And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart are you always 19
Or are you just a stranger without even a name
Forever enclosed behind some glass-pane
In an old photograph torn and tattered and stained
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?
Eric Bogle wrote No Man’s Land (aka the Ballad of Willie McBride) in 1975. It was released as The Green Fields of France by Davey Arthur and the Fureys and topped the Irish charts in 1979. There’s a story that when Bogle toured Ireland the audience in one venue almost caused a riot at his claim that he’d written the song rather than the Fureys.
The song has caused other controversies too. During the Troubles it was branded a rebel song, yet singled out by Tony Blair as a ‘peace anthem’ during the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. And the Royal British Legion’s selection of the song as part of the Poppy Day appeal in 2014 wasn’t regarded with universal approval.
There’s also been considerable speculation over the years as to whether Bogle actually saw the name McBride on a headstone. 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.”
But there are two soldiers of that name buried at the Authuile Military Cemetery on the Somme. The most likely is Private William McBride of the 9th Battallion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers who died on 22 April 1916. His parents were from County Armagh.
County historian Trevor Geary has researched Willie’s life and says there can be no doubt he is the young soldier of the song – despite one obvious discrepancy. In the song, “Young Willie McBride” is famously “only 19”. Willie was, in fact, 21 at the time of his death.
Bogle confirmed to Geary that the grave he sat by was that of Willie McBride of Roan. “He admitted he used a bit of poetic licence with the age,” It’s also most unlikely that there was any formal funeral – certainly there would have been no pipes, fifes and band in attendance. If his body was found soon after he died, the young soldier would have been buried by a detachment of his comrades with his battalion chaplain conducting a short service at the graveside. But many soldiers were not found and interred until after the Armistice by Grave Registration teams. The line about “the countless white crosses” standing as testimony to those who died is poetic symbolism too. Commonwealth War Graves don’t have physical crosses but standard shaped headstones. None of that alters the power of the song in any way.
In the 2006 documentary Eric Bogle: Return to No Man’s Land directed by Dan Frodsham Bogle returned to the grave of Willie McBride on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme to recite his poem to the now famous Inniskilling Fusilier. To Bogle’s surprise the grave had become a pilgrimage site for this, an entirely fictional, Irish martyr created then immortalized in his own composition written four decades earlier. The documentary is available on Youtube, in two parts: Part One and Part Two.
Speaking of the visit that inspired the song Bogle said in a radio interview: ” “If you go to the ossuary in Verdun there’s the bones of 130,000 French soldiers just behind glass, you know and they’re still adding to them every year, because every year they find more bones, you know, French farmers…. So when you see the — you read the images of the earth was soaked with blood, and you couldn’t walk anywhere without standing in dead bodies, you used to sort of dismiss that as old soldier’s hyperbole, until you see the battlefields and you think, “Shit, yeah, this is how it was.”
Biographical note: Bogle was born in 1944 in Peebles, in Scotland but moved to Australia in 1969. Within two years he wrote his first graphically moving song about Gallipoli called And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which is now Australia’s most recorded song. In 1987 the Australian government honoured Eric with the Order of Australia for his contributions to that country’s music and musical heritage.
You can read the lyrics of Green Fields of France here