We’re still marking the 100-year anniversary of the most ghoulish, pointless war the world has seen — World War I. Mental Floss is up to its 284th entry in a grim, essential series retelling the events 100 years after they happened.
And we were supposed to learn from that. We were supposed to make sure the entire generation of European sons who were wiped out in horrific fashion would be the last to do so.
But in the past week, we’ve needlessly ramped up rhetoric with North Korea. And we’ve seen armed white supremacists walk through the peaceful college town of Charlottesville, punctuated by a man driving a car into a crowd and killing three people.
Have we not learned anything?
We sometimes find hope in strange places. Right now, I find it in the fact that a Boston “Celtic punk” band whose music is sometimes used for pumping up a crowd at sports events has taken an old solemn Irish lament for the lost sons of the Great War and modernized it just slightly, giving it the emphatic punch it needs.
The original is by one Eric Bogle, who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia as a child. He also wrote And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, another classic World War I remembrance written “as an oblique comment on the Vietnam war.” The song of this post, The Green Fields of France (sometimes called No Man’s Land), also had a contemporary point to make — it was written in one of those flare-ups of tension between Ireland and England, and Bogle wanted to remind the English that the Irish bled alongside them.
And Bogle’s original is certainly worth a listen:
There are a few other noteworthy covers of the song. The unlikely pairing of Joss Stone and Jeff Beck turned it into a modern R&B tune. The Fureys and Davey Arthur had Irish chart success with it, introducing it as “probably the greatest anti-war song ever written.” I particularly love the follow-up comment in the intro: “If people would listen to it all over the world, there’d be less trouble than we have at the moment.”
But my favorite performance is still the first one I heard. If you don’t think the Dropkick Murphys can do this tune justice, listen up. It’s lovely. The vocals are sublime. The piano, the pipes and all the Celtic touches are perfect.
The basic idea of this blog series is to try to explain song meanings. This one is pretty easy, and we’ve already covered the subtext of Bogle writing it during a time of English/Irish upheaval. At Genius, the contributors decode all the references to funeral songs and so forth. The first two verses start a conversation between a traveler and a young soldier named Willie McBride, whose grave he visits.
The third verse ups the ante. No longer is this about one Willie McBride. These brilliant lines expand the meaning:
But here in this graveyard that’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 were butchered and damned
That’s World War I in a nutshell. And if that’s not bad enough, the narrator has bad news for young Willie McBride.
And I can’t help but wonder oh Willie McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying, it was all done in vain
Oh Willie McBride, it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again …
Bleak stuff. And yet I take hope from hearing this song. Maybe Bogle, the Fureys, Joss Stone and the Dropkick Murphys will get through to a future generation.
Because I firmly believe that the peacemakers are the majority. This is a song by the peacemakers, sung by peacemakers, for peacemakers of all generations to come.