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Private William McBride

Eric BogleEric Bogle's song, variously called William McBride, No Man's Land and the Green Fields of France is being developed as a feature film called The Last Parade by New York film producer Ned Stuart. In the song Bogle (pictured right) visits a Western Front Cemetery, and sits by the graveside of an Irish soldier called William McBride. The song is essentially a series of questions to the soldier, who was apparently 19 when he died in 1916.

It is not entirely clear whether Bogle actually saw the name McBride on a headstone, although there are two soldiers of that name buried at the Authuile Military Cemetery on the Somme.  The most likely is Private William McBride of the 9th Battallion Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers who died on 22 April 1916. His parents were from Lislea in County Armagh. But he was twenty-one when he died.

The second McBride in the Authuile Cemetery was a private in the 2nd Battalion of the same regiment, and is identified only by the initial W, with his age not given. He died on 10th February 1916. The third man, Rifleman William John McBride of the Royal Irish Rifles is recorded as having died on 2 July 1916 (just one day after the carnage over the first day of the Battle of the Somme) but has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval memorial.

So, lacking any real evidence for the man himself,  the story for the proposed film is essentially a fictional version of McBride's life, in which the hero is a boy from a family of pacifists who wanted to be a boxer. Eventually he joins the army, and goes to France where he dies. And the film (if it is ever made) will end with his burial - to the sound of a drum beating slowly, a fife playing softly and the last post and chorus being played by a band - all in accordance with the original ballad.  Bogle himself has apparently agreed to play a cameo role in the movie, sitting at the graveside during the final scenes.

The song itself is still a powerful indictment of war, and has been recorded many times since it was written in 1975. A version by Makem and Clancey is reputedly the largest selling single in Irish history. The version by the Fureys spent many weeks in the Irish charts, and when Bogle toured Ireland there's a story that the audience in one venue almost caused a riot when he indicated that he had written the song. Apparently it was believed locally that the Fureys had written it!

Speaking of the visit that inspired the song Bogle said in a radio interview: " If you walk round that area, there's graveyards from the Napoleonic wars, the Franco-Prussian wars, the First World War, the Second World War and every sort of soldier you can think of is buried there from just all over the world, you know.

"If you go to the ossuary in Verdun there's the bones of 130,000 French soldiers just behind glass, you know and they're still adding to them every year, because every year they find more bones, you know, French farmers.... So when you see the -- you read the images of the earth was soaked with blood, and you couldn't walk anywhere without standing in dead bodies, you used to sort of dismiss that as old soldier's hyperbole, until you see the battlefields and you think, "Shit, yeah, this is how it was."

Photograph of a soldier
an old photograph torn and tattered and stained...
Bogle was born in 1944 in Peebles, in Scotland but moved to Australia in 1969. Within two years he wrote his first graphically moving song about Gallipoli called 'And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda', which is now Australia's most recorded song. In 1987 the Australian government honoured Eric with the Order of Australia for his contributions to that country's music and musical heritage. And his Willie McBride ballad was nominated by Prime Minister Tony Blair as his anthem for peace in Northern Ireland.

The actual words sung in the different versions vary considerably, but the verses below have been transcribed from Bogle's own recording.

You can listen to a midi version of the tune or alternatively to versions by Eric Bogle himself, the Fureys or June Tabor.

Well how do you do, Private William McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your grave side?
And I'll rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916.
Well 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 sound the fife lowly?
Did the rifles fire o'er ye as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sing 'The Last Post' in chorus?
Did the pipes play 'The Flowers o' the Forest'?

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart are you always 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some glass-pane
In an old photograph torn and tattered and stained
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?


Well the sun's shining now on these green fields of France,
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance.
The trenches are vanished long under the plough
No gas, and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand.
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.


And I can't help but wonder now Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
You really believed that this war would end war?
But the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame -
The killing and dying - it was all done in vain.
For Willie McBride, it's all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again.



A feature about Eric Bogle's song And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda is in preparation. In the meantime you can listen to it here.
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Tuesday 7 February 2006