The Green Fields of France

It’s coming up to Remembrance Day, a day that always moves me. I won’t delve into the reasons here. They’re nothing unusual or special. I’m typical of my generation, brought up at a time when my parents, and those of all my friends, had experienced the Second World War.

I support the British Legion and the Poppy Appeal. I have always made a point of donating, and I do wear my poppy with pride. This year, however, the Legion has saddened me with a crass error of judgement.

The official Poppy Appeal Single is by Joss Stone. It is a rendition of Eric Bogle’s painfully poignant “Green Fields of France”. I remember the first time I heard the original. I was driving and reached my destination before the song finished. I didn’t get out, but listened, transfixed by the beautiful music and the heartbreaking lyrics, delivered with quiet anger by Bogle. At the end I was nearly in tears. I love the song, but I still find it difficult to listen to.

Joss Stone’s version is also far from easy listening, but in a very different way. Where Bogle’s treatment of his song was simple, restrained and devastatingly effective, Stone’s is histrionic and over-produced; rather than conveying an overwhelming sense of tragedy it is simply an overwrought travesty. The mess is compounded by a clumsy, entirely inappropriate rock guitar solo by Jeff Beck.

This would be bad enough, but the truly dreadful aspect of the single is the decision to use only the first one and a half verses out of Bogle’s four (as marked in the illustration of the lyrics). That frees up space for Beck’s self-indulgence, but it guts the song of its message. GFoF

Bogle moves from musing on the fate of the individual, teenage soldier to the millions more who died in the same war, and the millions more who died in the following wars.

For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Cutting the last half of the song is a dreadful artistic and political mistake. I hesitate to use the word “political”, but Bogle’s song is unquestionably political, in a quiet sense. Removing its message does not just turn a powerful piece of art into a disposable trinket; it implicitly offers a counter message, that Bogle was wrong, that the deaths were not in vain.

That is a valid argument, though it is not one with which I have much truck. I am prepared to concede that the First World War had to be won once it started, but I also believe that the politicians were negligent in their indifference to the likelihood of war and its consequences. The British politicians were far from being the most culpable and they did want to avoid war. It’s just that they didn’t want that badly enough to ensure that Willie McBride and his contemporaries wouldn’t have to die.

Quiet anger is entirely appropriate, along with respect and gratitude to those who served and fell. Bogle’s song is in accord with that sentiment. If Joss Stone and the British Legion did not believe that the last two verses of The Green Fields of France matched their vision of Remembrance Day then they should have chosen another song, rather than bowdlerising the original.

Stripping Bogle’s song of its final two verses is like performing Romeo and Juliet without the last act, on the grounds that its a downer of a conclusion to a great love story.

Perhaps Bogle’s Green Fields of France isn’t art on the same level as Shakespeare, but it is an important work of genuine quality, with the ability to stir deep emotion. It deserves better than Joss Stone’s dreadful treatment. The British Legion should know better.


A soldier’s letter home – with a difference

Today I received this remarkable clip from Dundee’s Evening Telegraph in 1945. It came from a writer who is working on a book about my father’s regiment. It is based on a letter from my father to his parents describing his visit to the Royal Palace in Oslo. 15 ordinary servicemen were selected from the Allied forces in Norway and my 21 year old father was picked.

I can just picture my grandmother rushing down to the newspaper offices with the letter! She must have been bursting with pride.

It’s not easy to read the image, so I’ve transcribed the article below.

Dad in the Tully

There are a couple of minor mistakes in the article. Firstly, Dad arrived in Norway on VE Day itself, when there was considerable nervousness about whether they would meet opposition from the German forces. The second mistake is the article saying that Dad volunteered for Airborne duty on his return from the Italian front. He joined a glider artillery regiment after finishing his training and served with them in North Africa and Italy.

The letter home is fascinating and it gives a glimpse of a very assured, mature and articulate young man, which is probably why he was chosen for this honour.

Had tea with King Haakon – Dundee soldier describes his visit to Norway’s Royal Palace

A Dundee lad has had tea with King Haakon in the Palace.

