following which he writes out the song in notation, with some performance indications. In a letter to another recounting the same he writes that it is ‘a song our men sang when the last strafe was at its hottest – a very popular song about here; but not military’. There follows the text of the song, to which he adds the comment, ‘Not a brave song, but brave men sing it.’ There is talk of the Welsh singing on his first arrival in the trenches, and a poem in which he recalls the singing of the Scots ballad, ‘Annie Laurie’ – published in ‘War’s Embers’. He tells of the singing of this song in a letter written at Caulaincourt on 1 April 1917: ‘Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life alive and worth living. […] Lord, what a hell of a row in here, and what a crush! […] The baccy parcel arrived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!) […]’.

    There is other such talk of songs and singing – as one would expect of a musician. One thing you may not know about is not quite in keeping with the popular balladry to which you refer, but it is interesting: whilst at the Royal College of Music in 1914 Gurney composed a psalm chant, the manuscript of which bears an annotation that Gurney sang the chant to himself to the words of Psalm 23 to steady his nerves under bombardment at Fauquissart in June 1916.

    You may already be aware of much of this, but thought I’d post it just in case it is of use. – Philip

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      Philip – Thanks very much for this. I shall follow up these Gurney references.
      I especially like the thought of him singing to steady his nerves under bombardment. In ‘Memoirs of an Infantry Officer’ Sassoon’s George Sherston finds himself reciting the advertising jingle; ‘They come as a boon and a blessing to men/ the Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverley pen’ during the battle of the Somme.

  2. janevsw
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen it too – have a *feeling* – possibly wrong – that it is mentioned in Leon Wolff’s ‘In Flanders Fields’. Might be worth searching Google Books, which can be surprisingly helpful.

    • Bill
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

      Taking up that hint, there seems to be something that might be a reference in The Guinness Book of Military Anecdotes, although by this version, it seems the puritanical colonel has been elevated to Haig himself. Perhaps it is one of those stories that snowballed in the telling.

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

        Yes, maybe it’s one of those stories that is too good to be quite true. But I’ll keep on hunting for a source.

    Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Soldiers of the Great War sang together a great deal, especially while marching. In that era, community singing was a popular pastime of civilians and soldiers alike. To this day, no sound evokes a more emotional feeling than that of Tommies singing, “There’s A Long, Long Trail A-winding, Into The Land Of My Dreams …” Several other songs of the Great War are familiar still – “Tipperary.” etc. However, soldiers being soldiers, they also voiced a considerable number of bawdy songs on the march. One particularly comical example, those song lyrics which put to use the rhyming possibilities of General von Kluck.

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always liked the reference in Macdonell’s ‘England,Their England’ to ‘General von Kluck, that gift to the amateur rhymer.’

  4. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    George, I have a very extensive, annotated collection of such marching songs assembled over many years from memoirs and the like. Am doing nothing constructive with it at the moment.

    Perhaps I could be of some assistance.

    (Of course you’re familiar with Nettleingham and Brophy & Partridge.)

    • Posted April 7, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Thank you very much. I should be very interested indeed to see this material.

  5. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted April 3, 2014 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    PS: In “American Heritage” magazine (Oct., 1959), the playwright and former Marine lieutenant Laurence Stallings recounts an embarrassing moment rather like the one you mention.

  6. Posted April 6, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    This very interesting information that you offer on your blog “sounds interesting”, greetings

  7. Posted April 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    A battalion of Bantam infantry soldiers composed their own indomitably self-mocking marching song:

    “We are the Bantam soldiers,
    The short-arsed company,
    We have no height, we cannot fight,
    What bloody good are we?
    But when we get to Berlin,
    The Kaiser, he will say,
    Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott!
    Vot a bloddy fine lot,
    Are the Bantam companee!”

  8. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted April 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    To the tune of “The Church’s One Foundation.”

    Many similar versions exist.

    • Posted April 19, 2014 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps the Tommies’ most famous marching song was “Maddamuzell from Armanteers.” One stanza being:
      “Three German officers crossing the Line, Parley-voo,
      Looking for women and looking for wine… Inky-pinky-parlee-voo!”

  9. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted April 19, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    As I recall, they weren’t just looking.

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