Tuesday 22 January 2013

La guerre de 14- 18 - The nonsense of this war- also Michael Flanders' adaptation

Brassens satirises the conventional teaching of history, which confines itself largely to the amoral listing of successive wars and attributes national glory to the slaughter.  In this poem a new military recruit enthusiastically lists his favourite wars, putting at the top the 1914- 1918 War, which was, of course, the greatest human slaughterhouse in history. 

La guerre de 14-18 

Depuis que l'homme écrit l'Histoire,
Depuis qu'il bataille à coeur joie
Entre mille et un' guerr's notoires,
Si j'étais t'nu de faire un choix,
À l'encontre du vieil Homère,(2)
Je déclarerais tout de suite :
"Moi, mon colon, cell' que j' préfère,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !"

Est-ce à dire que je méprise
Les nobles guerres de jadis,
Que je m' soucie comm' d'un' cerise
De celle de soixante-dix ? (3)
Au contraire, je la révère
Et lui donne un satisfecit
Mais, mon colon, cell' que j' préfère,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !

Je sais que les guerriers de Sparte
Plantaient pas leurs épées dans l'eau,(4)
Que les grognards de Bonaparte (5)
Tiraient pas leur poudre aux moineaux..
Leurs faits d'armes sont légendaires,
Au garde-à-vous, j' les félicite,
Mais, mon colon, cell' que j' préfère,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !

Bien sûr, celle de l'an quarante (6)
Ne m'a pas tout à fait déçu,
Elle fut longue et massacrante
Et je ne crache pas dessus,(7)
Mais à mon sens, ell' ne vaut guère
Guèr' plus qu'un premier accessit,
"Moi, mon colon, cell' que j' préfère,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !"

Mon but n'est pas de chercher noise
Aux guérillas, non, fichtre ! non,
Guerres saintes, guerres sournoises,
Qui n'osent pas dire leur nom,(8),
Chacune a quelque chos' pour plaire
Chacune a son petit mérite,
Mais, mon colon, cell' que j' préfère,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !

Du fond de son sac à malices,
Mars va sans doute, à l'occasion,
En sortir une - un vrai délice ! –
Qui me fera grosse impression...
En attendant je persévère
À dir' que ma guerr' favorite,
Cell', mon colon, que j' voudrais faire,
C'est la guerr' de quatorz'-dix-huit !

Georges Brassens
1961 - Les trompettes de la renommée
Since man’s been writing history
Since he’s been gaily waging war
From ‘thousand and one wars of note,
If I was forced to make a choice
At odds with what old Homer said,
I would state firmly like a shot
« Me, colonel, the one I prefer
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen! »

Is that to say I look down on
The noble wars of times gone by
That I don’t care a fig about
The one of eighteen seventy
On the contr’ry I respect it
And award it a credit mark
« But colonel, the one I prefer
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen! »

I know the warriors of Sparta
Did not mess about with their swords,
Those of Napoleon’s Old Guard
Didn’t fire their powder at sparrows
Their war deeds are legendary
Come to attention, I salute them,
« But colonel, the one I prefer
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen! »

Sure that of the Revolution
Was no total disappointment
It was long and full of massacres
And I treat it with no contempt
But to my mind it hardly rates
Hardly more than a narrow fail,
« Me, colonel, the one I prefer
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen! » 

My aim isn’t to pick a fight
With guerillas, no damn it ! no
Holy wars and undergound wars 
Which do not dare to speak their name
Each one has got something to please
Each one has its little merit
« But colonel, the one I prefer
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen! »

From the depths of his bag of tricks
Mars is going, without doubt, some day
Pull out one such – a real delight!
Which will vastly impress me….
Meanwhile I am carrying on
Saying that my favourite war
The one, colonel, I’d like to fight
Is the war of fourteen - eighteen


1)      La guerre de 14-18.-  It is unusual in English to refer to the First World War in this way, but Flanders and Swann keep it in their copy of Brassens' song.  See below.

2)      Homère – Homer the great poet of Ancient Greece wrote the Illiad telling the story of the last year of the Trojan War.   He lived around 750- 650 BC and so did not have as wide a choice of wars as the young man in Brassens’ poem.

