No Man's Land (Eric Bogle song)

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"No Man's Land" (also known as "The Green Fields of France" or "Willie McBride") is a song written in 1976 by Scottish folk singer-songwriter Eric Bogle, reflecting on the grave of a young man who died in World War I. Its chorus refers to two famous pieces of military music, "The Last Post" and "The Flowers of the Forest". Its melody, its refrain ("did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly"), and elements of its subject matter (a young man cut down in his prime) are similar to those of "Streets of Laredo", a North American cowboy ballad whose origins can be traced back to an 18th-century English ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake" and the Irish Ballad "Lock Hospital". In 2009 Eric told an audience in Weymouth that he'd read about a girl who had been presented with a copy of the song by then prime minister Tony Blair, who called it "his favourite anti-war poem". According to Eric, the framed copy of the poem credited him, but stated that he had been killed in World War I.[1]

It's a song that was 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.

— Eric Bogle[2]

Identity of Willie McBride[edit]

According to the song, the gravestone of the soldier, Willie McBride, says he was 19 years old when he died in 1916. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, there were eight soldiers named "William McBride", and a further six listed as "W. McBride", who died in France or Belgium during the First World War but none matches the soldier in the song. Two "William McBrides" and one "W. McBride" died in 1916 but one is commemorated in the Thiepval Memorial and has no gravestone. The other two are buried in the Authuille Military Cemetery but one was aged 21 and the age of the other is unknown. All three were from Irish regiments.[3]

Piet Chielens, coordinator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres, Belgium, and organizer of yearly peace concerts in Flanders, once checked all 1,700,000 names that are registered with the Commonwealth War Commission. He found no fewer than ten Privates William McBride.[citation needed] Three of these William McBrides fell in 1916; two were members of an Irish Regiment, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and died more or less in the same spot during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. One was 21, the other 19 years old. The 19-year-old Private William McBride is buried in the Authuille Military Cemetery, near Albert and Beaumont-Hamel, where the Inniskillen Fusiliers were deployed as part of the 29th Division.[3] The 19-year-old Private William McBride can be found at Grave A. 36, near the back of the Cemetery.

An Armagh historian Trevor Geary, has traced the Willie McBride (12/23965) to Roan Cottage, Lislea in south County Armagh. This was based on the gravestone at Authuile Military Cemetery. [4]

The name might have also been inspired by the naval pseudonym of Godfrey Herbert, the Captain of the Royal Navy, also nicknamed 'Baralong Herbert' due to infamous Baralong incidents. [5] He was referred to as Captain William McBride through the war by the British Admiralty and other authorities when mentioning the commander of the 'Baralong', to prevent any retaliation from the Germans should they reveal his identity upon capture.

Bogle himself has stated that he had no particular soldier in mind in choosing the name "Willie McBride"; "McBride" was simply a convenient rhyme for "grave side", and he also wanted to give the soldier an Irish name as a counter to the anti-Irish sentiment prevalent in Britain at the time.[6]

Cover versions and recordings[edit]

The song (as "The Green Fields of France") was a huge success for The Furey Brothers and Davey Arthur in the 1980s in Ireland and beyond. The melody and words vary somewhat from the Eric Bogle original with some of the Scots phrases replaced (e.g. Did the rifle fire o'er ye? is often replaced by Did they play the death march?). It was also recorded by Dropkick Murphys, who changed the lyrics only slightly. Eric Bogle has repeatedly stated that his own favourite recording of the song is by John McDermott.[citation needed]

Film maker Pete Robertson[7] used the Dropkick Murphys version in his 2008 short film The Green Fields of France.[8][9]

In 2014 The Royal British Legion commissioned Joss Stone and Jeff Beck to record the Official 2014 Poppy Appeal Single Poppy Appeal song. They chose No Man's Land. The end result was two recordings and a video set against the backdrop of the Tower of London focusing on the Poppies in the Moat installation.

Cover versions include:

Willie McBride's reply[edit]

A writer named Stephen L. Suffet wrote a song from the point of Willie McBride respectfully answering Eric Bogle, set to the same tune as No Man's Land, and saying that he doesn't regret fighting in the First World War.[12] The lyrics, copywrited by Suffet in 1997, were included in the book Eric Bogle, Music and the Great War: 'An Old Man's Tears'.[13]

Joss Stone cover[edit]

A cover of No Man's Land by Joss Stone featuring Jeff Beck was produced as the Official Poppy Appeal Single for The Royal British Legion. The end result was two recordings (one being a Radio edit), and a video set against the backdrop of the Tower of London focusing on the Poppies in the Moat installation. The cover differed greatly from the original, mainly in that it contained only the lyrics from the first two and a half verses and so omitted the material that contained the anti-war sentiment underlying the song. There were several objections to this version of the song from individuals and organizations on such grounds as:

  • the version sanitizes the anti-war message and gives the impression of a false history[14]
  • it insults the writer of the song and ultimately the people in the armed forces

Bogle himself wrote a piece on the controversy for The Guardian website: he said that whilst he didn't approve of the dropping of verses and the "rock'n'roll arrangement" in Stone's version, he acknowledged that the latter was a matter of personal preference, and that "to do it acoustically and include all four verses and choruses would have made the song nearly seven minutes long and of doubtful commercial appeal in today’s music market", and that the broader appeal of Stone's recording would bring the song to the attention of people who would never have heard it before. He expressed the view that the cover version "certainly doesn’t glorify (war), but it doesn’t condemn it either... (it's) sentimentalising perhaps, trivialising even, but not glorifying". He concluded that neither he nor his publisher would be taking legal action against those involved with the cover, and that "I would have wished for a version of my song that could have been truer to my original intentions in writing it: illustrating the utter waste of war while paying tribute to the courage and sacrifice of those brave young men who fought. But if Joss’s cover touches a heart or two here and there and makes some people reflect, perhaps for the first time, on the true price of war, then her version will have a measure of validity and value".[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Eric Bogle & John Munro – Green Fields of France". YouTube. 30 August 2009. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  3. ^ a b "Cemetery Details". CWGC. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  4. ^ Willie McBride: Armagh soldier's song continues to resonate. By Gordon Adair, 1 January 2015. BBC News NI
  5. ^ Messimer, Dwight R (2002). Verschollen: World War I U-boat Losses. Naval Institute Press. p. 23. ISBN 1-55750-475-X.
  6. ^ Eric Bogle interview on Radio New Zealand, 25 April 2016
  7. ^ "Pete Robertson". Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  8. ^ "The Green Fields of France". Archived from the original on 20 February 2012. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  9. ^ "The Green Fields of France (2009)". Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  10. ^ "John McDermott – Battlefields of Green: Songs Of..." AllMusic. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
  11. ^ "Music". Retrieved 13 October 2013.
  12. ^ Walsh, Michael JK (2 January 2018). Eric Bogle, Music and the Great War: 'An Old Man's Tears'. Routledge. p. 11. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  13. ^ Walsh, Michael JK (2 January 2018). Eric Bogle, Music and the Great War: 'An Old Man's Tears'. Routledge. p. 104. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  14. ^ "This year's poppy appeal song is a disgrace and should be withdrawn".
  15. ^ Bogle, Eric (12 November 2014). "Eric Bogle: I don't like Joss Stone's cover of No Man's Land, but I won't sue". Retrieved 31 August 2016.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]