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It’s A Long Way to Tipperary: colonial troops and First World War music

 Tipperary scarf

A song sheet in the form of a scarf: “It’s a long way to Tipperary” © IWM (Q 70101)

Alexander MacGregor, a British officer who served with the Indian army, wrote about an interesting musical performance in his diary:

27 January 1915: Some time ago there was a big sing song at Fort Tanskyne, and one of the men brought down the house completely by getting up and singing in a regular shrill native chant “Tipperary” in Hindustani. But I am afraid “Bwa-kutcha Tipperary ko-hai” will not catch on at home as much as one might wish.

A  humorous aside, but the anecdote reveals the cultural encounters brought about by empire’s mobilisation in the war. Why were colonial troops singing the British standard ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’?

This song was an obscure music hall piece that gained extreme popularity during the First World War. Tenor John McCormack recorded a version in November 1914, and it was soon a central component of what young Guards subaltern and future Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, would name ‘the singing war’. The lyrics are consistently reminiscent of home and of returning from a faraway land – a universal desire on the part of soldiers nostalgia for the world they had left behind, expressed in the language and sound of civilian entertainment.

The geographical distance covered by the colonial troops was much further than that suggested in the song’s lyrics, but the accepted fact that military life involved travel allowed it to be representative for any number of journeys made: New Zealanders or Australians leaving home for Egypt or West Indians arriving in Folkestone. New Zealander Reginald Donald wrote home from his transport ship to Cairo, ‘At last, I am on my way to Tipperary’. Private John Gladstone of the British West Indies Regiment who spent time in London on leave wrote: ‘we used to sing of Tipperary and Piccadilly. It’s a long way to Tipperary but thank God I’ve reached it.’ Though the song was about leaving London, for this West Indian man, the Tipperary he sought was in fact the bright lights of Piccadilly and Leicester Square, emblematic of the ‘Mother Country’ he was fighting for.

Colonial troops were, in short, adapting and translating the song, sharing in the culture of Britain and her army. In The Times of 1 August 1917 there was an article about Maori troops in France and ‘Tipperary in New Guise’: ‘The tune you would know, but the words would be new to you, or at least seem so.’ British music permeated the shared spaces of its imperial troops. Those whom it reached wanted to participate in this culture by translating elements of it  into their own language, adaptations which allowed them to be both an imperial citizen and Indian or Maori.

‘Tipperary’ reveals the potential and reality of cultural exchange throughout the empire: sung across the globe, on ships in the Suez Canal or in the Channel, on marches in rural France, in English, Hindustani and Maori.

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