If You Want To See The General


Jon says, “Learnt on FSC. As moving as any WW1 Song I’ve heard.” Simple, effective and timed to coincide with Armistice Day. I will say no more and let this speak for itself.



40 Responses to “If You Want To See The General”

  1. Maggie says:

    Powerful stuff and very well sung

  2. Carole Garland says:

    Ditto. Real magic, but the concertina playing deserves special mention. Love the spooky chords at the end.

  3. Oxford Trunkles says:

    Excellent choice. I have memories of learning this one in my youth as just says everything that needs to be said.

  4. Nick Passmore says:

    I much prefer this melancholy version to the grimly jolly one you usually hear. And, as already been observed, the great concertina part adds greatly to this mood.

  5. muzza says:

    Poignant….a childhood skipping tune taken to the trenches (the big ship sails down the alley alley o)

  6. Peter Walsh says:

    Actually listened at 11am and got a big lump in the throat. Well chosen and performed, Jon!

  7. Jane Ramsden says:

    I could have listened to this last night, but saved it til 11am today as seemed very fitting, only to be interrupted by O2 sending me 2 unsolicited text messages on my mobile! Have they no sensitivity or timing? But absolutely beautifully sung, Jon!

    I found this note from Susannes Folksong-Notizen auf Englisch in Henry’s Songbook, which I thought underscored the song itself:

    [1990:] Lyn Macdonald suggests that this song, originally critical of officers and NCOs, had the bitter final verse ‘The whole battalion … hanging on the old barbed wire’ added after the Battle of the Somme. Officers discouraged men from singing it on the march, but it nevertheless became widely known to British and (later) American troops. It stuck in the minds of such soldier-writers as J.B. Priestley, who considered ‘the best’ of the songs ‘sharply concerned with military life from the view-point of the disillusioned private’.

    Of the last line, Priestley added: ‘To this day I cannot listen to it unmoved. There is a flash of pure genius, entirely English, in that “old”, for it means that even the devilish enemy, that death-trap, the wire, has somehow been accepted, recognised and acknowledged almost with affection, by the deep rueful charity of this verse. I have looked through whole anthologies that said less to me.’

    Some continued to sing the song even during the Second World War, in which my father served, and my uncle lost a leg. It was my father’s explanation of ‘hanging on the old barbed wire’ that really made me understand what war was about, with absolute horror, as a child. And he was at pains to make me understand it was exactly the same for German soldiers as well as English, or any other nationality.

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    J B Priestley, of course, was born at 34 Manningham Road, Heaton -a stone’s throw from where I was born and near where I live now – which he described as an “ultra-respectable” suburb of Bradford.

    He was educated at Belle Vue Grammar School, my old school, which he left at sixteen to work from 1910 – 1914 as a junior clerk at Helm & Co., a wool firm in the Swan Arcade, already mentioned on AFSAD. As an old man he deplored the destruction by developers of Victorian buildings in Bradford such as the Swan Arcade, where he had his first job.

    Priestley served during the First World War in the 10th Battalion, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. He was wounded in 1916 by mortar fire. In his autobiography, Margin Released he is fiercely critical of the British Army and in particular of the officer class.

    @ Muzza. Yes, I used to sing ‘the big ship sails down the alley alley o’ and I think we had actions to it, like many of the children’s dancing and game songs in Alice Gomme’s book.

  9. John Bryson says:

    Poignant, powerful and very moving – the concertina adds so much to the song. Well done Jon and many thanks for choosing this song for today

  10. Jane Ramsden says:

    As coincidence would have it, I have just been listening to John Tams’ Definitive Collection (purchased when I saw him recently) which ends with his song ‘Scarecrow’:

    “Blame it on the fathers, blame it on the sons
    Blame it on the poppies and the pain
    Blame it on the generals, blame it on their guns
    Blame it on the scarecrow in the rain

    I see the barbed wire growing like a bramble on the land
    I see a farm turned to a fortress and a future turned to sand
    I see a meadow turn to mud and from it grows a hand
    Like a scarecrow that is fallen in the rain
    Blame it on the scarecrows…”

    But a quick search on YouTube also threw up 2 versions of this gem of him singing ‘Love Farewell.’ The first has old photos and drawings. The second is recent and has The Band and Bugle of The Rifles.



    And a link to his website mentions this song, which is being sold to raise money for the Help The Heroes charity ~


    Thank you, t’other Jon, for raising my awareness both musicially and socially today!

  11. Jane Ramsden says:

    And I can’t spell ‘musically’ either!

  12. […] If You Want To See The General. […]

  13. StephenH says:

    I agree that this melancholy version is very effective; but of course there is something to be said for the black-humour, bitter joviality of other versions (eg. Chumbawamba’s “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”) which one can imagine being sung by the troops. Priestley sums it up so well.

  14. Phil says:

    Joining in with the “jolly” version at a singaround is an unforgettable experience – in the last verse the suppressed anger of the earlier verses turns to suppressed tears, and you bellow all the louder. Sometimes something that sounds raucous and convivial can carry an awful lot of sadness.

  15. crossstitchgill says:

    I first heard this sung by Coope, Boyes and Simpson. Always enjoyed it and it is especially appropriate for today.

  16. fat prophet says:

    Great song -we will be singing this at the Crystal Folk club, Blackheath, West Midlands tonight (Friday)
    Heard it one and thought how good it would be to sing and when we tried it well it worked straight away so perhaps we are meant to sing it. Will be singing acapella so may not get it quite as evocative as you did but we will give it a good shot.

  17. muzza says:

    Jane..Thanks for the J Tam links …I can’t let this link close without putting in a word for those many brave officers that LEAD Tommy Atkins from the front and died with him.

  18. Hilary says:

    Hard to think of a better choice for the day. Thank you, Jon – what a perfectly judged performance too.

