Hinky-Dinky, Parlay-Voo

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Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlay-voo?
Mademoiselle from Armentières, parlay-voo?
Mademoiselle from Armentières,
She hasn’t been kissed in forty years,
Hinky-dinky, parlay-voo.

There were lots of Mademoiselles from Armentières that year, for the town was mostly rubble. The refugees walked with blistered feet and skins burning with scabies to wherever they could find shelter from the incessant rain. George watched them without emotion, the stupid lying words of the song beating away in his mind with the steady rattle of a machine-gun.
It was all lies and stupidity, that was why he was here in Flanders sleeping under a sheet of canvas, instead of at home in his wife’s bed. It was Edith’s fault.

After her brother was killed in action at Mons, every edition of the Daily Telegraph was slapped before him like a glove to a coward’s face.
‘Your deaths, engirt with loveliness, of simple service done in England’s name, shall shine like beacon stars of sacrifice,’ she read to him, her voice quavering, her eyes swelling up.
‘Well, that won’t bring Donald back,’ he said bitterly, and she reproached him for trying to take away her only comfort, as if it were his fault that Donald was dead. She believed in it all, the patriotic songs, the flags, the cheering.
George picked the newspaper up. The columns were filled with death notices now, the commissioned officers; the younger brothers of Scottish gentry; the grandsons of generals; gentlemen who saw service at Ladysmith, at Spion Kop, the Nile Expedition, the Sudan Expedition, who were mentioned in dispatches or received the D.S.O. Beside them marched the patient columns of NCOs and men of the Expeditionary Force. In the House of Commons there had been a spontaneous rendition of the National Anthem after the King’s Speech to Parliament. The grand old anthem rolled up to the roof, with the Labour Members singing and cheering and even the Irish Nationalists, with Mr. Redmond at their head, chiming in heroically.
There was an advertisement framed in the centre of the page:

Your King & Country Need You!
A CALL TO ARMS!
An addition of 100,000 men to His Majesty’s Regular Army is immediately necessary in the present grave National Emergency. Lord Kitchener is confident that this appeal will be at once responded to by all those who have the safety of our Empire at heart.
TERMS OF SERVICE: General Service for the period of the War only. Any man so enlisting will be discharged with all convenient speed as soon as the war is over.
Age of Enlistment between 19 and 30.
HOW TO JOIN: Full information can be obtained at any Post Office or Labour Exchange in the Kingdom or at any Military Barrack.
GOD SAVE THE KING.

He folded the newspaper and pushed it back at her.
‘I’m a gardener,’ he objected. ‘A market gardener. How can we win the war without food? Even the Army need cabbages and potatoes.’
Edith hugged the newspaper to her chest without a word, too angry to cry any more.
Although they were courting on a semi-official basis, walking out with her parents’ approval, he felt the ice of the family’s disdain every time he went round to her house. He hated it and for a time he refused to be cowed.
But in late 1914, they married in a simple ceremony, before he went to join his regiment. Edith had won. Her victory, or perhaps his military uniform, fired her passion. He had longed for her before, just as he longed now to turn the soil in his market garden. But he felt cold and cruel as he took her in his arms. If they conceived a child it was with no tenderness on his part.

III Corps were transported by sea and rail; the station sign read Hazebrouck. ‘It’s as flat as a witch’s tit’, Captain Lasenby had said, but Flanders was full of woodland that gave the enemy cover, and in their skirmishes they always seemed to George to be charging up a damned hill, the weight of his rifle and pack dragging him down.
For a while they manoeuvred in the soggy ground, in mud that wanted them to die so that it could suck them under. The authorities closed roads in bad weather, putting up signs: ‘Barrières fermeés’, but the officers ignored the signs and everyone ended up in a rutted quagmire. It seemed more effort was expended on maintaining roads than building defences. Then they dug in. Eventually the Western Front made a long black mud-filled wound that slashed amongst the burned and bombarded villages, across farmyards and fields and woodlands from Flanders down to the Vosges. A stinking wound whose black gangrene was knotted together with barbed wire, where men fell and their corpses bloated, a long corridor filled with rain and mud and sewage and rats.
Digging was something George was good at, whether graves, trenches, bunkers or the foundations for concrete emplacements. They soon realised he was better at digging than fighting. Whether he was up to his waist in foul water or digging pits for the corpses they managed to retrieve from beyond the wire, the stupid song revolved in his head like an endlessly revolving door. His spade churned up the soil in great soft wedges that thudded on the ground above the trench like dead men falling. They shored it up with duckboards and sandbags, but mud clung to every surface, drilled into by stair-rods of rain, it spattered their clothes and their faces. They inhaled it in clouds with the blood and flesh and smoke thrown up by the shells. Whizz-Bang.

The sergeant ought to take a bath, parlay-voo.
The sergeant ought to take a bath, parlay-voo.
If he changes his underwear
The Frogs will give him the Croix-de-Guerre,
Hinky-dinky, parlay-voo.

