Posts tagged ‘First World War’

November 11, 2018

Week 277 – The First Time

In my late teens, when I started going to dances, the band of choice was the Oyster Ceilidh Band, and invariably at some point in the evening there would be a song spot featuring various members of the band – Fiddler’s Dram, John Jones and Cathy Lesurf, or Beggars Description. The latter was a duo consisting of the band’s bassist, Ian Kearey, and Alison Salter (now Alison Fenner). Their repertoire included Blues and other stuff that these days would be called Americana, alongside some British folk. The song which left the most lasting impression was ‘The First Time’, which they sang unaccompanied in harmony. It was written by Debbie Cook – like all of the Oysters, a regular at Duke’s Folk, the excellent Sunday night folk club which met at the Duke of Cumberland in Whitstable. Debbie was best known for penning ‘Day Trip to Bangor’ which featured on the first Fiddler’s Dram LP in 1978 and then, a year later, was reimagined by Dingle’s Records and became an unlikely number 3 chart hit. She later became a scriptwriter for The Archers and Eastenders, amongst other things.

This song always struck me as both moving, and very singable. Some years later (late 80s I’d guess) I got Ian Kearey to write out the words for me, and when Carol and I started singing together we added this to our repertoire. I hope the tune is right. I’ve not heard anyone else sing the song for about 40 years, but this is how I remember it.

Every year as Remembrance Day approaches, I’ve thought “we must record that song for the blog”. This year, of all years, I decided it just had to be done. So here’s a recording made on 11th of the 11th 2018, one hundred years on from the signing of the Armistice which brought an end to “the war to end wars”.

Pour ma bien aimee - postcard sent from the front by my Grandad Bert Elkins to his sister Daisy

Pour ma bien aimee – postcard sent from the front by my Grandad Bert Elkins to his sister Daisy

The tune at the end is ‘The Battle of the Somme’ a 9/8 pipe march – a Retreat March – by Pipe Major William Laurie (1881-1916) who fought at, and died at, the Somme. For more, and a score of the march (with lots of those really complicated bagpipe decorations) see There’s a lovely rendition of the piece on Scottish smallpipes on Vicki Swan’s blog The Smallpiper Podcast. And another on YouTube – played on melodeon – by the inimitable Martin Ellison.


Dedicated to my Grandad, Albert Victor Elkins, the only person I really knew who served in the Great War. He was 18 when it all began, and he somehow managed to survive all four years of the war. I loved my Grandad dearly, but unfortunately by the time I was old enough to ask him sensible questions about the War, he was no longer in a state to answer them. But it must have been his wartime experiences that led him to ask, whenever I came home from University, “do they give you a decent billet?”

Albert Victor Elkins

Albert Victor Elkins

Bert Elkins (back, right, with no moustache) and unknown comrades

Bert Elkins (back, right, with no moustache) and unknown comrades

And to my great-uncle Thomas Morris “Johnnie” Turner who died aged 21 at Ypres in 1917. He’s not so much, as Eric Bogle put it “just a picture without even a name” as a picture with a name and nothing else. To my shame I don’t even know what relation he was to my paternal Great-grandfather – also Thomas Morris Turner – or how come he served in the Liverpool Scottish Regiment.

Thomas Morris

Thomas Morris “Johnnie” Turner, killed at Ypres 1917

And to the millions of others who died, or were maimed, or who were mentally scarred, or who lost loved ones, in this war and the many others that came after it.

The First Time / Battle of the Somme

Carol Turner – vocal
Andy Turner – vocal, C/G anglo-concertina (‘The First Time’), G/D anglo-concertina, one-row melodeon in D (‘Battle of the Somme’)

May 28, 2016

Week 249 – Whitsun Dance

I first heard this circa 1977, as the conclusion to Shirley and Dolly Collins’ magnificent Anthems in Eden Suite. I’ve always liked the song, but it had not occurred to me to learn it until a year or so ago. With Whitsun approaching, a few weeks back I thought I’d better get on with it. Having been so familiar with the song for so long, I was surprised to find that I had to apply quite some effort to get the words into my head. But here it is, and I’m really glad I made the effort – it really is a good song.

It was written in the late 1960s by Shirley’s then husband, Austin John Marshall, whose comments on the song can be found on the Mainly Norfolk site:

Many of the old ladies who swell the membership lists of Country Dance Societies are 1914/18 war widows, or ladies who have lost fiancés and lovers. Country dancing kept the memory of their young men alive. When Shirley Collins started singing the piece to the tune of The False Bride, the impact was disturbing, for many people in audiences identified with it. Tears were frequent. Now a sharp relevance in contemporary song is one thing but such a pessimistic effect was not what was intended. So when Shirley recorded the song we showed the way the spirit of the generation sacrificed in the mud of France had been caught and brought to life by the new generation born since World War II by concluding with the chorus of the Staines Morris.


Dancers at Ilmington, with fiddler Sam Bennett. 1920s? From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.

Dancers at Ilmington, with fiddler Sam Bennett. 1920s? From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.

I suppose there probably weren’t many women’s morris teams in the sixties when Austin John Marshall wrote these words, but by the time I got involved in the folk scene in the late 1970s they were very much in evidence, and I’ve always associated the ladies dancing at Whitsun with morris rather than country dance. There will be many out dancing this Whitsun weekend, so here’s to the Esperance, and  these unknown (to me) women dancing at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1912, and morris teams such as Windsor and Oyster, who started in the 1970s and are still going strong.

Morris dancers at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1912. From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.

Morris dancers at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1912. From the Bob and Jean Turner postcard collection.


Windsor Morris

Windsor Morris


Oyster Morris

Oyster Morris


P.S. I do realise that Whit Sunday was actually two weeks ago, but Bampton still refer to their annual day of dance as Whit Monday, and that’s good enough for me.

Whitsun Dance

Andy Turner – vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

November 11, 2011

Week 12 – No Man’s Land

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

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Sandham Memorial Chapel, Berkshire