Singing secretly


I’ll be giving a talk in a couple of weeks about myths of the War – the strange rumours that people whispered to each other at the time, and the equally strange things that some people believe about the War today.
That’s why I’ve been looking again at a book I’m very fond of, Echoes of the Great War, a compilation from the diaries of Rev. Andrew Clark, the Rector of Great Leighs, in Essex. In 1914 he set himself the task of recording what his parishioners (and others) said and did during wartime, and the results are fascinating and sometimes surprising. For example, in December 1916, he reports a rumour told him by his daughter Mildred, back from the University of St. Andrews for the vacation:

A report current in Scotland gives out that, in the battle of Loos, the Warwickshire regiment, both officers and men, got so out of hand and so undisciplined that Scots Guards turned their machine guns on them.

Is this a rationalising of a ‘friendly fire’ incident, I wonder?
One item that struck me was an entry for November 1915:

Dr R. P. Smallwood called: He brought me a slip with some notes of soldiers’ talk. they have a variety of songs, which they sing among themselves to hymn tunes. It is very difficult to get the words of any, as they do not like letting outsiders know about them. He has however got the first verse of this parody of Hymns Ancient and Modern no. 331 (We are but little children meek)

We are but little soldiers meek
Who only earn eight bob a week
The more we work the more we may
It makes no difference to our pay.

I’ve often come across examples of soldiers singing creating a community spirit, and bonding the men together, but I don’t think that I’ve elsewhere met this idea of the soldiers’ songs being private, something from which civilians were excluded.
Were they perhaps enjoying the subversiveness of their parody, but unwilling to let outsiders get a hint of their subversion? Officially the polite facade has to be kept up.
Or perhaps they just didn’t care for someone like Dr Smallwood writing down the things they said in his notebook. I can understand that.
andrew clark

Rev. Andrew Clark (1856 – 1922)


One Comment

  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted July 29, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    The same stanza appears in Chapman’s “A Passionate Prodigality.”

    As the lyrics of even the “clean” songs tended toward satire and cynicism, Smallwood’s soldiers may have feared such songs might have put them in a bad light with a certain kind of innocent civilian.

    (“I don’t want to be a soldier”? “If you want to find the old battalion…”? “We cannot fight, we cannot shoot”? Perish the thought!)

    And, of course, many “soldier’s songs” were shocking for other reasons.

    I think the “friendly fire” interpretation is quite likely. The Zeitgeist probably would have preferred to believe in (or, alternatively censure) cruel discipline over simple ineptitude.

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