Sir 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:
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?
Did the 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.
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.