Posts tagged ‘War’

October 20, 2013

Week 113 – On Board a Ninety-Eight

The visitor to Oxford is of course immediately struck by the beauty of the honey-coloured stone of the medieval colleges, the Old Bod, the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian… But another of the glories of Oxford to my mind has always been the Covered Market. And when I was a student one of the glories of the Covered Market was, without doubt, Garon Records. I spent many a happy hour browsing through the racks of second-hand LPs, and there are quite a number of records in my collection which I picked up in that shop. I’d actually discovered the shop even before I became a student, having come across it on a visit to Oxford a few months earlier. It’s funny what one remembers after 35 years. I can’t remember much about my visit to the college, but I do remember having something to eat and a couple of pints of Morrells in The Grapes. then sitting on the grass by the canal reading E.H. Carr’s What is History?  And while, sadly, I cannot recall Professor Carr’s answer to that vexed question, I’m pretty sure the two LPs I bought in Garon Records that day were The Watersons and Among the many attractions at the fair will be a really high class band.

Generally the records I bought from Garon were in pretty good nick, the exception being a dreadfully beat up copy of Peter Bellamy’s Tell it like it was. This was in such a bad state that I think I only played it a couple of times. But that was sufficient to introduce me to two Bellamy classics, ‘Courting too slow’ and ‘On Board a 98′. Bellamy wrote his own tune for both of these, finding the tune which Vaughan Williams had collected for this song “unimpressing”. I was surprised, therefore, when I found the tune in Sharp’s English County Folk Songs, that it was a perfectly acceptable tune which fitted the song rather well. I learned it immediately, and have been singing it on an off ever since, either on my own or, for a few years in the 1980s, with Chris Wood on fiddle. It seems like a suitable song to post here on the eve of Trafalgar Day.

Vaughan Williams had the song from a Mr Leatherday (sometimes given as Latterday), a sailor of King’s Lynn, Norfolk, in 1905.

On Board A '98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

On Board A ’98, collected by Vaughan Williams from Mr Leatherday, 1905. From the Full English archive.

Needless to say, I think, the song can be found in nineteenth century printed sources at Broadside Ballads Online, the Bodleian Library’s revamped and much improved ballad site; see

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials

On Board of a Ninety-Eight, printed by J. Catnach, Seven Dials “between 1813 and 1838” from the Bodleian collection.

One of my wife’s ancestors was a Greenwich Pensioner, although not a resident of Greenwich Hospital itself. In the 1841 Census John O’Leary’s wife and five children are listed as living in Portsea; while he, we imagine, was off at sea. In 1851 his occupation is given as Greenwich Pensioner – one assumes he had “done his duty, served his time”, although whether he now “blessed his fate” we can’t know. He and his family were all living in New Rents, Ashford, Kent. This is a really strange coincidence – Ashford is my home town, and I certainly would have had ancestors living in the town in 1851; Carol had been unaware that any of her forebears had any connection with Kent, still less Ashford. The association seems to have been shortlived, however, as the O’Leary family were no longer in Ashford by the time of the next census in 1861.

On Board a Ninety-Eight

Andy Turner: vocal, G/D anglo-concertina

November 18, 2012

Week 65 – My Son John

This is the song I had meant to post last week, but when I came to upload it I found I had forgotten to press the Record button. Glad to say that this week I seem to  have overcome my technical deficiencies.

I learned the song over 30 years ago from Fred Hamer’s book Garner’s Gay. It’s one of several pieces which Hamer recorded from Bedfordshire singer David Parrott. Of the song, Hamer wrote

David’s brother produced evidence to show that this song was sung by an ancestor of the Parrott family who had served at Waterloo. Apparently he was in the habit of singing the song as reunions of veteran soldiers at the Corn Exchange in Bedford, and he invites us to imagine that this is the conversation that takes place when a father takes his son, wounded at Trafalgar, before a naval surgeon, who tries to swindle him out of his disablement pension by claiming it was his own fault.

Of the singer

In 1924 the Bedfordshire Times published a series of articles examining the repertoire of songs sung by the pseudonymous author’s mother. It took me two years of diligent search to find the author’s name, and by the time I found them both he and his mother had died. However his brother, David, was still alive and he could remember the tunes of most of the songs.

My Son John

November 11, 2012

Week 64 – The Banks of the Nile

The Battle of Alexandria - 1801 (from, artist not given)

The Battle of Alexandria – 1801

British forces formed part of a military alliance which drove Napoleon’s French out of Egypt in 1801, and I imagine this song dates from that period. But in fact British soldiers fought many more campaigns in Egypt and Sudan over the next century and a half, so it’s a song which would not have lost its currency. And of course, on Remembrance Sunday, it is worth remarking that British troops continue to fight – and die – in a variety of “sandy desert places” to this day.

I first came across this song in the late seventies, in Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl’s book, The Singing Island, although it was several years before I learned it properly. It’s a version from  Betsy Henry, of Auchterarder in Pethshire – actually, MacColl’s mother. I have anglicised it slightly, although that didn’t amount to much more than substituting “England” for “Scotland” in the last verse.

The Banks of the Nile

Andy Turner: vocal, C/G 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