Four verses of the song" We Were Off to Fight the Hun" are scattered over the first pages of the play Billy Bishop Goes to War by John Gray. How does each verse gain or change meaning by virtue of the specific context of Bishop's narrative in which it appears?
Billy Bishop goes to War begins with the first rendition of "We were off to fight the hun." In the first verse,
"..We would shoot him with a gun
Our medals would shine like a sabre in the sun..."
is followed by the chorus as, from Bishop's perspective "it looked like lots of fun." This verse suggests glory- medals - and the visual image of sunshine is a far cry from the "mud" which will pervade his life in the cavalry.
Bishop begins the tale of how he was accepted into the military who must have been "scraping the bottom of the barrel." He recounts how he is the academy's worst student ever, even a cheat but before he can be punished, war breaks out and he gets a position as a lieutenant. At this point, he is upbeat about it because, as he points out in the next verse; they may have been "off to fight the hun" but "hardly anyone" had even read about war
..."Much less seen a Lewis gun..."
At this point there is still no concept of war as "somehow it didn't seem like war at all,at all, at all."
Bishop reverts to the time before he became a lieutenant amid talk of a "Great War" although Billy does not see it that way and is not as keen as his friends. He had enough from his experience at RMC. He can however ride a horse and is a great shot so the fact that he "hasn't got the brains" is apparently unimportant. He now gives the detail that he touched on at the beginning and tells how he was caught having stolen a canoe and how he cheated on his finals. Then he's back to the fact that he enlisted - being the "lesser of two evils." The next verse tells the audience
"...No one had seen a hun ..."
and it should really start dawning on the audience that these men are unprepared for war having never read about it, never even seen or handled a gun and not really aware what the enemy (the hun) looked like. But still these men are persuaded that "it looked like lots of fun."
When Bishop, laid up in hospital for a while, is fit for duty, they assign him to the cavalry and their ship leaves for England. He recounts how the men and horses become sick on the journey and are traumatised when other allied ships are attacked and sunk. Their ship however arrives and, not quite in the style they might have expected, off the boat goes "dead horses .... and sick Canadians." This intensifies the fact that these men are not prepared for battle as finally the first verse is reiterated and "somehow it didn't seem like war at all."