Willy McBride

Veterans remember in Dumbarton and Alexandria on Remembrance Sundays past and photographs of Dumbarton and Helensburgh men who served in the Dardanelles.  The final two pictures are of John Healey, from Helensburgh, who was killed in the Great War and Bill Heaney pictured with James Aitken in the town square at Ypres. 

By Bill Heaney

Green Fields of France: You must have a story about the First World War, or maybe even a photograph of one of your forebears who took part in it.

Sometimes, in books or documentaries about that era, the hostilities between 1914-18 are referred to as the Great War.

But it was far from “great” for those who took part in it, so many thousands upon thousands of whom were brutally slaughtered.

These brave heroes were later referred to as lions led by donkeys, young men such as Willy McBride, whose memorial ballad – also called The Green Fields of France – our folk singers still recall in music and song 100 years after the event.

Many of you will know and love this song, which was a great favourite in those halcyon days when there were folk clubs like the one run by Drew Moyes in the Dumbuck Hotel and the SNP Hall in Wallace Street.

In those early 1960s days, singers of the stature of the late, lamented Luke Kelly would come to Dumbarton to stir our Celtic blood.

A couple of pints and a few drams helped to heighten the patriotism, of course, and the audience, shock horror, were allowed to smoke and drink during the sessions.

These are the words of that great song which was written by Eric Bogle:

Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
And rest for a while in the warm summer sun
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done
And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
Well I hope you died quick
And I hope you died clean
Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drums slowly
Did they play the fife lowly
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
Did the band play the last post and chorus
Did the pipes play the flowers of the forest

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
And though you died back in 1916
To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

The sun 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 plough
No gas, 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 were butchered and damned

And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why they died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing and dying it was all done in vain
Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
And again, and again, and again, and again

I recall two large brown pennies on the mantelpiece of our house in Napier Crescent in Brucehill commemorating the death in that war of my grandmother’s brother, John Healey, of Hanover Street, Helensburgh.

She dusted and polished them slowly and lovingly along with all her fireside brasses, and she shed the occasional tear over them.

In the mid ‘Nineties I travelled to Ypres and the Somme with James Aitken, a veteran from Renton, who was at the time well on his way to his 100th birthday which he saw out at Erskine Hospital.

It was a time of huge poignancy, something I will never forget.

Jimmy was wonderful company as we visited the battlefields and beautifully cared for cemeteries “where the red poppies danced”.

He sang The Lord’s My Shepherd under the Mennen Gate, where the Ypres fire brigade assembles each evening to play The Last Post in tribute to the fallen of the First World War.

And, again, in Ypres Town Hall, in the war museum that is now part of it, he sang The Cameron Men for the mothers and children who had come to visit it and who couldn’t believe that they had met in person an actual survivor of the conflict so graphically depicted before them

James Aitken’s stories on that long journey through France and Belgium had me completely enthralled.

There are no survivors of that horrible war still with us, but we owe them so much, so very, very much.

In the morning and at the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

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