The Ballad of Willie McBride and the Futility of War | History Hit

The Ballad of Willie McBride and the Futility of War

John Boland

16 Aug 2018
'Gassed', John Singer Sargent, c.1919
Image Credit: Public Domain / History Hit

The song popularly remembered as “Willie McBride” but also known as “No Man’s Land” was written in 1976 by the folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle. The song recalls celebrated military music while reflecting on the calamity that was World War One.

Well how do you do, young Willie McBride

Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside …

I see by your gravestone you were only 19

When you joined the great fallen in 1916 …

Here in this graveyard it is still No Man’s Land

The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand.

To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man

To a whole generation that were butchered and damned …

And I can’t help but wonder 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 them that this war would end war?

The suffering, the sorrow, some 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.

The poignancy of the lyrics continue to resonate. The so-called war to end wars did not prevent the outbreak of a second horrific conflict between 1939 and 1945. Since then, numerous and protracted disputes that have seen millions die in conflicts since then – some of which persist to this very day.

Was Willie McBride a real person?

Private William McBride – the subject of the song which is variously known as “William McBride”, “No Man’s Land and the “Green Fields of France” – is a historically uncertain figure. This is because a search through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals several individuals by the name of Private W. McBride.

The available evidence suggests Eric Bogle used poetic licence in his lyrics. These suggest that Willie McBride was only 19 when he died in 1916. In that year, there were two recorded deaths of men bearing the name W. McBride. Both men were part of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and rest in the Authuile Military Cemetery on the Somme.

What does the price of wheat and global food supplies have to do with one of the greatest disasters in the history of warfare? Why was the decision made to send thousands of Allied troops in an attempt to free up the most heavily defended waterway in the world, the Dardanelles Straits? Historian and award-winning author Nicholas Lambert joins James to talk us through the lead-up to Britain’s worst defeat in World War One, the catastrophic Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Find out why Prime Minister Henry Asquith and his senior advisers ordered the attacks in the first place, and the failed operation’s legacy.
Listen Now

Of the two men, one is recorded aged 21 and the other unknown. One candidate has been traced to an address in Armagh, Northern Ireland. Yet Bogle himself claimed that he chose the name “Willie McBride” because it was Irish and therefore contradicted anti-Irish sentiment in Britain, and rhymed conveniently with “grave side”.

Who wrote the Willie McBride song?

The song was penned by Eric Bogle. He was born in Scotland in 1944 and emigrated to Australia in 1969. It has become an anti-war song of considerable renown. Elements of the song are reminiscent of earlier ballads, including the North American song “Streets of Laredo”, the 18th century English ballad “The Unfortunate Rake” and the Irish ballad “Lock Hospital”.

Bogle later described the song as “written about the military cemeteries in Flanders and Northern France. In 1976, my wife and I went to three or four of these military cemeteries and saw all the young soldiers buried there.”

Bogle also penned “And the band played Waltzing Matilda”, which recalls the Australian experience at Gallipoli. Bogle’s work earned him an Australian Peace Award from the Australian government in the International Year of Peace in 1986.

John Boland