Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Twas the cushiest job we ever had"

The current centenary of the 1916 Battle of the Somme can provoke many emotions in those who have witnessed some of the memorial services or re-enactment events, either in person or online. The poetry and music of the era can still touch us deeply a hundred years later.

But often it is the parodies of hymns or other popular songs that demonstrate the importance of humour, cheek and irreverence in keeping spirits up when faced with insurmountable odds and an awareness that death was around the corner. This recently colourised photo of cheery young lads from Yorkshire marching off to their destiny and taken 100 years ago today (3 July 1916) encapsulates all of that.



Soldiers of the 10th (Service) Battalion (1st Hull), East Yorkshire Regiment
marching to the trenches near Doullens on the Somme (National Army Museum)

I learned some of these songs from my North Country father who, although too young to be in the War himself, had a fair repertoire of them, with words censored for my tender ears when necessary. Here are just a few - please follow the links to YouTube or Vimeo recordings to listen to them.


To the tune of  the hymn, The Church's One Foundation, click here



We are Fred Karno's Army,
What bloody use are we?
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
So we joined the infantry.
But when we get to Berlin,
The Kaiser he will say,
"Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott,
What a jolly fine lot
Are the ragtime infantry!"


We are Fred Karno's Army,
A Jolly lot are we,
Fred Karno is our Captain,
Charlie Chaplin our O.C.
But when we get to Berlin,
The Kaiser he will say,
"Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott,
What a jolly fine lot
Are the boys of company C!"


To the tune of Red Wing, click here

Oh, the moon shines tonight on Charlie Chaplin,
His boots are crackin' from want of blackin'
And his little baggy trousers they'll need mendin'
Before we send him to the Dardanelles.


Charlie's real boots
This bit of doggerel is a bit hard to find anything about and no recording, but the imagery of the buns combined with the eagle flitting off always made me laugh!

At the cross, at the cross
Where the Kaiser lost his hoss
And the eagle on his hat flew away
He was eating currant buns
When he heard the British guns
And the dirty old bugger ran away.

Kaiser with eagle but sans buns (Wikipedia)
How anyone could find gassing funny is difficult for us to imagine these days, but the dark humour is certainly evident in this one.


Gassed last night and gassed the night before,
Going to get gassed again if we never get gassed any more.
When we're gassed, we're sick as we can be,
'Coz phosgene and mustard gas is much too much for me.

They're warning us, they're warning us,
One respirator for the four of us.
Glory be to God that three of us can run,
So one of us can use it all alone.

Another bit of sacrilege with a hymn, What a Friend we have in Jesus, is this version from the 1969 film "Oh What a Lovely War":


When this lousy war is over,
No more soldiering for me.
When I get my civvy clothes on,
Oh, how happy I shall be.

No more church parades on Sunday,
No more putting in for leave.
I shall miss the Sergeant-Major,
How I'll miss him, how he'll grieve.

Anyone who remembers that movie, can't possibly forget the closing sequence - it is still one of the most moving scenes in the history of cinema and its relevance in this centenary week is particularly poignant. To the tune of They Wouldn't Believe me:


And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some cafe
And fought wild women night and day,
'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them,
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Oh ,What a Lovely War - vast fields of crosses, a still shot from closing sequence