In his fourth and final article on little known texts published for young readers during the Great War, Geoff Fox introduces a collection of nursery rhymes reworked for war-time readers – and is surprised to find the British Library has been looking at it too.
Some years ago, I picked up a tattered copy of War-Time Nursery Rhymes for £3 on a second-hand bookstall. Since then, I had never seen any reference to it until, as I prepared this article, I discovered that the British Library produced a new edition in August this year – the first since its original publication by George Routledge & Sons in 1918; interested BfK readers could readily buy a copy for £7.99.
Nina Macdonald is best known for one poem from this collection, ‘Sing a Song of War-Time’, which Catherine Reilly included in her excellent Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War (Virago, 1981). The poem opens:
Sing a song of War-time,
Soldiers marching by,
Crowds of people standing,
Waving them “Good-bye.”
Its concluding stanzas read:
Mummie does the house-work,
Can’t get any maid,
Gone to make munitions,
‘Cause they’re better paid,
Nurse is always busy,
Never time to play,
Sewing shirts for soldiers,
Nearly ev’ry day.
Ev’ry body’s doing
Something for the War
Girls are doing things
They’ve never done before,
Go as ‘bus conductors,
Drive a car or van,
All the world is topsy-turvy
Since the War began.
Macdonald’s intention was not only to amuse her young readers, but also to strengthen their patriotic resolve, despite the daily hardships faced by little ‘Archie’, the speaker in Sing a Song of War-Time (‘Haven’t any money / Can’t buy any toys’). Her purposes are reflected in the ‘Forewords’ of George R Sims – familiar to potential buyers of the collection through his journalism, novels and plays as well as his reputation as a sportsman and bon viveur. His introduction suggests war-time attitudes which may well surprise us, a hundred years on.
The world has been making history while the little ones of our land have, under Providence and the British Navy, been saved from seeing its pages written red before their eyes. More fortunate than the little ones of Belgium and Northern France, they have not been brought face to face with the horror and havoc wrought by invading hordes. But their fathers and their elder brothers have gone forth to battle, and so the tragic note of war has been brought into the nurseries and playrooms of the rising generation.
It was inevitable that the children should become familiar with certain features of the war. They see the khaki and the blue, they see our blinded and disabled heroes, they hear the guns, they see the aircraft, they are hurried to places of safety when there is a raid, and they know the meaning of ‘Take cover’ and ‘All clear.’
There can, therefore, be no possible objection to dealing, from the nursery rhyme point of view, with certain conditions brought about by the war. It is good that certain facts of the war should be impressed upon the mind of childhood, and there is no better means of impressing them than by the nursery rhyme. The facts dealt with in nursery rhyme remain with us from our childhood to our old age.
Most of the nursery rhymes Macdonald takes as her starting-points are as familiar today as they were in 1918. Her reworking of The House that Jack Built closely follows the 18th century original in both content and form, building through six accumulating stanzas to this penultimate verse:
This is the cock that crowed in the morn,
To wake the priest all shaven and shorn,
To marry the maiden, sweet and true,
To the man she loved in navy-blue,
That fired the gun,
That killed the Hun,
That dropped the bomb,
That fell on the house that Jack built.
A choral reading of this poem would surely make its impact in assemblies in the many primary schools currently working on the Great War; this is the kind of unequivocal message their great-grandparents might have heard as children during the War, long before notions of ‘futility’ and ‘waste’ became widespread.
Many of the pastiches – that seems to be a fair description of these verses – borrow the original rhymes of their models, though Macdonald certainly didn’t find ‘lion’ rhyming with ‘smile on’ in any contemporary version of There Was a Little Man …
There was a little Hun
And he had a little gun
And his bullets were made of lead, lead, lead;
He found a great big lion
Sleeping calmly, with a smile on,
And he shot it, till he thought the lion dead, dead, dead …
From our perspective, the intended humour of Macdonald’s verses might seem surprisingly graphic:
Three blind mice,
Three blind mice,
Singing a song,
They all got hit by a German gun
While crossing a field, just outside Verdun,
They don’t care a bit, for they still can run,
These three blind mice.
