British Soldiers' Songs From The Trenches of The First World War

by KathleenDuffy

Soldiers of the First World War subverted contemporary tunes to produce a potent mix of stoicism, humour, irony and ribaldry to counteract the reality of life in the trenches.

For many years the songs created by British soldiers of the First World War were lost or forgotten. But in the 1960s the prolific BBC producer, Charles Chilton, began to research his father who had been killed in Arras in March 1919, aged only 19.

Through his quest Chilton discovered the songs of the First World War which were created or adapted by soldiers in the trenches. Many of the songs were found by Chilton in The London Library in an obscure book called, "Tommy's Tunes". These songs, with their gallows humour, strong language, and often moving renditions of traditional tunes provided Chilton with a pioneering programme for BBC radio called 'The Long, Long Trail', which was broadcast in 1961. It is now regarded as a ground-breaking masterpiece.

'The Long, Long Trail' consisted of soldiers' songs interspersed with the bare facts of the war. This sparse approach had an immediate, emotional impact which would be the foundation stone of the radical theatrical production at London's Stratford Theatre Royal, 'Oh What a Lovely War' and the subsequent film of the same name directed by Richard Attenborough.

Chilton's programme revealed a part of working class history which had hitherto been forgotten or ignored.

Join Up! Serve Your Country!

The Recruiting Drive

On 4th August 1914 Britain entered the First World War.  The atmosphere was optimistic and deeply patriotic.  Embarking for the continent, troops were keen to help out little Belgium which had been invaded by  Germany.  They sang the popular songs of the day such as, It's a Long Way to Tipperarey and Are we Downhearted? No!". 

The recruiting drive, which began immediately,  was boosted by music hall artists who sang songs such as, Oh we don't want to lose you and  the emotionally subversive, I'll Make a Man of You. Some women also took it upon themselves to hand out white feathers, the mark of cowardice,  to those who hadn't yet joined up. 

Here is Maggie Smith, as a music hall artist,  singing, I'll Make a Man of You from the film, Oh, What A Lovely War.  The view here is that songs such as these were a cynical ploy to encourage men to join up.  


 Later the soldiers themselves would make up their own sardonic words to this song. 

I don’t want to join the army

I don’t want to join the army
I don’t want to go to war
I’d rather stay at home
Around the street to roam 
Living on the earnings of a lady typist.
I don’t want a bayonet in my belly
I don’t want my bollocks shot away
I’d rather stay in England
Merry merry England
And fornicate my bleedin’ life away

Facing the Realities of War

But the war dragged on and as conditions in the trenches worsened and casualties mounted, enthusiasm for the conflict was replaced  by a much more sober attitude.  

In the trenches the soldiers themselves lived with the stench of death, the scourge of trench foot, rats, lice and  the threat of shells,  or 'whizz-bangs' as they were called.  And beyond the trenches and the barbed wire was No Man's Land, a stark stretch of muddied wasteland littered with the bodies of both antagonists, beyond which were the trenches of the opposition,  who were equally besieged.   A whizz-bang would announce its arrival with an ominous whine, which could mean certain death. 

A popular song, Hush, Here Comes The Dream Man, was soon adapted by soldiers and doing the round of the trenches:

Hush! Here comes a whizz-bang

Hush! Here comes a whizz-bang
Hush! Here comes a whizz-bang
Now you soldier boys
Run down those stairs
Down in the dugout and say your prayers.
Hush! Here comes a whizz-bang
And it’s heading straight for you.
And you’ll see all the wonders of no man’s land
If a whizz-bang hits you.

There was also the threat of mustard gas, or Yperite,  which was first used by the German Army in September 1917.  The horrendous effects of this gas, which caused blistering, blindness and a slow death,  were met with typical resigned humour and stoicism by the British troops. 

Gassed last night, and gassed the night before
Going to get gassed tonight;
If we never get gassed anymore
When we're gassed, we're sick as we can be
For Phosgene and Mustard Gas is much too much for me.
They're warning us, they're warning us,
One respirator for the four of us
Thank your lucky stars that three of us can run,
So one of us can use it all alone.

Bombed Last Night...

