Verses from the First World War: poets against profiteering

Author: 

Janine Booth

As the First World War progressed, working-class people became more aware, and resentful, of those profiteering from their suffering. While men were wounded and died in the trenches, and men, women and children at home suffered appalling poverty, capitalists saw the war as an opportunity to make money. Poets addressed this with anger, mockery and wit. The three poems here were all published by anti-war labour movement newspaper The Herald a century ago in 1916.

Writing from ‘Somewhere in France’, Private A.W. Dawson introduced his poem by quoting a corporal of the Royal West Kents: “Ah! My boy, there’s blokes at home making money out of this business. They don’t want it to stop.” Dawson used a poetic form originating in the country in which he was fighting. A “ballade” (not the same thing as a ballad!) is a medieval and Renaissance French “forme fixe” — three eight-line stanzas followed by a final, four-line “envoi”, each with the same last line (the refrain). Traditionally, the envoi addresses a prince; Private Dawson’s addresses his corporal. The Herald published this poem on 30 September 1916.

Ballade of Merchant Princes

The Johnsons* and the whizz-bangs* fly,
The air is thick with dust and smoke;
Above the woods the summer sky
Laughs at the Devil’s ghastly joke,
I think of comfortable folk
Who in the City cut a dash;
Ah, me! That fat and pursy bloke
Who shouts “Hooray!” and draws the cash.

If any kingly power on high
Could hear our prayers as we invoke
His aid, with blood and blasphemy,
Would he withhold the lightning stroke?
Would not his lightnings rive the oak
And raze the forest with a crash?
Nay, rather, they should strike the bloke
Who shouts “Hooray!” and draws the cash.

Whether for him the freights are high,
Whether he deals in coal or coke,
His yellow goblins will not fly,
Nor will he “in the wars be broke.”
It is not ours to grouse and croak,
Our business is to smite and smash;
But someone ought to watch the bloke
Who shouts “Hooray!” and draws the cash.

Say, Corp’ral, chuck a chum a smoke
Or I’ll be writing something rash
About that baroneted bloke
Who shouts “Hooray!” and draws the cash.

* Johnson (derived from US heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson) was the British nickname for a heavy, black German 15-cm artillery shell. Whizz-bangs were shells from German 77mm field guns.

M B (Maurice Benington) Reckitt was a guild socialist and one of the founders of the National Guilds League in 1915. Later in life, he wrote extensively on Christian Socialism, and the MB Reckitt Trust continues to fund projects concerned with Christian social action. His poem, written in his native Yorkshire vernacular and published on 8 July, is a satirical response to Billy Hughes, Labor Prime Minister of Australia (later National Party Prime Minister after Labor expelled him for attempting to introduce conscription for overseas military service). Hughes had told French daily newspaper Le Matin, “All our sacrifices in the war will be in vain if we leave to Germany the means of recommencing the commercial war”, and made similar calls while visiting troops in France.

The War To End War — New Style

“We’ve ‘ad a perlitical bloke down ‘ere of a most particular kind,
‘E was a Practical Man, ‘e ses, an’ ‘e spoke ‘is practical mind;
An’ ‘e said, ‘Yer may lay the enemy out an’ make no end of a splash,
But wot’s the use of layin’ ‘im out if yer don’t lay ‘old of the cash?’

“Well, we none of us came out ‘ere for cash, but simply to do our bit.
But when we started explainin’ to ‘im, ‘e pretty near ‘ad a fit;
‘You’re splendid fightin’ men,’ ‘e said, ‘an’ a credit to England’s flag;
But wot’s the good of fightin’ at all if you don’t get away with the swag?’

“An ‘e said, ‘You was unprepared for war, an’ for peace it will be the same’;
But we answered, ‘Soldierin’ isn’t our job, but we’re learnin’ the rules o’ the game,
An’ now that we’ve got our ‘and in’ — But ‘e larfed at us louder still —
‘Wot are you getting’ your ‘and in for if yer don’t get it into the till?’

“Then ‘e told us as ‘ow the blood an’ the mud and’ the ‘ellish kind of a strain
O’ sticking’ out this blinkin’ war would all of it be in vain
Unless while we was chargin’ the foe an’ gettin’ ‘im on the run
The blokes at home what collar the ‘oof ‘ad collared the trade o’ the ‘Un.

“Well, we was jest abart fed up then, an’ we told ‘im to go to ‘ell,
Or stop out here like us for a bit — which ‘ud do pretty near as well.
We never though much of perlitical chaps, but this particular bloke —
A Practical Man? We don’t think; ‘e’s a b….. bad practical joke!”

Albert Grieve’s poem was published on 9 September 1916. He also uses a refrain line, “Human life is cheap to-day”, and like Dawson’s, could be set to music. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out any definite information about Albert, although there were several soldiers of that name.

Profit and Loss (A Song of the Profiteers)

Not of the fools am I who say
That war is waste and cannot pay.
Dear is grain, but I don’t complain,
And human life is cheap to-day.

Why must these wage-slaves grumble, pray?
No sacrifice too great, I say.
Our purpose one is to crush the Hun,
For human life is cheap to-day.

To it, my soldiers! Win the day,
And steal the Teutons’ trade away
The land I feed, and you may bleed,
For human life is cheap to-day.

(Chorus).
War is waste the cranks have said;
We gamble in ships, and coal, and bread,
And this is the burden of our lay;
Human life is cheap to-day.