The Songs They Sang:  A World Full of Lies

By Ron Wanttaja

We stand beneath resounding rafters,
The walls around us are bare,
They echo back our laugher,
It seems like the dead are still there.

So stand to your glasses steady,
This world is a world full of lies
A toast to the dead already,
And hurrah for the next man to die!

"Stand to Your Glasses" is the archetypical World War I pilot song.  It's hard to tell how well it was originally known outside the ranks of the military, but when the hit movie "The Dawn Patrol" featured it in 1938, it became inextricably linked with military aviators.   Since the movie (starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and David Niven) set in a Royal Flying Corps Squadron, it became most connected with the RFC.  However, some report the song came from the Americans of the Lafayette Escadrille.

When pilots raise their glasses aloft and their voices in song, the tunes often look at death, or at the impression that they're forgotten by higher command.  Most of the time, though these looks are humorous...the dying pilot imploring his friends to remove engine parts from the various parts of his anatomy and reassemble it, the dreams of the "Army Air Corps Heaven," etc.  And references to the upper echelons usually depend on a rather vulgar term that rhymes with "brass."

But "Stand to Your Glasses" is different.  It's anything but light-hearted (the music is said to come from a funeral dirge written by Beethoven), and the lyrics are pure fatalism.  And one verse takes claims of abandonment to an even higher level:

Denied by the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the ones we hold dear,
The good have all gone before us,
And only the dull are still here

"Stand to Your Glasses" is that rarity... a song that claims that their country had abandoned them.  Or that their own families turned their backs.

Where the heck did that come from?

If you do research online, you'll be told that the song is adapted from "The Revel," a poem written by Captain Bartholomew Dowling in the mid 1800s. ever, the Internet is wrong.

Dr. Jonathan Lighter of University of Tennessee-Knoxville wrote an unpublished paper on the history of this song, and John Patrick, his researcher, forwarded a copy to me.  Dr. Lighter identifies the author as William Francis Thompson, a junior official in the Bengal Civil Service.  It was published in Calcutta in 1835.  Cry up Dowling as you will; Mr. Patrick sent me a copy of the magazine with Thompson's poem.  The title was "Indian Revelry," and presumably, it was written to mark a outbreak of fever killing many of the Englishmen in India in 1834/35.  "There’s many a hand that’s shaking, and many a cheek that’s sunk..." obviously refers to ravages of the disease.

At the time, India was controlled by the Honourable East India Company, a private corporation.  The amount of control the British government allowed “John Company” varied over the years, but often the Company had total control.  It operated the civil service, it even maintained armies and a navy.  It expanded its control on the Indian subcontinent through bribery and the point of a bayonet.  The Company's operations were (of course) controlled thousands of miles away, in England.  All policies were directed towards maximizing profit, which made life difficult for the far-off employees struggling to control millions of subject natives, most of them armed at least as well as the Company army.

The Company employees in India were isolated both from their own families (it took eight months for mail) and from the protections of their own government.  Could this be the source of, "Denied by the land that bore us" and "Betrayed by the ones we hold dear"?

It’s an attractive theory—but the two lines weren't part of the original poem.  Here's Thompson's version:

Cut off from the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the land we find...

Quite a bit different.  So...when did the lyrics change?  There were decades between the original composition and the pilot's ready rooms of WWI.  Plenty of opportunity for the lyrics to evolve before history's first combat aviators made their own modifications.

However, here's a tantalizing possibility:  The original name of the Lafayette Escadrille was "Escadrille Americaine."  But, prodded by Germany, the then-neutral US government protested.  France had to re-name the squadron.  "Denied by the land that bore us" might have been a logical reaction by the American pilots.

Over the following decades, there were always places the verse could still strike a chord.  Marine pilots in Nicaragua in the 1920s.  P-40 pilots fighting the forgotten war in the Aleutian Islands during WWII.  F-51 pilots sloshing across the PSP in Korea.   Or dodging flak over Vietnam as protest seethed back home. 

It's not unusual for a combat soldier, sailor, or airman to feel abandoned or forgotten, especially when casualties have been high.  Discussing such feelings provides a sense of catharsis...but of course, young men find it hard to talk about these things.  Instead, they sometimes use music to express what they can't otherwise say aloud.   Just like they might sing their joys and their hopes, they use music to share their fears and doubts—and to remember those who have gone before them.

We loop in the purple twilight,
We spin in the silvery dawn,
With a trail of smoke behind us,
To show where our comrades have gone.

So stand to your glasses steady,
This world is a world full of lies
Here’s a toast to the dead already,
...And hurrah for the next man to die!

For more Information:

Part 3:   Oh, You Saigon Girls!


Questions?  Email Ron Wanttaja .

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