Bombed last night, and bombed the night before
Going to get bombed tonight
If we never get bombed any more
When we're bombed, we're scared as we can be
Can't stop the bombing sent from Higher Germany
They're over us, they're over us,
One shell hole for just the four of us,
Thank your lucky stars there are no more of us,
'Cause one of us can fill it all alone.

Treatment of ordinary soldiers by their superiors was often humiliating and extremely harsh. Shell shock was little understood so that  Illness and fear -  which prevented a recruit from 'going over the top'  into No Man's Land - was inevitably labelled as cowardice, and could result in execution by firing squad. Bullying and fierce intimidation was common.

Yet despite all these horrors, the songs of soldiers in the trenches reflect a refusal to give in to despair. Such ironic subversion was a phenomenon exclusive to British troops.  And as well as singing about the conditions they had to endure in the trenches, the troops were not slow to criticise their superiors through the medium of song.  Here's one to the tune of John Brown's Body.  It takes a knowing, anti-authoritarian look at what was perceived as  the meaningless charade perpetuated by the higher ranks whose strategies made no sense at all to those on the ground.

Oh What A Lovely War - Special Collector's Edition

The film directed by Richard Attenborough
Oh! What a Lovely War

They Were Only Playing Leapfrog...

One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer's back.
And another staff officer jumped right over that other staff officer's back,
A third staff officer jumped right over two other staff officers' backs,
And a fourth staff officer jumped right over all the other staff officers' backs.

They were only playing leapfrog,
They were only playing leapfrog,
They were only playing leapfrog,
When one staff officer jumped right over another staff
officer's back.

They Were Only Playing Leapfrog

From 'Oh What A Lovely War' film - Sung by Australian Troops

The Wipers Times - A Trench Newspaper

In 1916 Captain Fred Roberts found an old printing press in the ruins of Ypres in Belgium. He began using it to publish a satirical newspaper called The Wipers Times.  'Wipers' was army slang for 'Ypres'.

The Wipers Times was an immediate success, being full of very funny subversive articles, jokes and poetry that was often very moving.  Despite being printed under fire, The Wipers Times was incredibly popular with all the troops along the western front. It was another means by which the songs of the trenches were passed around the troops.  It  reinforced  the gallows humour  and resignation that became a coping mechanism, enabling soldiers to  fight the fear promoted by long stretches of boredom, watching and just waiting. 

Many of the songs concerned the merits of alcohol, arguing that bravery could only be achieved through booze.  Ironically, these pieces were written by men who would later be given medals for bravery - and also, there was a strong anti-drink Temperance Movement during this period!

If the Sergeant steals your rum...


If the Sergeant steals your rum;
Never mind!
If the Sergeant steals your rum;
Never mind!
Though he's just a blinking sot,
Let him have the bloody lot,
If the Sergeant steals your rum,
Never mind!

The Rag-Tag Army

Royal Irish Rifles, Somme 1914
Royal Irish Rifles, Somme 1914

The soldiers in the trenches were well aware of the state they were in.  Their clothes were worn, their footwear was totally inadequate to cope with the mud of the trenches - as young men who had once taken a pride in their appearance and smartened themselves up every Saturday night at home, such a situation called for another sardonic tune.  

And yet these lyrics are heartbreaking because they also reveal how soldiers often felt alienated from the people they had left behind.  On visits home they couldn't help noticing that it was often 'business as usual' with many making a tidy profit from the war.


To the tune of a popular song of the day called, When You Wore a Tulip, they sang:

I wore a tunic...

I wore a tunic, a lousy khaki tunic,
And you wore your civvy clothes.
We fought and bled at Loos
While you were home on the booze
The booze that no one here knows.
Oh you were with the wenches
While we were in the trenches
Facing an angry foe.
Oh you were a-slacking
While we were attacking
The Jerry on the Menin Road.


Another popular tune which was sung to the hymn, The Church's One Foundation was We are Fred Karno's Army. Fred Karno was a popular music-hall comedian of the time.


We are Fred Karno's army, we are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot, what bleeding use are we?
And when we get to Berlin we'll hear the Kaiser say,
'Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot, are the ragtime infantry'

There's a Long, Long Trail A'Winding...

