Short But Sweet: Recruiting Sergeant

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 1915. Image via Wikipedia.

Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.

At the moment, my advanced English class is in the middle of our discussion of All Quiet on the Western Front. One of my favorite parts of this unit is going into the historical context of the novel as well as sharing the poetry and songs that are of the era, are about the era, or are from another era but reflect the themes of the book.Yes, students aren’t the biggest fans of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” but it is relevant to WWI and will get stuck in your head for hours on end after listening to it (seriously, I was singing it all day on Friday). With that, I give you “Recruiting Sergeant”:

Recruiting Sergeant

(trad. arr by Great Big Sea and Fergus O’Byrne)

Two recruiting sergeants came to the CLB,
for the sons of the merchants, to join the Blue Puttees
So all the hands enlisted, five hundred young men
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

They crossed the broad Atlantic in the brave Florizel
And on the sands of Suvla, they entered into hell
And on those bloody beaches, the first of them fell
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

So it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Then the call came from London, for the last July drive
To the trenches with the regiment, prepare yourselves to die
The roll call next morning, just a handful survived.
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

And it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

The stone men on Water Street still cry for the day
When the pride of the city went marching away
A thousand men slaughtered, to hear the King say
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

And it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

So it’s over the mountains, and over the sea
Come brave Newfoundlanders and join the Blue Puttees
You’ll fight in Flanders, and at Galipoli
Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Enlist you Newfoundlanders and come follow me

Now, while the song is attributed to the author known as “traditional,” a little research reveals … well, not much beyond that it evolved from various traditional songs that go very far back (into the 1600s) and this particular version was adapted by the Newfoundland folk-rock band Great Big Sea, a band I’ve been a fan of since I first discovered them via MuchMusic and a friend’s CD collection in 1999. It didn’t help, by the way, that my maternal grandmother was from Newfoundland and I have the provincial flag of Newfoundland hanging in my classroom.

Anyway, a few years ago while doing research on the song’s subject matter, I came across a message board post that detailed quite a bit  including how the verses are about how many young men from Newfoundland were basically recruited to be cannon fodder:

The third verse deals with the Battle of Beaumont Hamel during which, at 8:45 am, on July 1, 1916, 800 Newfoundlanders went “over the top” of the trench into no-mans land and were promptly slaughtered. The battle ended within thirty minutes and, when roll call was taken the next morning, only 68 of the original 800 answered.  

This is actually pretty appropriate to where we are in the novel when we listen to the song because it’s right around chapter six, where Paul Baumer and his group are in the trenches and fight across No Man’s Land against the French, suffering heavy casualties to the point where only 32 of what were originally 150 men before the beginning of the novel survive. Plus, there is the tonal shift that happens between the verses and the chorus, which is reflected in the music, which is more somber and serious in those verses than in the chorus, which is a rousing sing-along. Of course, as I point out, the chorus is twinged with irony being that fighting at Flanders and Galipoli did not go well at all for the British military, especially those in territories such as Canada or Australia (I learned about Galipoli from watching Peter Weir’s film starring a young Mel Gibson).

So what you get is an historical illustration, a demonstration of tone and some irony, as well as how Remarque’s theme of the horrors of war and the damage it can do to a generation of young men is universal–in fact, our short class discussion on the song before we turned our attention back to chapters 5-6 of All Quiet on the Western Front  focused on how the same sentiments seem to be heard on both sides of the war, which led to a lot of us scratching our heads to find a justification for the war in itself (it really is hard to figure out a “noble” reason for the First World War because it’s all about political gamesmanship; World War II is a lot easier to justify because of Hitler). Plus, the song and the band are really awesome to begin with.

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