He is Lance Bombardier RK Christie, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, elder son of Mr and Mrs RK Christie, 41 Waverley Terrace, Dundee.

He went to Norway two days after VE Day and the description of his palace visit was contained in a letter home this week in which he writes:-

“757 Christie, RK, Ma Christie’s boy was invited to tea with His Majesty King Haakon the Seventh of Norway.

I had flown back from Oslo late Monday night. Next morning I was in the MT class when a detail came from the office telling me that I was to be presented to King Haakon the next day, Wednesday. I fell out, pressed my best suit, packed my kit and was whisked off to the airport at Sola.

There my authority of air travel awaited me, and off I bowled in a Dakota to Oslo. The trip was the fastest I have done to Oslo so far.

For the first time the weather was good enough to take the direct route over the mountains. Bleak, bare and snow-flecked they offered little chance on a forced landing. But an hour and a quarter saw us safely at Fornebu, the Oslo airport. A jeep was waiting to take me to Allied HQ where they provided me with a a billet and instructed me to report back at 0900 next morning.

By this time it was 8pm so when I got to the billet I cleaned up and had supper at the Allied Forces Club, a large restaurant requisitioned by the Norwegian Government for us and our girls.

Next morning I was told I was free until 4:30pm when I had to be ready to go up to the Royal Palace. So I buzzed off to see some more of Oslo, a town that I like very much.”

Party of 15

“Four-thirty came and I reported back to HQ and found that I was one of a party of 15 Allied servicemen being presented to the King. Three Airborne, two RN, two RAF, one USN and seven US Army. We were to have tea there too. Eyes lit up! The big scoff.

All very informal. Our orders were to get into the staff cars provided, drive up to the front door and ask for the King. We did so. On the way I discovered I had put my eating irons (knife, fork and spoon to you) in my hip pocket as usual.

The King’s British ADC took us in and we clumped up stairs at the head of which King Haakon and the Crown Prince Olaf were waiting. We shook hands with each in turn. When the last had been introduced the King grinned and said “Let’s have a cup of tea”. The motion was passed unanimously.

We adjourned to a room the size of the Morgan gym. And there it was, da grub. The King waved his hand, said words amounting to “dig in” and I was there first; yes, as usual!

There were smørrebrød (sandwiches without a lid, unlike NAAFI which have no centre), buns, tarts, slab cake, cream cake, pastries and sponges. Neither the occasion nor the location blunted my appetite. I had a darn good meal.

The conversation went very easily, in fact we were very much at our ease the whole time.

After tea the Royal cigarettes were produced, complete with the Royal cipher. Very nice too. We sat and talked for some time after that until an equerry got up and went round to the King. He spoke to him and then the King got up. We followed suit and the Crown Prince and he came round and shook hands again. And that was that.

We breezed out after an hour and three quarters in the Palace.

That’s it Mom, and the date was Wednesday 11th. There is one thing more. When I went to Buckingham Palace you chewed me up because I didn’t notice what the Queen was wearing. This time I did remember. The King wore naval uniform and the Crown Prince, service dress.”

Was at Arnhem

The tone of his letter suggests that this episode will stand out in the memory of Robbie (as he is known at home). But it will have for company other interesting experiences.

A Morgan former pupil, Robbie was a student librarian in Edinburgh Public Library for a year before being called up to the Royal Artillery in November 1942. He served in Africa and Italy and on returning home volunteered for Airborne. He was one of those who took part at Arnhem and was in the Arnhem parade at Buckingham Palace.

Although not amongst those officially presented to the King, he did not go unnoticed. He and three others at the back of the hall sneaked forward when their friends were being presented with medals, and when walking around afterwards the Queen told Robbie and his pals that she had seen their dodge.

Robbie’s father served in the Dundee Field Artillery in the last war and from its formation until 1939 was Company Sergeant Major in Searchlight Company, Royal Engineers (Territorial). He served with the same battery in this war until discharged unfit.

His mother is probably best known as Mrs Dorothy Christie of the Dundee School of Music.