Those who went to fight, and families waiting at home
This started life as a patriotic song and was very popular during the First World War. The original words were written in 1914 by Lena Gilbert Ford (1870-1918) and the melody by Ivor Novello (1893-1951). It was the first big hit of many in Ivor Novello’s long musical career.
I became particularly aware of it when the Incredible String Band used the chorus as part of their song Darling Belle (1971) about a young woman whose lover was killed in WW1. This was a moving performance which has stayed in my mind for 40 years and when I started to take an active interest in narrative songs recently I investigated the original version.
Of the many recordings available I found that the 2012 Promenade Concert performance by the tenor, Toby Spence, with the Halle Orchestra and Mark Elder, captures the emotional power of the song best, especially the very pointful chorus. But I was very uncomfortable about the mawkish patriotic verses which seem to be written entirely as a recruiting exercise and use some very cheap ideas that don’t sit well with the way we understand that war today.
The two verses I have written to replace the originals follow a similar narrative pattern but I hope they tell a very different story.
The original version starts with men being called to fight.
It is typical of British patriotic propaganda, influenced by a ruling class of country landowners, portraying our country as a kind of historic rural idyll. In this case the image is of of young Celtic warriors streaming in from Highland glens inspired by a sense of sacred duty, almost an Arthurian vision. The reality was that the great majority of recruits were industrial or agricultural workers from more populated areas and I have tried to reflect that in the opening lines:
They were called in from the farmland, they were summoned from the mill
And most of them were ready, to hear their country’s call
And because it is about family and the people left at home, as much as the soldiers who went away, I’ve tried to make this verse about their feelings too, rather than the “stiff upper lip, let’s not upset the brave boys” theme of the original. Finally I substituted the word “hopeful song” for the original “cheerful song” in the last line that introduces the chorus.
We cheered them at the parting, and as they marched along,
While our hearts were breaking, they sang this hopeful song
I feel that the original chorus is perfect. I’ve made a small substitution of “darkness” for the second “dark clouds”
Keep the home fires burning, while your hearts are yearning
Though your boys are far away, they dream of home
There’s a silver lining, through the dark clouds shining
Turn the darkness inside out, ’till your boys come home
The original second verse is an extended ramble about “glorious laddies”, “honour”, and the “tyrant’s yoke”. Instead I wanted to move on to what happened to those hopeful volunteers. It starts with the stark fact of death. I also thought about the idea of “Lions led by donkeys” and decided that this was a crude simplification so I wanted to give a little more nuance to the role of the commanding officers, although you cannot avoid the fact that the generals were playing their brutal game with men’s lives.
On the wire a boy is dying, while the generals play hard chess
And I have always been fascinated by the way that soldiers in old-style battles of attrition could be persuaded to march en masse into the face of gunfire which was guaranteed to kill a proportion of them.
If a man will march through terror, his mates can do no less
and thoughts of home and freedom, like threads that slip the mind
when death’s your only master, and luck’s your only friend
Here’s a copy of the full words, together with the original for comparison, it’s on archive.org which is a good place to put anything you would like to keep safe and make available to others