  19. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ crossstitchgill. Barry Coope, who I think has a stunning voice, was accompanying and singing with John Tams when I saw him recently at my local folk club. That is the Topic Folk Club, link attached below:


    The web site makes fascinating reading as it is superbly put together. The Topic claims to be the oldest folk club in the world – certainly the oldest continuously-operating weekly folk club. See History for evidence, and an impressive list of performers, worth scrolling through in its own right ~ Jake Thackery appearing with Swan Arcade, Peter Bellamy, Ann Briggs, Cyril Tawney, and there is anecdotal evidence that a young Bob Dylan might have made a floor-spot appearance once! The web site has gig lists from 1970, but does not go back as far as its inception in 1956. I wish I’d seen them all! When I saw John Tams, I think he said he hadn’t played the Topic for over 30 years!

    @ Muzza. Point well-made about frontline officers. I’m sending off for my Help the Heroes John Tams’ song.

  20. Brian Withstandley says:

    A great working class song. Sets you up with humour for that powerful emotional punch in the guts at the end. A perfect description of the cruel hierarchy of war. Thanks Jon.

  21. Jacki says:

    Hey, good to find soonmee who agrees with me. GMTA.

  22. Diana says:

    Not much I can add judging by all the previous comments. But very fitting especially on Armistice Day.

  23. alan says:

    This is one of many versions. I remember singing singing a vary similar song in the NAAFI in Borneo in the 60s.

  24. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    I was born in 1943. My Father, serving with The Royal Welch Fusiliers, saw me twice before being part of the Normandy Invasion in 1944. On Aug 16th, my Mothers birthday, he was driving a jeep, evacuating Allied and German wounded, when the vehicle ran over a mine. Everyone in the vehicle was killed.
    I did wonder what Jon would sing on this day, and this was absolutely spot on. Thank you.

  25. Diana says:

    My father was with REME and was trapped in France unable to reach Dunkirk. He was hidden by a French family until at last he was able to get back to England. He was invalided out of the army due to ill-health which plagued him for the rest of his life but at least he was alive unlike so many others.

  26. Linda says:

    Beautifully sung and very fitting.

  27. Jane Ramsden says:

    I love this song, on account of all the comments above as well as Jon’s singing. And I am so lucky to be seeing the other John (Tams) on the 25th of this month with Barry Coope (& also Roy Bailey, who I’ve never seen) for Raise Yer Banners in Bradford – yeh!

    @ John B: Very touching story about your father, which I’m sure strikes a chord with the experience of others. My father was in the airforce, thankfully came back and intact, or else no me, ‘cos I was born in 1953. My father wasn’t married until after the war, but my mother said I did actually have a ration book as a baby – just, as rationing finished at the end of ’53. I can share some of the poignancy your mother felt, John, about the date your father died as my father died on Nov 10th, my birthday. I always have double Remembrance Day on the 10th & 11th. Though my father didn’t die in the war, he didn’t reach old age. I am now older than he was when he died. A sobering thought!

    Here’s a link to The British Legion website. It’s their 90th anniversary this year & today we uniquely observed 2 minutes silence at!


    Off to buy some belated poppy appeal stuff! No-one had any wristbands left at all today to pair with my Help For Heroes one. Here’s a link to their site as well:


  28. plastikiniai langai…

    […]If You Want To See The General « A Folk Song A Day[…]…

  29. Muzza+ 1yr (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Spent most of yesterday watching WW1 footage on the ‘yesterday’ channel. I had this song in my mind all the time….Still can’t believe the trauma that soldiers/civilians go through during any war and the destruction…………..and we are still at it!……..

  30. Diana says:

    A sad and moving song. War is still with us although after Two World Wars when all believed that was the end of warfare it continues worse than ever. A missing word – peace.

  31. Linda says:

    been researching family history and have discovered that my Grandad fought on the Somme but survived to return home but his brother lost his life and is buried in France. Such a waste! Thanks for the song Jon beautifully sung.

  32. Jeremy Main says:

    When I was 13 I sourced the uniforms copied for the filming of OWALW.
    When I was 18 I wore the uniform and learned the song
    When I was 37 I joined the European military HQ
    When I was 57 our work was recognised as a big part of the Nobel Peace Prize
    One of my colleagues when I was 18 now heads NATO’s military.

    The military have learned. The politicians haven’t. We need some new verses.

  33. Jane Ramsden says:

    This will be a day late on the clock, but I thought it more apposite to post it here than under A Chat With Your Mother.

    Andy Turner posted this for Remembrance Day on his A Folk Song A Week site. T’is a poem by Thomas Hardy set by Billy Bragg to the tune of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest.’ Poignant photos too:


  34. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thank you, Muzza, for the birthday wishes yesterday. The easiest way for you to get to the latest song you are looking for is to click on Comments (RSS) below right. As long as s.o. (usually you!) has commented on the last day’s song, you will be able to navigate back and forth from that song. You will be able to see the latest comments, even to yours a few songs back, and so not miss owt! Lol.

  35. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    Thanks Janey …………I had been pressing ‘entries RSS’………now going right back up the comments list for this song to explore the links again (the joys of being retired!)..
    .Naughty really as I was going to tidy up the house so I could get into some of the rooms before Christmas!

  36. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Five years on….I still cant get into the rooms that I mentioned in the comment above!!!!!!….perhaps this Christmas!

  37. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    The actual Armistice Day was a MONDAY…….who’d have thought it.
    Raise a glass to all who lived and died through terrible war years..
    .(again I have to sigh and to say…Mankind is still at it…when will we ever learn!

  38. OldMuzza (NW Surrey UK) says:

    Just to correct a spelling error…J B Priestly was born at 34 Mannheim Road, Manningham,

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