Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

General Haig and the "Inexcusable" Song Lyrics Episode

One story illustrates the ability of humour to motivate men in difficult  circumstances, bridge the divide of rank and ultimately make a comedic "star" of an individual.

General Haig was more concerned with moral tone than with avenging thunderclaps. No battalion would have ventured to march to a ribald song within miles of his headquarters. No Colonel within a considerable radius of any spot where there was a likelihood of meeting a staff officer would have allowed his battalion to march, even in the heat of an August day, with tunics undone and shirt buttons loosened and still less would he have relieved his own sweltering discomfort by replacing his stiff army hat with a khaki handkerchief knotted at each comer in the style of a day-tripper to the beach at Southend. It was unfortunate for one particular battalion marching towards the Somme that it happened to present precisely this appearance as it passed through a village where a senior ordnance officer had his headquarters. It was unfortunate that the commander-in-chief, concerned about supplies of ammunition for the coming push, should have been visiting the ordnance H.Q. in person -  unfortunate too that the battalion should have been in full vocal flood and rendering a particular chorus compared to which the bawdiest version of Mademoiselle from Armentières might have seemed a suitable serenade for a maiden aunt:

Do your balls hang low?

Do they dangle to and fro?

Can you tie them in a knot?

Can you tie them in a bow?

They had reached the furth line before the full sense of the words got through to the commander-in-chief. It got worse as he listened:

Do they itch when it’s hot?

Do you rest them in a pot?

He crossed to the window and stared in disbelief as the unwitting Battalion shambled past. "Just as I thought," he said. "It’s the rear companies! Fetch my horse!"

The battalion straggled, marching easy, over almost a mile of road. By the time Sir Douglas Haig had mounted and started to trot up the long column, they had started all over again, this time in harmony, for the beauty of their favourite tune was that it could be sung in parts.

Do you get them in a tangle? .

Do you catch them in the mangle?

Do they swing in stormy weather?

Do they tickle with a feather?

One by one, as the marching platoons spotted the unmistakable upright figure of their commander-in-chief trotting purposefully past to reach the head of the battalion, their voices trailed away into embarrassed silence. But the men at the head of the column were still lustily singing

Do they rattle when you walk? ,

Do they jingle when you talk?

The colonel had a fine voice. Riding in front of his battalion, he was singing louder than any of his men—so loudly that he either failed to notice the falling-off of the merry chorus behind him or, putting it down to fatigue, sang louder than ever to encourage his men across the last lap of the hour’s march. Just as General Haig caught up with him, he had flung back his handkerchiefed head and was bawling in a rousing oblivious crescendo:

Can you sling them on your shoulder?

Like a lousy fucking soldier?


Haig had to shout to make himself heard. "I must congratulate you on your voice, Colonel!" The unfortunate Colonel could only stare back open-mouthed, fumble at his unbuttoned tunic, call the battalion to march to attention and, as an afterthought, snatch the handkerchief from his head.

"No, no!" Haig raised his hand. "The men may march easy." With the last of his voice the colonel croaked the command. Haig on his great black charger, a full hand higher than the colonel’s horse, trotted beside him and bent down for a private word in the colonel’s ear, buthis orderly riding just behind heard—and later repeated—every word. "I like the tune," he said, ’but you must know that in any circumstances the words are inexcusable!"

The discomfited colonel, having now replaced his hat, managed to salute, but before he could stammer an apology Haig was gone with a final nod of rebuke, trotting back past the chastened battalion to resume his interrupted business. It was a full five minutes before anyone broke the silence. Then a wag halfway down the column dared to introduce another song. It was a song beloved by their virtuous Victorian grandmothers, and he sang in notes of pure innocence:

After the ball was over. . . 

Source: "Irrepressible chirpy cockney chappies"? — Humour as an aid to survival, Andrew Robershaw, National Army Museum


1 comment:

  1. In the old Wall Street expression, Important news if true.