Another view of soldiers’ songs

I’m still looking for material about soldier’s songs, and recently came across this article in the excellent Spectator archive. It’s a November 1917 review of F.T. Nettleingham’s collection, Tommy’s Tunes, and reminds us that the subject was not always seen through the socialist-populist filter of ‘Oh What a lovely War’. The Spectator site’s text is obviously created using the kind of scanning device that generates quite a few errors, so I’ve made my own corrected version, and thought that I would share it here:

War is a very disappointing subject for the conscientious artist. If he is a student of the graphic arts, he draws carefully studied pictures of battles as they ought to be, full of atmosphere and composition, with all his lights and shades nicely echoed and balanced, and the purblind public reject his efforts in favour of the crude realism of the picture palace. If his genius moves him to verse, he writes stirring odes and pulsating lyrics alive with fire and human emotion cunningly cast in the finest metrical form, and obstinate troops blankly refuse to sing them. When the private soldier is moved to raise his voice in song, he prefers first the common tunes that have formed the stock-in-trade of the amateur vocalist for generations : “Annie Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes,” “Kathleen Mavourneen,” ” Killarney,” ” Swanee River,” “John Peel,” and their like. Next in popularity come the music-hall songs of the moment, which enjoy a terrific but fleeting vogue for a few months and then disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they arise. Last in order of frequency, but very nearly first in their quality of endurance, are the professional ditties ; some of them traditional from a time “beyond which the memory of man runneth not to the contrary,” but continually being revised and brought up to date by topical allusions and impromptu additions ; others technical parodies of well-known hymns and “favourite ballads”; others, again, completely original, of which a very large portion are interminable chanties built up by successive accretions in the manner of ” The House that Jack Built”, ” Who Killed Cock Robin?” or—to take a more musicianly instance—”The Merryman and his Maid” in The Yeomen of the Guard. It is from this third class, the professional ditties invented by the men in all ranks and divisions of the fighting-line, that Mr. Nettleingham has made the present collection.In any literary sense, of course, they are not subjects for criticism.

The chanties, in particular, tend to monotonous repetition of the same banal statement :—
“There were ninety-nine bottles hanging on the wall,
There were ninety-nine bottles hanging on the wall;
What would happen if one were to fall?
Why, there’d be ninety-eight bottles hanging on the wall.

There were ninety-eight bottles hanging on the wall,
There wore ninety-eight bottles hanging on the wall;
Oh, what would happen were another to fall?
Why, there’d still be ninety-seven bottles hanging on the wall.
AND SO ON until tired.”

We can understand how a body of jaded men, dragging them- selves, ankle deep in mud, along mile after mile of heartbroaking road, might get a kind of miserable comfort out of such a song, and even partially forgot their weariness in following the fate of every individual bottle; but its only interest to the reader is to make him imagine in what circumstances it could be interesting. In none of these verses is the true note of poetry sounded; we could not expect it; but in many, under cover of a rough cynicism and brutal humour, there is suddenly revealed something inexpressibly affecting and pathetic which touches us all the more closely because it is ostensibly intended to make us laugh. It is the same elemental truth that so often leaps out from behind the broad-faced mirth of Captain Bairnsfather’s cartoons, and surprises us into a deeper sympathy even while we smile. The very roughness and crudity of the method help to disarm us against the subtle appeal to our sense of human kinship and pity. Here is a typical ” Tommy ” jest in eight lines (we omit the chorus repetitions) :-
“A-handsome young airman lay dying,
And as on the aer’drome he lay,
To the mechanics who round him came sighing,
These last dying words he did say :
‘Take the cylinder out of my kidneys,
The connecting roil out of my brain,
The cam box from under my backbone,
And assemble the engine again.'”

