Have you ever wondered if a favorite song of yours had a basis in fact?
In the song “The Green Fields of France,” the narrator reflects upon the grave of Willie McBride, a young man who died as a soldier in World War I. In one verse, he asks Willie:
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane
In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?
As family historians, we hate to leave photos of relatives unidentified. The more that I have played the song, the more I have wondered if there was a real Willie McBride—and I finally decided to do something about it.
I confess that I only discovered this song long after it was written, when I started listening to the Dropkick Murphys in about 2008. It was originally titled “No Man’s Land,” written in 1976 by the Scottish-born Australian folk singer Eric Bogle. Many other anti-war folk songs were written in the 1960s and ‘70s, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”(1961), “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), “One Tin Soldier” (1969), and “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” (1974). I remember singing some of them as a child during school Memorial Day programs. Like those songs, “The Green Fields of France” has a tender and sad story.
The real Willie McBride can be found buried in Authuille Military Cemetery , in the Somme region of France. County Armagh historian Trevor Geary researched Willie’s life, but found a discrepancy—he was 21, not “only 19” as stated in the song. However, Geary verified with the song’s writer, Bogle, that the William McBride who was a member of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and who died 22 April 1916, was indeed the man he wrote about.
Willie McBride was the son of Joseph and Nicholina “Lina” (McBride) McBride, born 23 September 1895 at Rathcarbry, Co. Armagh, Ireland (now Northern Ireland).1 His parents were married 22 March 1888 at the Parish of Keady.2 Joseph, a farmer, was the son of George McBride, and Lina was the daughter of Thomas McBride—both of whom were also farmers.
Digging deeper, I found the family living in Rathcarbery, Keady Rural, County Armagh, in the 1901 census. They were part of the Church of Ireland. Joseph was listed as age 59 (b. ca. 1842, Co. Armagh), and Lina was age 31 (b. ca. 1870, Co. Armagh). They had the following children: George, age 13 (b. ca. 1888); Thomas, age 11 (b. ca. 1890); Joseph, age 8 (b. ca. 1893); William, age 6 (b. 1895); Robert, age 3 (b. ca. 1898); and Ann Jain, age 9 months (b. ca. July 1899).3
I noticed that, as is traditional in Irish naming conventions, the oldest two sons carried the names of first the father’s father, and second the mother’s father.
I made one final search in the Valuation Revision Books of Northern Ireland (available on PRONI) , in which George McBride was found residing in Racarbry <sic> from 1882 to 1896.4 George was occupying land leased by William Gardiner, consisting of a house, office, and land. There was no strikeout of his name, which indicates that he was still living there in 1896.
“The Green Fields of France” strikes many chords within me, particularly as a genealogist. Researching the story of Willie McBride gave me an excuse to explore records which my own family research has not afforded—and helped me put a face to the name of a young man whose tragic story still resonates over a century after his death.
1 William McBride, Birth, 1895, no. 206, p. 39, Superintendent Registrar’s District of Armagh, County Armagh, image found on irishgenealogy.ie.
2 Joseph McBride and Nicholina McBride, Marriage, 1888, no. 72, p. 60, Parish of Keady, Registrar’s District of Armagh, digitized image found on irishgenealogy.ie.
3 Joseph McBride household, 1901 Irish Census, Population Schedule, Rathcarbery, DED Keady-Rural, Poor Law Union of Armagh, County Armagh, Ireland, household number 30, digitized image on nationalarchives.ie.
4 Keady, County Armagh, Valuation Revisions Books, Townland of Racabry <sic>, VAL/12/B/10/26C, p. 112.
17 thoughts on “The True Story of Young Willie McBride”
Rhonda, thanks for the information. Now I will go find that song on a DVD and play it.
It is one of my favorite songs since I was first introduced to it. I may need to find out if his brothers served.
Thank you, Rhonda, for this post. Here is Eric Bogle singing “No Man’s Land” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M-38PB_5ozc
We are forever wed to the songs of our youth. I was reminded of this by Jeff Record’s recent post about Cass Elliott.
Hi Rose, yes there are songs that stay with us from our youth. I wish I could say I was in my “youth” when I first heard this song, but it truly spoke to me.
Thanks for the great post, Rhonda. As a genealogist and a folk music lover, I found it spoke to me twice as vividly.
Hi Nancy, There are some amazing folk songs out there. I am happy you enjoyed this post.
Eric Bogle’s “The Green Fields of France” was a driver to visit the gravesite of my Great Uncle Albert Fasse (1888 – 1918) who “joined the glorious fallen in 1918” and rests at the Muesse Argonne Military Cemetery. After visiting his gravesite in the mid 2000’s I wanted to know more about him. During the past year I have been working to find more of his military service and have been able to find a photo (the only one I have found of him while in service), his service records and am currently waiting on the death/burial records from NARA. An added bonus was finding the paperwork his mother filed for compensation for his death. It has helped me learn more about him and make sure that his memory and story will live on.
Hi Gary — Thank you for sharing this story! It is amazing what prompts us to dig deeper for our ancestors!
A beautiful tale well told!
Hi Jeff, Thank you so much!
That was lovely.
Thank you so much Elizabeth!
a military family going back to the American Revolution I appreciate the sacrifice of soldiers and their families, and appreciate your research on this
Rhonda, I was very pleased to find your article because I too have been intrigued by “The Green Fields Of France” and the story of Willie McBride’s for many years. I hope you’ll add another chapter and answer the song’s question about Willie: … “Or are you a stranger without even a name / Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane / In an old photograph torn, tattered, and stained / And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?” … You post a picture of Willie. You must have found living relatives. Please tell us the story of how Willie is remembered today. What family stories have been passed down about his short life?
I also have an offering to make with respect anti-war songs that I think will appeal to you. One that ranks high on my list is coincidentally titled, “Arthur McBride.” It was recorded in 1976 by the Irishman, Paul Brady. Paul Brady has an absolutely captivating tenor voice, which in this piece, he accompanies himself with a beautiful arrangement on acoustic guitar. Here’s the link.
Another one you may have already latched on to is Liam Clancy singing “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” Here’s the link to that one.
It has been said that a soldier’s lot is to die for his country and be buried under the wrong name. Let’s hope that in Willie McBride’s case they got that right.
Proud to be a McBride with my father George,grandfather Robert ..