Again, when the speaker complains Tommy’s So Long at the War, her disappointments are specific:
He promised to bring me some things from the trenches
Some shells and some bullets, not full ones, but empties
And buttons and things from the coats of the Frenchies,
And anything else that he saw.
From milk-maid to V.A.D. might seem a tricky transformation, but Macdonald is undeterred:
“Where are you going to, my pretty maid?”
“I’m going a-nursing, Sir,” she said.
“Whom are you nursing, my pretty maid?”
“The wounded soldiers, Sir,” she said.
“Where do they come from, my pretty maid?”
“Straight from the trenches, Sir,” she said.
“May I come with you, my pretty maid?”
“If you’re a doctor, Sir,” she said.
“I’m a doctor in need of a wife,” he said,
“Say, will you marry me, dear little maid?”
“If you’re kind to me, Sir, I should like to be wed,
And we’ll both nurse the soldiers together,” she said.
The Kaiser is often cast as the villain of the piece – just as he was in war-time comic-papers:
I do not like you Kaiser Bill,
The deeds you do, the blood you spill …
Willy was a German,
Willy was a thief,
Willy came to my land, and caused a deal of grief …
Macdonald’s Little Miss Muffet has a naivety which is reinforced by the image provided by the book’s illustrators, L. Grace Arnold and Irene B. Arnold.
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
All on a Summer’s day,
When a bomb (‘twas a dud)
Came down with a thud,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
A collection of rhymes would be incomplete without an alphabet poem. Respect for the High Command – and ‘our horses’ – remains steadfast in 1918:
A is for Anzac, for Allies and Admirals.
B’s the Belief which we have in our Generals.
C’s for the Captains, commanding our Forces,
D’s for the Daring, displayed by our horses.
The optimism of the closing page reflects the book’s 1918 publication:
One two, What shall we do?
Three, four, Go to War
culminates in –
Seventeen, eighteen, War abating;
1920, PEACE – AND PLENTY.
The British Library has preferred to redesign the book, rather than publish a facsimile. Their hardback edition measures 150mm x 114mm, while the 1918 paperback is 181mm x 124mm. The covers carry very different messages: while the back of the original depicts a cheery, square-jawed naval officer enjoying a steaming cup of Fry’s Pure Breakfast Cocoa, the Library’s edition offers information for the bookshop browser. The title page is simplified, the illustrators unmentioned. By way of variety, occasional pages of grey paper are deployed, requiring white typeface. The Library’s publicity mentions ‘these amusing, satirical twists on classic nursery rhymes’. Satire? Aimed at what targets? For which audience? Even now, young children don’t do satire – and surely not in 1918 when many had seen Zeppelins ghosting through the night sky, or lost a father, brother or sister at the Front. In the street, they might meet service-men maimed for life; and they were themselves regularly reminded to do their bit. The Library’s probable readership is adult, for as they justly claim, the book will make ‘an ideal gift for WWI history enthusiasts as well as children’s books collectors’; despite the loss of the period feel, the book is an attractive production in its own right.
My old copy might be classed as ‘Fair’ by a dealer. Covers going a bit, but the contents clean, no foxing. One reason for its survival is the resilient thread stitching visible in the centre-fold; and perhaps there’s another clue in its hand-written inscription, ‘Cooky, from M.B.P., Christmas 1918’. Maybe it lay safe, carefully preserved or simply ignored, on its shelf below stairs.
Geoff Fox taught in schools and universities and abroad. He has written extensively about literature and drama, including reviewing regularly for Books for Keeps. With Kate Agnew, Geoff wrote Children at War (Continuum, 2001).
Wartime Nursery Rhymes, Nina Macdonald, British Library Publishing, 80pp, 9780712357364, £7.99, hbk.
Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, Catherine Reilly, Virago, 978-1844082254, £9.99 pbk