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The History of "Oh! What a Lovely War"

Updated on October 28, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent almost half a century working in radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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The poor, downtrodden infantrymen bore the brunt of the dumb decisions of generals who were far from the trenches and mud of Flanders battlefields. The feelings of many of the foot soldiers were summed up in the opening lines of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, The General:

“Good morning; good morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The Great War was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” Ten million died, 21 million were wounded, and seven million were missing in the futile effort to end conflicts.

Oh! What a Lovely War was a theatrical expression of the legitimate anger that developed over time for the utterly pointless slaughter.

The Death of Private Chilton

The genesis of the production can be found near the French town of Arras on March 21, 1918. It was the opening day of General Erich Ludendorff’s ultimately failed attempt to punch a hole in Allied lines.

One of the people briefly in the way of the German ambition was 19-year-old Private Charles Henry Chilton of the Sherwood Foresters. He was literally vaporized by a shell that exploded above him. The son he never saw, also named Charles, became a radio producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

In 1961, Charlie Chilton created a show called The Long, Long Trail to honour the father he never knew after finding his name on a monument in 1958. It was the story of the soldiers of the Great War told through the songs they sang in the trenches.

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

Rudyard Kipling.

The lines were written after Kipling’s son John, 18, was reported missing in action and never found in September 2015 during the Battle of Loos.

From Radio to Stage

The success of The Long, Long Trail led Chilton to Joan Littlewood who had formed the Theatre Workshop in London’s Theatre Royal. Together with the actors, they fashioned a stage version of the radio production.

Oh! What a Lovely War opened in London in March 1963 to critical acclaim. The cast were customed a Pierrot players, a common feature of seaside entertainment at the start of the 20th century. Each actor played several roles – generals, infantrymen, clergy, sufragettes, profiteers, politicians, etc.

As Pierrot pantomime performers, their aim was to contrast the “we’re all having a merry time” with the blood-curdling horror of the story line.

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Across the back of the stage the ghastly battle statistics were projected in a newsreel tape. Following the Battle of the Somme the numbers read “November ... Somme battle ends ... Total loss 1,332,000 men ... Gain Nil.”

And, the thread of the story passed through the poignant songs of the war.

The start is jolly and triumphal as the cast reflects the jubilation in the streets that greeted the declaration of war. Gradually, the play becomes more sombre. Towards the end, the soldiers go into battle bleating like sheep and there are lots of audience members reaching for something to dab at their teary eyes.

When this bloody war is over

No more soldiering for me

When I get my civvy clothes on

Oh how happy I will be

No more church parades on Sunday

No more putting in for leave

How I’ll miss the sergeant major

How his poor old heart will grieve.

Sung to the tune of “What a Friend we Have in Jesus.”

High Praise for Production

The show was groundbreaking in format and presentation.

Writing for The Telegraph Matthew Sweet noted that the Theatre Workshop “created something devastating. A barrage of sketches and musical numbers, conducted by a Master of Ceremonies who starts proceedings with a chilling promise: ‘We’ve got songs for you, a few battles and some jokes. I’ve got the whip to crack in case you don’t laugh.’ ”

The great historian A.J.P. Taylor saw the production and said it “does what the historians have failed to do,” and called it “a striking demonstration of what the war was about.”

Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that “… the songs grow more bitter; the lunatic Haig has taken command, and the dead are rotting in mountains, monuments to his unswerving conceit.”

Six years after its first theatrical performance, director Richard Attenborough brought the play to the screen. And, what a cast: Maggie Smith, Ian Holm, John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth Moore, Dirk Bogarde, Jack Hawkins, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Edward Fox, and Susannah York.

In the movie, the war is depicted as a new music hall attraction on the Brighton Amusement Pier. There is a shooting gallery, prizes, and a scoreboard tallying the grotesquely mounting body count along with the tiny amount of ground taken from the enemy.

Roger Ebert wrote of the film version of Oh! What a Lovely War that it “… is an elaborately staged tableau, a dazzling use of the camera to achieve essentially theatrical effects. And, judged on that basis, Richard Attenborough has given us a breathtaking evening.”

The lucky ones: wounded and taken prisoner.
The lucky ones: wounded and taken prisoner. | Source

Bonus Factoids

A program note from the original production of Oh! What a Lovely War comments “In 1960, an American Military Research Team fed all the facts of World War One into the computers they use to plan World War Three. They reached the conclusion that the 1914-18 war was impossible and couldn’t have happened. There could not have been so many blunders nor so many casualties. Will there be a computer left to analyse World War Three?”

The movie version was more realistic than the stage presentation and Joan Littlewood commented that “nobody died on my stage.”

In 2014, Britain’s Conservative Minister of Education, Michael Gove, called Oh! What a Lovely War “unpatriotic.”

Sources

  • “The Long, Long Trail.” Charlie Hilton, BBC, December 1961.
  • “Oh What a Lovely War: Why the Battle Still Rages.” Matthew Sweet, The Telegraph, February 1, 2014.
  • “Oh What a Lovely War: the Show that Shook Britain.” Michael Billington, The Guardian, February 17, 2014.
  • “Kenneth Tynan Review of Oh What a Lovely War.” The Observer, March 24, 1963.
  • “An Introduction to Oh What a Lovely War.” Michael Billington, British Library, September 7, 2017.
  • “Oh What a Lovely War.” Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert.com, October 30, 1969.

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    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 6 weeks ago from Tennessee

      Wars seem to always be lovely in this way.