3)      La Guerre de soixante-dix.  In the War of 1870, France suffered total defeat, outnumbered by the armies of Prussia and Germany.  There were however some glorious moments for the French such as the charge of the Le Premier Cuirassier at the battle of Reichshoffen.

4)      Les guerriers de Sparte plantaient pas leurs épées dans l'eau = The expression  « donner des coups ‘épée dans l’eau » means to exert oneself in order to achieve nothing.  The Spartan warriors did the opposite and used their swords to very bloody effect.

5)      Les grognards de Bonaparte – This was the name given to the soldiers of Napoleon’s Vieille Garde, the utmost elite section of Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard.

6)      Celle de l'an quarante  -  Here Brassens is dealing with the bloody civil war of the French Revolution.  In this poem of dates,  Brassens had reached the most famous date of all- 1789.  However, he preferred instead to use “l’an quarante” , because the revolutionaries had a joke about the 40th year of reign of Louis XVI.  As the king was 38 when they chopped his head off, the reason for this choice of number is obscure.

7)      ……..  je ne crache pas dessus – « Cracher sur », which literally means “to spit at”, is used figuratively to mean “to be contemptuous of”.

8)      Guerres… Qui n'osent pas dire leur nom -  .  “La guerre sans nom” was the term used by critics of the war to describe the conflict between Algerian nationalists and French forces between 1954 and 1962.  Here Brassens was touching on a contemporary issue which was very controversial and was debated with great passion, some of which, Brassens was inevitably drawing onto  himself.


A British version of Brassens' song made by Michael Flanders, who was a famous humourist and performer on stage and TV

 Released in the 1960s as a single with “20 Tons of TNT”- it was a very powerful anti-war song. 

The War of 14-18 

War has had its apologians,
Ever since history began,
From the times of the Greeks and Trojans, when they sang of arms and the man,
But if you asked me to name the best, Sir,
I'd tell you the one I mean,
Head and shoulders above the rest, Sir, was the War of 14-18,
Head and shoulders above the rest, Sir, stands the War of 14-18.

There were the wars against all those Louis,
There were Caesar's wars in Gaul,
There was Britain's war in Suez, which wasn't a war at all,
There was the war of the Spanish succession,
Many other wars in between,
But they none of them made an impression like the war of 14-18,
They didn't make the same impression as the war of 14-18.

The war of American independence,
That was enjoyable, by and large,
Watching England's free descendants busy defeating German “Garge”,(1)
But the Boer war was a poor war, And I'm still inclined to lean,
Though Sir, it possibly isn't your war like the war of 14-18,
Though, it probably isn't your war, Sir, the war of 14-18.

There are certainly plenty of wars to choose from, you pick whichever one you please,
Like the one we've had all the news from liberating the Vietnamese,
Or those wars for God and country, be it Korean or Philippine,
Sir, if you'll pardon my effrontery, give me the war of 14-18,
If you'll pardon my effrontery, Sir, the war of 14-18,

Every war has its own attraction from total war to border raid,
Call it rebellion, police action,
War of containment or crusade,
I don't underrate the late war we see so often on the screen,
But that wasn't the really great war like the war of 14-18,
No, the late war wasn't the great war like the war of 14-18.

No doubt Mars, among his chattels, has got some really splendid war,
Full of bigger and bloodier battles that we've ever seen before,
But until that time comes, Sir, when that greater war comes on the scene,
The one that I on the whole prefer, Sir, is the war of 14-18,
Yes, the one that I still prefer, Sir, is the war of 14-18.


 1) German “Garge” -  There are questions posted on the Internet about the meaning of this phrase.  Michael Flanders has distorted the name of the King of England, at the time of the American war of Independence - George III.  He does this no doubt to make the rhyme with “large”. 

Although in our modern histories, we like to depict this war as Americans fighting British imperialists, it was a war between British colonialist settlers in America against their home government in England, led by a German King: George III from the House of Hanover.

Please clickhere to return to the full alphabetical list of my Georges Brassens selection


Slugabed said...

"Border Raid" not "Rage"...if you pardon my effrontery...
Very interesting page you have here!

Anonymous said...

First world war not the second

David Yendley said...

Thanks for your correction, Slugabed. I had failed to notice that the word had to Rhyme with "crusade"
David Yendley

MA-Travels of Serendipity said...

Moltes gràcies per compartir el treball i el context cultural d'un gran chansonier de l'Europe!