For this anthology I have selected stories that present some of the excitement, the confusion and dread, the pathos and even the humor in war and its aftermath, faced by soldiers throughout the generations. The title is in reference to an old barracks ballad that my father would occasionally recite and sometimes sing.
In 1877 William "Percy" French composed a humorous ballad that was destined to be sung in the barracks and foxholes of a multitude of wars. First performed at Trinity College in Dublin, the song quickly spread to the music halls of Great Britain and then across the Atlantic. Soon in the mess halls of the military academies, at far away military posts and in U.S.O. shows, the song seemed to always be a part of someone's repertoire. From the academy cadets, to the pilots up on the flight deck, many a soldier, sailor and aviator has heard some version of this song.
Originally entitled "Abdallah Bulbul Ameer," this mock saga describes a fight between Abdallah, a Turk, and Ivan Skivdar, a Russian; two heroes from opposite sides in a war. Both and yet neither, would prevail. Perhaps that is the attraction of this song for so many soldiers facing the dread and excitement, the glory and sacrifice, and sometimes the futility of waging a war.
Percy French's old ballad appears as the prologue for "Soldier's Song." Next, the first story, based on a true incident, tells the tale of a green-horn news correspondent who excitedly arrives at the front. Wryly crafted by Stephen Crane, "The Lone Charge of William B. Perkins," reveals that sometimes a single battle can profoundly change even an unintended participant.
There are times a son or daughter may be gifted with a story that soldiers are usually reluctant to share; the infamous military "snafu" that turns life upside down. "An Old Soldierís Story" is Jack London recalling his step-father's tale about the snafu that granted a soldier a furlough he dared not use after he'd raced for his life - back to the battlefront! Then the story "Mixed Signals" recounts how my father, a U.S. Marine pilot headed for Korea, discovered his assignment with a military photographer created a snafu that placed his photograph in two "hometown" newspapers - half a continent apart.
As War Correspondents, Jack London and other news reporters often viewed events with more insight than the public. "The Red Game of War," Jack Londonís dispatch which famously begins "War and rumours of war," is that seasoned war correspondentís jaded report to a nation hungry for war. Next, after their ship is sunk even before reaching the war zone, the men in "The Open Boat," the classic story by Stephen Crane, discover nature is the real enemy in their fight for survival. During America's Civil War, a young nurse, although versed in the arcane social mores of her time that assigned "mulatto", "contraband" and other categories to people of color, finds she was not prepared for the true face of that war in "The Brothers" by Louisa May Alcott. Then the forbidding mountains of Afghanistan become the backdrop when Rudyard Kipling weaves his eerie tale of "The Lost Legion," set in the time of horse-mounted soldiers with single-shot rifles; men who learned to think like the enemy.
Once the battles are over and the peace won, generations of soldiers have put away the sabers of war to quietly take on the mundane duties of civilian life and raising families. Oh, not that there can't still be a hair-raising moment or two, such as occurs in "Drive-in Banshees!" Then as the soldier eases back into life at home there is time to say thanks for the letters and packages sent from home and the copies of the home-town newspapers the soldiers shared among each other. "A Father's Letters" is but a small window into the thoughts of those back at home, thinking of their soldiers.
Lastly, just for fun, I have also included "Sergeant Gus and the Day of Joy," a proposal of how a military recruiter might answer protestors if so allowed.
These are not stories written by the soldier, but by those who follow the wars closely; the correspondents traveling with the troops, as well as the families back at home, carefully reading the dispatches and listening to the nightly news. And sometimes, just sometimes, being privy to a soldier singing that old ballad as a soldier's song.
- James Fox -
January 2011 Re-edited May 2016
In memory of my father.
- Semper Fi -
And to also honor my son and all who serve.
Our thoughts were about our son every day during his tour of duty in a war zone, half a world away. That our soldier also thought about home is evident from the bumper-sticker that he had placed on his military vehicle, as only a soldier would do,
- My Other Car Is 7,408 Miles Away -
- Abdallah Bulbul Ameer -
Attributed to Percy French *
Oh, the sons of the Prophet are hardy and grim
and quite unaccustomed to fear,
but none were so reckless of life or of limb,
as Abdallah Bubul Ameer.
When they wanted a man to encourage the van,
or to harass the foe in the rear,
or to storm a redoubt, they would always send out
for Abdallah Bulbul Ameer.
There are heroes in plenty and well known to fame,
in the army that's led by the Czar,
but none were so brave as a man by the name
of Ivan Potschjinski Skivdar.
He could imitate Toole, play both euchre and pool
and perform on the Spanish guitar,
in fact quite the cream of a' the Muscovite team
was Ivan Potschjinski Skivdar.
One morning the Russian had shouldered his gun,
then assumed his most truculent sneer
and was walking down town when he happened to run
into Abdallah Bulbul Ameer.
"Young man," said Bulbul, "can your life be so dull
that you're anxious to end your career?
For infidel know, you have trod on the toe
of Abdallah Bulbul Ameer.
Take your ultimate look upon sunshine and brook,
make your latest remarks on the war,
for I mean to imply that you're going to die,
Mister... Count Cask-o-whisky Cigar."
Said the Russian, "My friend your remarks
in the end would only be wasted I fear,
for you'll never survive to repeat them alive,
'The late'... Abdallah - Bulbul - Ameer."
Then the bold Mameluke drew his deadly chibouque
and shouted, "Il Allah! Akbar!"
And being intent upon slaughter he went
for Ivan Potschjinski Skivdar.
But just as his knife had abstracted the life,
(in fact he was shouting 'Huzzar',)
then he found he was stuck by that subtle Calmuck,
Count Ivan Potschjinski Skivdar.
The consul drove up in a Red Crescent fly
to give the survivor a cheer.
He arrived just in time to exchange a "Goodbye,"
with Abdallah Bulbul Ameer.
Sko'belev - the gen'ral - Prince Gorchakov too,
rode up on the Emperor's car,
But all they could do was cry "Daz v'dan-yu"
for Ivan Potschjinski Skivdar.
There's a grave where the waves of the blue Danube roll,
and on it, in characters clear,
is writ "Stranger remember to pray for the soul
of Abdallah Bulbul Ameer."
Yet a Muscovite maiden her vigil doth keep,
by the light of the true lover's star
and the name that she murmurs so oft in her sleep
is... Ivan - Potschjinski - Skivdar.
* The words and music as originally written by Percy French were fully researched during the early 1980's by the Irish tenor, Brendan O'Dowda. As "Bulbul Ameer" could be translated "The Nightingale Prince" and pot-scrubbing domestics at Trinity were "Skivvy Doers" it is very likely that French wrote this ballad as a parody of comic opera. However, as French failed to copyright his original, different variations of these lyrics were offered to the public over the decades. My father recalled the Turk's name as "Abdul, The Bulbul Ameer" whenever he recited this as a poem or sang it as a barracks ballad. That is the Turk's name as well in the collegiate song version from the "Scottish Studentsí Songbook" of 1897. Later in the variation sung by so many World War Two and Korean War soldiers like my dad, the Russian count was "Ivan Skavinski Skavar." Many soldiers also knew several additional verses which described the fearsome battle between the two foes in this enduring "soldier's song."