Even amongst the roaring explosions and the battering gunfire, George couldn’t get that stupid tune out of his head. There were marching songs and anthems, and the trench songs of varying filth, but that one stuck in his mind. When he thought of Edith the volume rose. Even when rain hammered down on the dugout roof so hard that the men had to shout to one another and could no longer even hear the firing, he still heard that wretched song. There were all the different versions and between them perhaps a hundred verses. They all played in his head, one after another, the jocose lines, the hideous lines, the obscene lines and the awful lines that wouldn’t scan. Whatever he was doing, whomever he was trying to kill, it was always under the torment of the cheerful tune and the vile words.

Three German Officers crossed the Rhine, parlay-voo
Three German Officers crossed the Rhine, parlay-voo
Three German Officers crossed the Rhine
To shag the women and drink the wine,
Hinky-dinky, parlay-voo.

George knew he must get out somehow. I must die or be seriously injured, he thought, to just get out of this hell, just to get away from that damned tune. In the end, the shell that killed Captain Lasenby took away half George’s right hand. He nearly bled to death, and then a fever set in.
The Sergeant eyed him as though he was swinging the lead.
‘We should send you over the top again and let Jerry finish the job.’
But George could not longer lift and fire his rifle; he could no longer dig; the missing fingers hurt worse than the rest of his body; and after languishing in a series of RAMC hospitals in northern France he was discharged home. Edith shuddered away from his maimed hand. He was thin and lank, his skin ugly with infection, his feet half-rotten. He had no uniform and no medals, and only his injury. But she made herself appear glad of his return.
He learned to dig left-handed, she with her pregnant belly stooping with increasing difficulty to do the more delicate tasks, planting out of seedlings, placing seed-potatoes, staking, tying, netting. The potato trenches reminded him of graves and the washing line reminded him of dead men hanging on barbed wire. The war went on without him and Edith’s head was still too full of the daily diet of flags and songs for her to understand: Why he would jump when a door slammed. Why he woke sweating in the night, listening to the smallest sound. Why the smell of the bleach in the Monday wash made him gag. He could not speak of it and retreated into a cold silence, with the horrible song in his head.
He became stronger, and his skin and his feet healed. The ugly red and purple scar on his hand became paler. But he had noticed the disgust buried in her calm expression. He hated her for it.
‘You think me a coward,’ he blurted out in the middle of the night, and it was all the worse for having to listen to her denials. The chorus drummed in his head, blaring every time he sank close to sleep and startling him awake. He wondered if he was insane.

Now seven months later all was well, parlay-voo,
Seven months later all was well, parlay-voo,
Seven months later all was well,
Eight months later she began to swell,
Hinky-dinky, parlay-voo.

Her cries of labour and the screams of his son were like the agonies of the wounded men who lay dying out of reach of the trench. But later they sat together beside the fireplace and he held the baby in a bundle of flannelette. The little eyes blinked open, gleaming. Innocent eyes, that had never seen horrors. Gently George unwrapped the bundle. The baby’s small red hand grasped at the loose cloth and then at his father’s tentative finger. Little hand that had never touched a weapon.
‘I want to name him after my brother,’ said Edith. ‘Donald.’
‘Donald,’ he repeated. ‘I’m glad. We’ll remember him always.’
His cold silence was melting and he knew he must begin to explain, even if it took the rest of their lives, one agony at a time. How the slamming door reminds him of the crump of a distant shell. How the noises in the night remind him of Germans digging in to their trench. How that reminds him of the night he killed a man, hand to hand in the confused muddy struggle, pushing the short blade in again and again for all it was worth, his fear obliterating even his wish to die, it was him or me, they had to pull me off him, he’s dead, they said, you can stop, it’s over. How in the grey dawn light he went back to see his enemy, and all the slashes he had made in him, and he was just a lad, and his eyes stung with tears to see that fair young face, its few wisps of beard that were bloodstained and had not made it through to adulthood. And hardest of all, to explain how that vile music permeated it all.

The fat little Prussian he went to hell, parlay-voo
The fat little Prussian he went to hell, parlay-voo
The fat little Prussian he went to hell,
He shagged the devil and his wife as well,
Hinky-dinky, parlay-voo.

Edith dried her eyes and reached out, and he put baby Donald into her arms. He took a deep breath.
‘I still love you,’ he said. ‘I know I don’t show it. I love you.’
She smiled down at their son and started to sing.

Lullaby and good night,
in the sky stars are bright…

Her voice was a tender contralto. The hideous song of war faded from his mind.

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Acknowledgements:

The Daily Telegraph is digitising all its editions from 1914 – 1918. These original hundred-year-old newspapers can be viewed on the Daily Telegraph website and downloaded in pdf form.
“The archive will grow into a fascinating record of how the First World War was reported, but the accounts of life on the home front – and of a world that was vanishing – are just as gripping.”
The illustrations on this webpage are from that source.

Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive is an online repository of over 7000 items of text, images, audio, and video for teaching, learning, and research. Amongst the war poetry is a selection of trench songs, not recommended for those who have refined sensibilities.

Story © 2015 chateauxenespagne.com

 

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