I don't want to be a soldier...

THERE'S a hymn - well, a sort of hymn - that I'd like to share with you. It's sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers, and it goes like this..

THERE'S a hymn - well, a sort of hymn - that I'd like to share with you. It's sung to the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers, and it goes like this:

Forward Joe Soap's army, marching without fear,

With our old commander safely in the rear.

He boasts and skites from morn till night


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And thinks he's very brave,

But the men who really did the job are dead and in their grave.

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No, I don't know what "skite" means either, but I think you get the drift. It's one of the cleaner, but more direct, songs from a show you can catch for another week at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester.

Oh What a Lovely War has been in the nation's theatrical consciousness ever since Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop first put it together in 1963. But it's still quite a remarkable show to stage in a garrison town, if you think about it.

I don't quite accept the familiar description of it as "a hard-hitting satire on the folly of war". For me it's rather a soft-hitting satire - or, as I said in my Evening Star review on Monday, "stronger on entertainment than horror".

Still, it's kept me thinking (and humming the tunes) ever since I saw it, and you can't really ask more than that of an evening's theatre.

There is an insidious movement afoot these days to discredit the received view of the First World War.

The argument put forward in a couple of recent books, and a few websites, is that:

the war was not folly, but necessary;

the generals were not at fault for the carnage of the Western Front;

the war of attrition in France was appropriate military tactics;

the casualties were not unduly high;

life in the trenches was not that bad - in fact, most of the soldiers enjoyed it (at least the working-class ones).

According to this view, the common conception of the war as muddy, bloody hell is derived from a few middle-class poets who weren't popular at the time, chiefly Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

This is not just a foul slur on the working class. It is as pernicious and dangerous a piece of revisionism as the pretence that the Holocaust didn't happen or was exaggerated.

It is true that Owen and Sassoon are the most moving and effective writers about the Great War. But then, unlike the revisionists, they were there.

Now consider just a few of the facts and figures.

Between 1914 and 1918 around 65million men were sent to fight, of whom about 8.6m were known to be killed and almost another 8m listed as "missing". (What exactly became of them, do you think?)

Among those who survived, around a third were wounded badly enough to be listed as "casualties". Millions were permanently disabled, including 240,000 Britons who lost limbs.

This country was not as badly effected as some other countries. Out of a total population of 46m (including women, children and the elderly), Britain mobilised 8,904,467, of whom roughly a million died, with over 2m listed as wounded.

None of which takes account of the psychological effect on those who survived, or those who lost loved ones.

Walk into any church anywhere in Europe and you are almost certain to find a list of Great War victims. In some small villages the lists are horrifyingly long; often family names repeat with chilling frequency.

All this may be history - but it is not as long ago as all that. I am old enough to have interviewed, for a local paper golden wedding report, an old man who still trembled and wept when telling me of his experiences on the Western Front.

The people whose world was shattered, and many of whose lives were taken, by the Great War were ordinary people like you and me. It is in bringing that simple fact home that Oh What a Lovely War probably works best.

The collective and sustained shock of the war, and its sheer scale, earned it the title of The War to End All Wars.

It took just 21 years for that title to be made nonsense. But the message should still be with us.

And no revisionist historian, no military "thinker", and no government should ever be allowed to take it away.

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