One Word War – the story behind the song

I remember just a couple of family stories about the First World War.

Grandad was in the medical corps, front line. He saw the worst of everything but refused to shoot back. There’s a silver cigarette case, swapped with a German officer during a brief lull in the fighting. There’s a bunch of letters his parents saved, but while they tell some interesting stories (an ambulance getting stuck in the mud on the way back to the front), they don’t say anything about what it was really like.

My great-great uncle was a crack shot, and designated sniper, according to my grandmother. She was his favourite niece, but only got him talking about the Great War once; his job was to shin up the skeletal remains of a tree and shoot anyone in the opposing trenches. “What if you saw a German sniper looking back at you?” He replied that it was the one who got his shots off first that lived. Can you imagine the stress, building day after day, year after year?

A while ago I was approached by the organiser of a major commemoration of the First World War slain. Did I have a World War One song? Well, umm, no, but that got me thinking….

I wanted to write from a personal perspective, real individual life rather than the usual ‘they went over the top and were slaughtered’ stuff. I had these two little pieces of story, but not much else. The few letters that have been passed down talk about what they had for Christmas dinner. But not the real, gory front line experiences.

So I struggled to get any more for the song I was writing.

And then it dawned on me. What the real theme / message was….

My grandad said it best, when his new darling wife asked about the war. Apparently he answered; “It was Hell. Absolute Hell. In fact, so bad, I’m never going to talk about it.”

And he never did.

One Word War is about how the experiences were so terrible, people came home but couldn’t talk about it. Carried it with them their whole lives and took it to the grave.

The Song

Imagine you are in a dugout behind the front line. Your companions are soldiers, just as exhausted as you. Someone starts playing a harmonica aimlessly. Then another strikes up, and it becomes a refrain. Then you sing a kind of a war poem (I have actually done this as a poem as well, and had people ask for copies and permission to perform it).

And it is only right at the end that as a listener you realise that the refrain isn’t made up, but a half remembered funeral march.

You can listen to One Word War (and buy the track if you would like to keep it while supporting the music) right here.

One Word War

The glint of the silver cigarette case
Exchanged with a man like me
A pause in the daily grime and blood
Then friend, back to enemy
Bodies in pain and pieces
You can’t guess who’ll live on
A bullet true or missing is
Just a toss of the devil’s coin

One shot – and heads or tails will fall
One word – about the terrible war
He would never say any more

Black and brass, barrel and bullets
Me job to pick off the Hun
In the sights a lad like me
One shot, and I’m alone
It could have been anyone given a gun
In trench or up skeleton tree
Nerves on edge, for years on end
Then home but never free

One shot – and heads or tails will fall
One word – about the terrible war
He would never say any more

We marched off under skies of blue
To foreign fields of green
Turned boggy brown, and bloody too
Now just a museum scene
Green grass came back while friends did not
Just young men sent to Hell
Now graves fill with silent stories
They would never tell

One shot – and heads or tails will fall
One word – about the terrible war
They would never say any more

The track is officially launched on 11th November, to coincide with Remembrance Day. But you can listen now.

Why wait?

About Nigel Parry Music

Described by a radio presenter as; 'one of the finest traditional folk artists in NZ', Nigel Parry's unique mix of singer / songwriter, traditional and early folk music relies heavily on his vocal arrangements. Hailing from the UK, he was originally a rock singer and turned to folk music through friends, historical events and real ale. Nigel now lives near Wellington and in the last 4 years has performed at folk events and music venues around New Zealand, festivals and live on radio and in the UK, France and Canada.
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