The Songs They Sang: A World Full of Lies
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
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:
the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the ones we hold
The good have all gone before
And only the dull are still
"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.
And...as 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unpublished paper on the history of this song, and John Patrick,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
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
It’s an attractive theory—but the two lines weren't part of the
original poem. Here's Thompson's version:
from the land that bore us,
Betrayed by the land we
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
in the purple twilight,
We spin in the silvery dawn,
With a trail of smoke behind
To show where our comrades
So stand to your glasses
This world is a world full of
Here’s a toast to the dead
...And hurrah for the next man
For more Information:
- Listen to "Stand to Your Glasses" from "The Dawn
Jonas has recorded the song, although more of a
"country-western" version. You can listen to an excerpt
for free or download it for a buck on Amazon.com.
Oh, You Saigon Girls!
Questions? Email Ron Wanttaja .
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