Songs Churchill Would Love: “Willie McBride”

Songs Churchill Would Love: “Willie McBride”

McBrideSir Mar­tin Gilbert’s mov­ing book, The Somme: Hero­ism and Hor­ror in the First World War, ends with vers­es from “Willie McBride,” by the Scot­tish-Aus­tralian song­writer Eric Bogle, which car­ry an ever­green mes­sage to all gen­er­a­tions, and cap­ture what Churchill thought of mod­ern war—which he tried so hard, before both World Wars, to avoid.

Sir Mar­tin wrote that in research for the book, he and Lady Gilbert found the grave of Pri­vate William McBride, Roy­al Inniskilling Fusiliers, killed April 1916, two months before the Somme. Whether this was the grave of Eric Bogle’s sub­ject is imma­te­r­i­al. They sat down next to it and Sir Mar­tin recit­ed the soft, sad words:

“Willie McBride”

Well, how do you do, Pri­vate William McBride.
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?
I’ll rest for a while in the warm sum­mer sun
I’ve been walk­ing all day, and I’m near­ly done.

I see by your grave­stone, you were only nineteen
When you joined the fall­en in 1916.
And 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 play the pipes lowly;
Did the rifles fire o’er you as they low­ered you down?
[And] did bugles sound The Last Post in chorus:
Did the pipes play The Flow’rs of the For­est?

I have quot­ed the first two vers­es and cho­rus, but the song is Mr. Bogle’s and the com­plete lyrics may be found on his website.

McBride’s answer

What I didn’t know until now was that Willie McBride “replied”…

You might think me crazy, you might think me daft,
I could have stayed back in Erin, where there wasn’t a draft,
But my par­ents raised me to tell right from wrong,
So today I shall answer what you asked in your song.

Yes, they beat the drum slow­ly, they played the pipes lowly,
And the rifles fired o’er me as they low­ered me down,
The band played The Last Post in chorus,
And the pipes played The Flow’rs of the Forest.

Ask the peo­ple of Bel­gium or Alsace-Lorraine,
If my life was wast­ed, if I died in vain.
I think they will tell you when all’s said and done,
They wel­comed this boy with his tin hat and gun.

These lyrics are the copy­right of Stephen L. Suf­fet, 1997, and the song may be heard on YouTube.

Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917
Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917


3 thoughts on “Songs Churchill Would Love: “Willie McBride”

  1. That song is one of the great­est WWI laments ever writ­ten. 100,000 Aus­tralians and 74,000 Scots were killed in 1914-1919. So the folk mem­o­ry is very strong. Look for record­ing by Wendy Weath­er­by and her WWI music Sun­set Song.

  2. The Great War evoked some great poetry–Owen, Sas­soon, Graves, et al. Yet pub­lic heroes were few–Lawrence, Richard Han­nay, and Edith Cavell, among the most cel­e­brat­ed. Of course those in the fight knew the heroes of whom 627 earned the VC, almost 9,000 DSOs, over 37,000 were Mil­i­tary Cross­es, and undoubt­ed tens of thou­sands of M.I.Ds. Yet hun­dreds of thou­sands of sol­diers’ hero­ics were nev­er offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized. It is right that we remem­ber on this centennial.

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