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Song parodies in World War One

Trapped in trenches with over-active minds, many soldiers would play with words to create poems or parodies, often adapting ditties to give local flavour.

war sketches 7

Sing me to Sleep from Tommy’s Tunes

war sketches 7

Tommy's Tunes was a 1917 collection of trench songs

war sketches 7The original 1902 sheet music for Sing me to Sleep (Sing mir dein Lied)

And here, as the song appears in Oh What A Lovely War...

Writing song lyrics – and learning them by heart – is always a good way to kill time and feel alive. No wonder it was a popular habit among soldiers during the first world war. Trapped in trenches with over-active minds, many would play with words to create poems or parodies, often adapting ditties to give local flavour.

These lyrics were meant to be spoken or sung. So they were direct, rhythmic and wry.

'Here are a few verses we made up in the trenches,' wrote Private James Keith to his mother at her American home in Auburn, Maine.

Sing me to sleep where bullets fall,
Let me forget the war and all.
Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet,
Nothing but Bully and Biscuits to eat.

His chorus ran:

Far, far from Ypres I long to be,
Where German snipers can't pot me.
Think of me crouching where the worms creep,
Waiting for someone to sing me to sleep.

His mum will have recognised this parody of the popular 1902 song whose first verse went:

Sing me to sleep, the shadows fall.
Let me forget the world and all.
Tired is my heart, the day is long,
Would it were come to evensong.

Serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but now convalescing in England from wounds, Keith's letter was printed in his home newspaper The Lewiston Daily Sun in December 1915. They would have been delighted to have a trench song clean enough to print.

A month earlier in November 1915, Private Cyril Lett had written to his local North Bucks Times in England with 'his own penned' version of Far, far from Ypres… featuring the same text.

Nearly a century later, in May 2013, a Canadian blogger found a poem handwritten by her grandfather William John Ring, who'd also served with the Canadians at Ypres. Its lyrics are identical to those of Privates Keith and Lett. Maybe they wrote them together. Maybe they separately heard them sung behind the lines. Either way each soldier wanted to share these words as their own.

A further version appeared in 1917's Tommy's Tunes, a printed collection of trench songs and ditties, where we find:

Sing me to sleep where Very lights fall. (Very lights were flares fired from a pistol)
Let me forget the war and all.
I've got the wind up, that's what they say,
God strafe 'em like hell – till break of day.

Meanwhile Australian Arthur Buchannan sent home his version:

Far from Gallipoli I want to be,
Where Turkish snipers can't snipe at me.
Think of me standing where Turkish creep.
Waiting for someone to sing me to sleep.

This single song sped round the world, riding on both the loveliness of its tune and the sharpness of its parody. Soldiers liked to adapt it, and to claim it as their own. Such authorship helped give autonomy to passive lives. And the song probably crossed No Man's Land too, for the 1902 original had also appeared as:

Sing mir dein Lied im Dämmerschein,
Gieb mir Vergessen aller Pein.
Lang ist der Tag, mein Herz so schwer
Wollt', daß mein Leid vorüber wär.

I'm still looking for German adaptations…