Paying respects to Willie McBride

Nov 5th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Odd things can become obsessions – like finding Private Willie McBride.

Since teenage years his name has been part of a personal remembrance of the horrific slaughter of the Great War.  Indulged by a long suffering family, two days of the summer holiday were spent on the Western Front, visiting site after site and cemetery after cemetery; Willie McBride was amongst those whom we sought

Perhaps the song The Green Fields of France, the words of which have echoed through the memory for more than thirty years, was not about a specific person, but if there was someone who matched the description, then it could be personalised.  Each year in November, snatches of the tune come back:

Well, how do you do, Private William McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile 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 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website gives three W. McBrides as dying in 1916, but one of those has no grave, his name being on the arch at Thiepval with over seventy thousand others, blown to pieces or disappeared in the mud.  The other two are in the cemetery at the little village of Authuille.

A simple memorial at the church of Authuille brought tears to the eyes.  It commemorated three Glasgow Pals battalions, the 15th (Glasgow Tramways), 16th (Boys’ Brigade) and 17th (Glasgow Commercials) battalions of the Highland Light Infantry.

The Boys’ Brigade! These soldiers were barely more than were kids.

The inscription reads:

From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign field – from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us – our dead men are asking us when we mean to erect that monument From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call – young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life’s threshold. Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?”

The wreath beneath it was from the Boys’ Brigade, ninety years on from their predecessors being cut down in their hundreds, they still come back to remember.

The cemetery is reached by a lane passing through people’s gardens.  It is a beautiful wooded valley and in August it was hard to believe that this place was once a vision of hell on Earth.

There were two William McBrides in this cemetery, the first, according to his gravestone was 21.  The second had no age, but there being no other Willie McBrides who died in 1916 and who now lay under the green fields of France, this, for me, would be Private William McBride at whose grave we could pause and ask questions.

I felt awkward having brought no wreath or flowers, not even a poppy, so Private William McBride, I hope you will accept my tears and few words instead.

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  1. the song is very heart warming i only heard it today at a special asembly now i want to know more

  2. I don’t believe the headstone pictured is of the correct Willie McBride and here is why; Song writer Eric Bogle did confirm that the 21 year old William McBride of Roan Armagh, was the inspiration for his song. However, even if he hadn’t, consider these facts. Bogle wrote a song based on a headstone he had seen at that cemetery (although he toured other WW1 cemeteries as well). The headstone pictured in your article is inscribed Private W. McBride along with his date of death. This grave could have been for a 35 year old soldier man named Wesley, Warren, or Walter McBride. Eric would not have known his first name was William – or his age – unless he spent time to research the information.. Back in 1976 when Bogle wrote the song, I question whether that information would have been readily available at the cemetery – and to non family members. And why would he ask for that information when there is another headstone in the Authuille cemetery that clearly belonged to a 21 year old William McBride. I believe Bogle took creative license which is why his Willie is just 19. It made Willie younger, and the song even sadder. I think it was only coincidence and through knowledge of recent research that we know the grave pictured of the other McBride in that cemetery happened to share the same first and last name, was 19 and both belonged to the same regiment. It just makes sense that Bogle would have been inspired by the William McBride whose name appeared on the headstone.

  3. Of course, it is not the grave of Private William McBride, he was a composite figure formed from impressions gathered by Bogle, and the piece states that this is a personal impression, as Bogle’s lyrics are a personal impression.

    The graveyard register, available at the gate of every cemetery would have told Bogle that the “W.” in “W. McBride” was “William.”

  4. You are right…your article does say that you chose this particular McBride as your Willie. I realize you wrote this article in 2009 before Eric Bogle confirmed that the grave that inspired the song belonged to the 21 year old William McBride from Roan Armagh that died in 1916. I came across a BBC article that has a video of that McBride family confirming the fact – along with a picture of that young man. No matter – all the men in those cemeteries are Willy – in one way or another ….as are all the men that are strewn across the fields of France, Belgium, etc with no markers or graves. oceans and continents separating tens of thousands of them from their country and their families – like my children’s great grandfather. It may be why those of us with our dead represented only by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, take such an interest in Willie’s grave.

  5. Odd as it may seem, William McBride having a grave at all was a piece of good fortune. Although there are hundreds of cemeteries and seemingly countless headstones, 55% of those who fought and died with the British army have no known grave. I think the proportion is even higher for those who served in the forces of other countries. At the French memorial at Verdun, the bones of 110,000 men are contained in the ossuary.

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