The Longing for Home

Despite the bitter irony of the trench songs, soldiers found comfort in the more sentimental compositions that reminded them of an idealised home life that they dreamed would be waiting for them.   Keep The Home Fires Burning was particularly popular and their own songs gradually took on a more nostalgic feel.

When This Lousy War Is Over...

To the Hymn Tune "What a Friend We Have in Jesus".

Another song, I Want to go Home echoed the frustrations of the men who, in 1917, feared the war would never end:

I want to go home

I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don't want to go in the trenches no more,
Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea, where the Alleyman* can't get at me.
Oh my, I don't want to die, I want to go home.

I want to go home, I want to go home.
I don't want to visit la Belle France no more,
For oh the Jack Johnsons** they make such a roar.
Take me over the sea, where the snipers they can't get at me.
Oh my, I don't want to die, I want to go home.

* 'Alleyman' refers to a German, i.e. Allemagne

** A Jack Johnson was a heavy shell, named after a boxer of the same name.

The War Ends at Last

America entered the war in April 1917, and in November 1918 the Armistace was signed. Ten million men had died on all the European fronts.  Not all had been killed in the trenches.  They died from their wounds, from sheer hardship of the war. Many were gassed and blinded.

The sorrow of war has been well covered through novels, film and the great war poets.  But as Charles Chilton has noted, it is through the songs of British troops in the trenches that we see another, little-known side of the war.  These songs are, as Chilton's research has shown, extremely strong, more inclined to be stoical and sardonic rather than despairing.  There was a balance between a healthy, almost defiant scepticism and  a sincere longing for home and family.

At the same time, there was the realisation that all they had gone through could never be fully understood by the people back home.  The comradeship of the trenches and the words of the radical, subversive and often suggestive songs created by these men often provided the vital glue that helped them to cope with the mass horror of the dominant trench warfare.  

Once back home in Blighty there was little hope that those who had not experienced the war could ever begin to empathise.  

And When They Ask Us...

To the tune of: "They'll Never Believe Me"

And when they ask us, how dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them, no, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some cafe,
And fought wild women night and day,
'Twas the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they ask us, and they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win the Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them, oh, we'll never tell them
There was a front, but damned if we knew where.

Daddy, What Did YOU Do in the Great War ?' a Patriotic Poster Depicting a Father and Is Family
Ad AllPosters

The Final Sequence from 'Oh What a Lovely War'

Regarded by many critics as one of the most moving film sequences ever made.

Whilst searching for evidence of his own father, who died in the Great War  at only nineteen, Charles Chilton stumbled upon a lost treasure trove of working class history. 

We have a lot to thank Charles Chilton for.



The Long, Long Trail - repeat of the original 1961 broadcast, on Radio 4 Extra, 5th January 2014.

The Archive Hour: The Long, Long Trail first broadcast in 1961 and repeated on Radio 4 Extra on 5th January 2014 with a commentary by Roy Hudd.

The Birth of 'Oh What A Lovely War' by Vincent Dowd - BBC News 12th November 2011

Soldiers' Songs of the Great War , The Western Front Association website.

Trench Songs, The First World War Poetry Digital Archive website



Updated: 01/12/2014, KathleenDuffy
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KathleenDuffy on 01/11/2014

Hello April - Thank you, I am so glad you liked it! :)

April_M on 01/11/2014

Really moving article, thank you.

KathleenDuffy on 01/11/2014

Hi Rupert - Yes, it is an amazing play. And I also love the film. That's interesting that you had a role in the play. I worked at the Stratford Theatre Royal for a while in the 1970s. Thanks for you comment. :)

Abby: So glad you found it interesting. :)

RupertTaylor on 01/10/2014

In an earlier incarnation as an actor of sorts I had a role in Oh! What a Lovely War. It's a wonderful play and it never loses its appeal for me.

"Far far from Wypers I long to be
Where German snipers can't get at me."

Abby, Tipperary is in Ireland.

AbbyFitz on 01/10/2014

This was an interesting read. I always like Its a long way to Tipperary, even thought I have no idea where that is

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