If pressed to define “folk song” my definition would be pretty much the same as for “traditional song”. It would certainly exclude songs such as this. But it’s irrelevant which pigeon-hole this song belongs in; it’s probably the finest anti-war song, in any genre, that I’ve ever heard.
Written, of course, by Eric Bogle, I first heard ‘No Man’s Land’ on June Tabor’s LP Ashes and Diamonds, and that remains for me the definitive version – I’m tempted to say, the only version worth hearing.
The Willie McBride to whom the song is addressed “joined the glorious fallen” in 1916. So it’s quite likely that he died during the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November that year. He may well have died on 1st July, the very first day of the battle, when there were around 58 000 British casualties, of whom 19 240 were killed. The British attack had been preceded by eight days of heavy artillery shelling which, the front line troops were assured, would practically obliterate the German defences. In the event, it did no such thing: neither the German barbed wire nor their strong concrete bunkers were destroyed, nor were the German troops forced to abandon their positions. Consequently, as the British troops walked across No Man’s Land (they were expressly ordered to walk slowly forward, not run) they were simply mown down by German machine gun fire. At the end of just one day’s fighting, 20% of the entire British fighting force had been killed. And yet Haig, the bastard, was able to write in his diary the next day “…the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” So that’s all right then.
Over the course of the next four and a half months British and British Empire casualties soared to almost 420 000, of whom almost 100 000 were dead. And to that figure must be added the more than 50 000 French and 164 000 German soldiers who died.
Of course we’re all familiar with the dreadful statistics and horrific stories of life and death in the trenches. And all of this happened a long time ago – almost one hundred years ago, in an age which now seems like a very distant historical past. But despite the familiarity and the passage of time, I find that those shocking statistics can still shock, that I can still feel rage at the incompetence and/or callousness of the commanders, at the wanton, useless, senseless loss of life. Maybe it’s because most people of my generation knew men who had fought in the Great War – my granddad, for instance, was in it pretty much from the start and somehow managed to survive (clearly he survived, or I wouldn’t be here now). Maybe that personal link is what stops the First World War from being just something from the history books. Or maybe it’s because rarely can so many have given their lives for so little purpose.
Earlier this year I read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. OK, that’s fiction, but I suspect that his depiction of the hellish conditions of men at the front were no exaggeration of the truth. I found sections of the book intensely moving. And this song is one of a small select group of songs which can move me to tears. Invariably, it will be these lines that set me off
And the countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation that was butchered and damned
Then you’ve just about regained your composure and along comes
For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory the shame
The killing, the dying, they were all done in vain
For Willie McBride it’s all happened again
And again, and again and again and again
Sadly, it’s all too true.
No Man’s Land