Eric Bogle was born in the Scottish Lowlands and left school at the start of the 60s. He then worked as a labourer, clerk and barman, but also played in skiffle and rock bands, before he became known as a folk singer and songwriter. In 1969 Bogle emigrated to Australia and has lived there ever since.
Several of his most famous songs are about the futility of war and the loss that comes with conflict. The most prominent of these in Australia was ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. Written in 1971 this song tells of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) experience of fighting in the Battle of Gallipoli.
“In all, some 480,000 Allied forces took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, at a cost of more than 250,000 casualties, including some 46,000 dead. On the Turkish side, the campaign also cost an estimated 250,000 casualties, with 65,000 killed.”
The song became known around the world and this video of it was produced in Canada:
Eric Bogle tells how five years later he came to write ‘No Man’s Land’:
‘This is a song called “No Man’s Land”… or “The Green Fields of France” it was known in Ireland…
It’s a song that was written about the military cemeteries in Flanders and Northern France. In 1976, my wife and I went to three or four of these military cemeteries and saw all the young soldiers buried there. And… couple of months later, I wrote a song called “No Man’s Land,” which is asking questions of a dead soldier…’
This version is sung in English and German by Bogle and Wachol:
Well, how’d you do, Private Willie McBride,
D’you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
I’ll rest for a while in the warm summer sun,
Been walking all day, Lord, and I’m nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
I hope you died quick and I hope you died ‘clean,’
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?
Did they beat the drum slowly, did they sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered ye down?
Did the bugles sing “The Last Post” in chorus?
Did the pipes play the “Floo’ers o’ the Forest”?
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever nineteen?
Or are you a stranger, without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?
Well, the sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plough;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land;
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.
And I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “the cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
Bogle’s lyrics at the end of the chorus refers to the traditional Scottish song “Flowers of the Forest,” or “Floo’ers o’ the Forest,” which was written after the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. Pipers will usually only play the tune at funerals or commemorations, because it is so strongly associated with loss in battle.
In Ireland many well-known folk groups, including The Clancy Brothers, The Fureys and The Chieftains, recorded this song. In Northern Ireland the song is sung by both Republicans / Nationalists and Loyalists / Unionists. The former because they see it as an anti-British establishment war song and the latter because in the graveyards in France there is a grave for a Private William McBride, who fought with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
Before bad weather had brought a halt to the Somme offensive on 18th November 1916 the British and French attack had gained only12 kilometres of ground, but resulted in “420,000 estimated” British casualties – and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers had lost more than half their strength.
So, to Loyalists / Unionists the song symbolically recognises their ‘blood sacrifice’ for the British Crown in the First World War. It has been discovered, however, that 19 men named McBride, either W, Willie or William, died in the First World War. All were of Irish extraction, but most came from the south of Ireland.
Today, as we look back over 100 years to the start of the ‘Great War,’ it is good to see that this song has brought a measure of reconciliation to a still troubled and divided Ireland. The song also had a big impact across the world, having been sung by many groups and individuals, including a version recorded by Hannes Wader in Germany as “Es ist an der Zeit” (It is the Time).
Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.