Scottish songs of World War I

27 November 2017
Men of the 14th (County of London) Battalion, London Regiment (London Scottish), 1914
John Miles tells the story of three iconic songs which remember the sacrifice made by Scots in the Great War.

John Miles tells the story of three iconic songs which remember the sacrifice made by Scots in the Great War.

Anyone who has ever studied World War I, realizes what a horrible blood-bath it was. Scottish soldiers certainly bore their fair share of that carnage.

In his book, British Regiments 1914-18 Brigadier General E. A. James compares the 1911 United Kingdom census data for the male population of Scotland with the British casualties incurred in the First World War.

          MORE: Scottish nurses on the Western Front

The casualty percentages of the Scottish population are as follows. Scotland: Fielded 336 Battalions which suffered approximately 85,000 total casualties. Scottish male population in 1911: 2,308,839. Therefore, almost 4% of the Scottish male population were killed or wounded in the Great War. 

Breaking it down even further, in his book The Pity of War Niall Ferguson has these figures concerning Scotland in WWI. 26% total casualties as a percentage of the total manpower mobilized. Total killed and wounded as a percentage of military aged males (15-49) = 11%.

So, if you served in a Scottish Regiment during the Great War, you stood a 1 in 4 chance of being killed or wounded. And 11 out of every 100 military-aged Scottish males during the war became casualties of combat.

Poignant songs of wartime

Based on those truly sobering figures, it is fitting that three of the most iconic songs written about the slaughter of World War I were penned and sang by Scots. Anyone who has watched the movie We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, has heard the lament, Sgt Mackenzie. This song was written and sung by the late Joseph Kilna Mackenzie, whose family is from Rothes, 80 kilometres east of Inverness.

Joe wrote the song in memory of his grandfather, Sgt. Charles Stuart Mackenzie, from Bishopmill, who along with hundreds of other Seaforth Highlanders from the Elgin/Rothes area went to fight in the Great War. Sgt Mackenzie was bayoneted to death at the age of 35, while defending one of his badly injured comrades in the hand-to-hand fighting of the trenches.

According to Joe, on that day, his great grandmother and grandmother were sitting at the fire when Sgt Mackenzie’s picture fell from the wall. Joe’s great grandmother looked, and said to his grandmother "Oh, my bonnie Charlie's dead". Sure enough, after a few days passed, the local policeman brought the news that Sgt. Charles Stuart MacKenzie had been killed in action.

Joe went on to say that after his wife Christine died of cancer, in his grief he looked at the picture of Sgt. Mackenzie to ask what gave him the strength to go on. It was then, in Joe’s mind, that he saw his grandfather lying on the battlefield and wondered what his final thoughts were. The words and music to the song then just appeared into his head.

Joe believed the men and women who are prepared to stand their ground for their family, friends, and for their country; deserve to be remembered, respected and honored. Sgt. MacKenzie, was Joe’s iconic tribute to them.

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The work of Eric Bogle

Two of the other most well-known songs about the horrible waste of life that the First World War was were also written by a Scot. Eric Bogle is from a town called Peebles, 40 kilometres south of Edinburgh. As a young man, he emigrated to Australia looking for sunshine and also hopefully a bit of an adventure, like many young people did.

Soon after Eric arrived in Australia, he saw his first Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Day parade in Canberra in 1971, and wrote the song 'And the Band Played Waltzing Maltilda’ a few weeks after watching the march. At that time, Australian soldiers were still fighting and dying in the Vietnam war, so he felt it was time for another anti-war song.

Eric wanted the song to be anti-war, not anti-soldier. He was able to travel to Gallipoli in 2015 and took part in a presentation commemorating the 100th anniversary of the landing of ANZACs at Gallipoli in 1915. There he sang ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ during the presentation. 

A few years after he wrote 'And the Band Played Waltzing Maltilda’, Eric spent two weeks in the autumn of 1975 wandering around many of the relics from World War I that are scattered all over the countryside of Flanders and northern France. The vast number of military cemeteries there left a particularly deep impression on him, as did the ages of the soldiers buried there; many of whom were just teenaged boys. Hence, he was inspired to write his next song 'No Man’s Land/The Green Fields of France’.

When asked about his impressions of the World War I battlefields he toured, Eric replied “The usual….Anger at the continuing stupidity of war, sadness at the waste of all those young lives, and admiration for the soldiers' courage and sacrifice”.

As a recent Scottish immigrant to Australia, Eric was asked about any knowledge he had concerning Scottish immigrants to Australia, and their descendants' service in World War I. Eric replied that the descendants of those immigrant Scots certainly would have served in the Australian Light Horse and thence at the Battle of Gallipoli. Eric pointed out that Scots emigrated to Australia in large numbers during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of them came to south Australia, where he lives, for two main reasons. The first was that free (or at least very cheap), land was offered by the British government in an effort to encourage the settlement of Southern Australia. Additionally, South Australia had no penal colonies, unlike much of the rest of the colony, only free settlers founded it.

Eric finished by saying that even a cursory glance at the names on any World War I memorial in Australia, will bear witness to the sheer number of Scots and their descendants who fought and died for their new home.

The price of war

Each of these three iconic songs, about the horror of, and specifically about the horrific price paid by Scotsmen in the winning of that war, speaks to the pathos evoked by that loss. Eric Bogle’s The Green fields of France, speaks about how almost 100 years after the war, a walk through the former battlefields cannot help but impress one with the horrible cost.

The sun's shining down on these green fields of France; The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance. The trenches have vanished long under the plow; No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now. But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land, The countless white crosses in mute witness stand To man's blind indifference to his fellow man. And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

The late Joseph Mackenzie’s ode to the feelings his grandfather must have felt as he died in World War I combat cannot help but cause reflection concerning Sgt Mackenzie; about the man he was, and who he might have been if he had survived.

Lay me down in the cold, cold ground-Where before many more have gone. When they come, I will stand my ground-Stand my ground, I’ll not be afraid. Thoughts of home take away my fear-Sweat and blood, hide my veil of tears. Once a year say a prayer for me-Close your eyes and remember me. Never more shall I see the sun-For I fell to a German’s gun.

Finally, Eric Bogle’s And the band played Waltzing Matilda, evokes the patriotism that the recent Scottish immigrants to Australia must have felt as they boarded the troop ships for their introduction to the carnage of war. After their baptism by fire, those that survived to return home, now fully realised that while fighting for the British Empire might surely be patriotic, the results of that fight would stay with them physically and mentally for the rest of their lives.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the quay. And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli. And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water. And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter. Johnny Turk he was waiting, he'd primed himself well. He shower'd us with bullets, And he rained us with shell. And in five minutes flat, he'd blown us all to hell, Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

About the author

John Miles is a retired USMC officer turned historian who regularly gives lectures at Scottish Highland Games, Celtic festivals and assisted living facilities around the US. Visit John's website.

(Image of Scottish National War Memorial copyright Nevit Dilmen)


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