The manner is the manner of the American humorist, the manner of Mark Twain or Bill Nye, capturing a laugh by treating death with an incongruous levity or indifference ; it is a gigantic and impossible burlesque. And then comes the reflection— Is it so impossible ? Is there not, in some queer exaggerated way, a glimpse of that professional pride and honour by which some men are spurred to incredible self-forgetfulness, subordinating their lives immeasurably below their work. Is it, after all, so merely coarse and brutal as we thought ?

There are some points in which the editor will be able to amend his work when he publishes a second edition, as we have no doubt he will. He mentions in his Preface some songs which are too Rabelaisian for print, and we think he might, with advantage, include ” Apres la guerre ” in the same category. ” The Grasshopper” might also be omitted for a different reason ; it is simply a music-hall ” chorus ” song of the typo Mr. Wilkie Bard used to sing, and originated, if we remember aright, not in the Army, but in a travelling revue. It has no merit of any description.Lastly, the notes ought to be carefully revised; many words and phrases ace explained several times in different parts of the book. Apart, however, from these small blemishes, Mr. Nettleingham’s little volume is not only delightfully human and amusing, but is a real help to understanding the difficult and complex psychology of the soldier in war.

The song Apres la Guerre, to which the reviewer takes puritanical exception is this:

Apres la guerre fini,
Oh, we’ll go home to Blighty ;
But won’t we be sorry to leave chere Germaine,
Apres la guerre fini.

Apres la guerre fini,
English soldier parti,
Mam’selle français beaucoup picanninies,
Apres la guerre fini.

I don’t know how many would have objected to this mild rudery. By 1927 the song was condisered inoffensive enough to be included in the Daily Express Community Songbook, with an additional verse:

Lorsque la Guerre fini
Soldat Anglais parti
Napoo bully beef comme souvenie
madame, your soup’s no bonne.


  1. Bill
    Posted July 24, 2014 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    Interesting to see that the term “picaninny” seems devoid of racial connotations at that point, which is unusual.

    • Posted July 25, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      I wonder whether it was a term common in the regular army for babies left scattered around odd spots of the Empire, now applied to France?

      • Bill
        Posted July 25, 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        It could have come via the Aussies. I believe it was used quite often for children fathered on the aborigine population. It’s in one of the bush ballads somewhere (back to John Manifold).

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Pedantic point: despite the title page of “Tommy’s Tunes,” Nettleinghame seems to have spelled his name with a cumbersome final “e.”

    That’s how it appears in “More Tommy’s Tunes.” Post-war newspaper references to “F. T. Nettleinghame,” living in Cornwall, also have the “e.” He was the compiler too of “Polperro Proverbs & Others” (1926).

    I am finishing up an 80-page historical report on “Hinky dinky/ Inky-Pinky Parlez-Vous.” Should be done in a month or so.

    • Posted July 30, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      It’s ‘Nettleingham’ on my first edition of ‘Tommy’s Tunes’, so i think I’ll stick with that.
      I’d like to read about ‘Inky Pinky’.

  3. Dorothy Venosta
    Posted March 29, 2018 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    As a child in the late 40’s my father sang Apres la Guerre fini Australian parti tot suee, Mademoiselle son tres
    fache apres la guerre fini – please excuse Fench spelling – it is a long time since I was at school. He sang all the old WW1 songs.My father, J. S.Howell, served in the AIF with the 3rd Light Horse, was in Egypt & later France. He was English born came to Australia in 1912. With Anzac Day coming up I was thinking about this song and found you on my PC. I also recall InkyPinky Parlez vous. Thank you for the interesting read.

    Best wishes Dorothy Venosta

    • Posted March 29, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this – a good example of how different units adapted songs to their own circumstances. And it’s good to hear that your father kept on singing the songs after the war. Many soldiers did, and it’s maybe a sign of the importance of war memories, and of a cherishing of the good ones.

  4. Jeff Butcher
    Posted February 9, 2021 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I guess you know the book “Songs and Slang of the British Soldier” edited by E Partridge and J Brophy, published 1930 by Partridge. After its publication they received a lot of further information, including from J B Priestley, and produced a revised 2nd edition.

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