The Ballad of Willie McBride and the Futility of War

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.

These words are taken from a song written back in 1975 and they reflect on the tragedy that was the Great War – which shook the world between 1914 and 1918.

The poignancy of the lyrics continue to resonate when it is considered that the so-called war to end wars did not even ensure that a second horrific conflict was avoided between 1939 and 1945. This is before we even begin to consider the numerous and protracted disputes that have seen millions die in conflicts since then – some of which persist to this very day.

Willie McBride: An Uncertain Figure

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 there were several fallen heroes by the name of Private W. McBride.

billie-mcbride

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

Of the two men, one is recorded aged 21 and the other unknown. It is the former that is most likely the inspiration for the song and there is great pride in Armagh in the north of Ireland that a local hero features so prominently.

Anti War Song

The song was penned by Eric Bogle – born in Scotland in 1944, emigrating to Australia in 1969. It has become an anti-war song of considerable renown. Bogle also penned “And the band played Waltzing Matilda”, which recalls graphically Australian experiences at Gallipoli. Bogle’s work earned him an Australian Peace Award from the Australian government in the International Year of Peace in 1986.

When you listen to the words in the song, it provokes an inherent sadness that the modern world remains entirely capable of inflicting great personal loss and untold levels of grief through the continued battles and conflicts that kill without exception or prejudice.

Take, for example, “man’s blind indifference to his fellow man” – the indiscriminate outbreaks of rage between Israel and Palestine combined with the continued legacy of a disastrous war in Iraq and the wider instability in the Middle East all take lives on a daily basis. Dare we stop to ask the question of what purpose the elimination of countless individuals serves other than to perpetuate pain and suffering on an almost unimaginable scale?

The Full Song:

John Boland studied modern History at Robinson College, University of Cambridge. His main areas of interest are aspects of military history - particularly The Cold War and, more recently, conflict in the Middle East.

  • ryan

    In contrast we have Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife. Sometimes it is necessary to sacrifice ourselves for what is most precious to us.

    I will also point out that Hussein was brutalizing his people before the war. Iraq was plagued by systematic state-on-citizen violence. That does not justify the war at all, but it does show that war is not alone when it comes to human-on-human cruelty.

  • chuckvekert

    I have the song memorized from listening to is sung by Eric Bogle, Tommy Makem, and the Dropkick Murphys among others. But I think that the despair of last verse–

    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.

    –is better considered to be the emotional reaction of the singer to the quiet horror around and in front of him than an accurate evaluation of the rest of the twentieth century. It definitely did happen again in WWII, but one of the results of the latter war is that it is now almost impossible for such a bloody European war to happen again and again.

    We have had and are having innumerable “small wars,” which are not small to the soldiers and civilians who die in them, but which do not involve tens of millions world wide in their suffering. The sacrifices of the two world wars have not been entirely in vain.