I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve also always been a student of history, thus studying music from bygone eras has great appeal for me. As a lad, I remember watching a World War Two movie at my grandfather’s house. He was a veteran of that war, having seen North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium, though not as a tourist. I think the movie was Action in the North Atlantic but I am not sure. There was a scene where the men were singing the (at the time) well known “Bless Em All”. It just so happened that granddaddy was passing through the den at that exact moment. He paused there by the television and then began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny and he said “Son, I know that song well. But that’s not how I remember singing it.” Granddaddy, a man whom I had never heard raise his voice, let alone utter a profanity, then launched into a rousing rendition of “F–k Em All.”
Over time, he also taught me some of the racier versions of other songs along with some soldier songs that were never recorded. His father was a World War One veteran and so granddaddy also knew the more, shall we say, risqué verses from Mademoiselle From Armentieres along the Tipperary parody which gives today’s post its name. Naturally such songs were amended when they were recorded, or in the case of World War Two music, played on the radio. But I fear that we might be in danger of losing some of the actual lyrics sang by soldiers.
Here in the United States, history is heavily sanitized. No one had sex or drank alcohol (other than Prohibition). Profanity was invented by rap artists. Soldiers during World War One and Two did nothing but attend church when not at the front. I think this is in part because some feel that to discuss things like venereal disease and illegitimate wartime children is to attack the soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understand that our combat troops during both world wars were young men far away from home (often for the first time) who faced the rather imminent prospect of death. Thus the songs they sang had little to do with glory and honor, they left that to the civilians, and more to do with military bureaucracy and the time honored alcohol and sex. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.”
To understand why men might sing “Hurrah for the next man who dies” is to understand how those men viewed the war. To consider the racy lyrics of some of these songs is to understand that wars are still fought by young men (and now young women). Soldiers in the Great War, when they had the time, wanted to snatch what little happiness they could in the short time they might have left on the earth. If they sought comfort in a bottle or the arms of a prostitute, who among you could blame them?
One of the biggest problems I face in teaching my US History survey courses is that students don’t consider figures from the past to be flesh and blood people. The idea that they had the same emotions as we do is difficult to get across to them. Once upon a time our grandparents fell in love and (GASP) had sex! And your grandpa while serving in France (be it in either World War) might have sang a song about getting drunk and doing creative things with a prostitute. So these bawdy songs from the past must be remembered (thought not necessarily played on the radio) because they give us a glimpse into a world that we will never see. And they might just give us an appreciation of how human our elderly family members once were.
And for the record, my wife does not permit me to sing “Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine” at home or in public. Here are a couple of links to some popular WW1 songs as they were probably sung in the trenches.
Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine
(Do NOT listen to Three German Officers is you are easily offended. It gave the more famous Mademoiselle from Armentieres its melody.)
(AKA: Hurrah For the Next Man Who Dies)