A song for “Bonny Lads from Cornish Dads”

Drums & Bugles of 7th DCLI

The First World War was a war defined by songs. Thousands of songs were inspired by different experiences of war whilst others written before its onset became synonymous with the War. Many of these songs are now forgotten although some (such as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary) are still recognisable as songs of the Great War a century later.


Songs of the First World War served many purposes: for a few initial months they were an effective recruitment aid, they kept up morale of both the troops and loved ones waiting at home, they provided comfort and hope, induced feelings of patriotism and solidarity and were a source of much needed humour. Accordingly the songs took different forms. Emerging from the ongoing popularity of music halls, many were big, rousing songs with sing-a-long choruses but others were sad laments dealing with themes of separation and nostalgia for more peaceful times. 


Popular tunes were adapted by soldiers who wrote their own lyrics, acting as a template for them to express their own experiences, emotions and indomitable humour. On the home front, songs were experienced through music hall and sheet music. Recorded music was in its infancy and not affordable for many people but sheet music for voice and piano was inexpensive and sold in vast quantities. Pianos could be hired and were a feature of many homes (and public houses). Mass consumerism of music has its origins in sheet music and at this point was very interactive: for a copy of sheet music to become a song it had to be sung and performed whether on stage, in the pub or around a household piano.

DCLI Boys, Bodmn Keep, DCLI, WW2, WW" song, Soldier music, Military Music, Army Song, Morale, Military morale

‘The DCLI Boys’ – The Cornishman’s War Song!

The D.C.L.I. Boys Marching Song was written by Cornish composer Wilson Manhire with words by Dan Phillips, also from Cornwall. It dates from around 1914 and was a widely successful song running to at least two editions. An article in The Western Morning News gives evidence that it was still being performed in 1927. What makes The D.C.L.I. Boys possibly unique, and certainly remarkable, is that whilst being an overall uplifting and cheering song along with many of its contemporaries, it is also a song about Cornish identity and nationality.


Modern Cornish nationalism begins around the start of the 20th century. The debate about home rule for Ireland and Scotland goes back to the late 19th century when a series of Irish Home Rule Bills, beginning with Gladstone’s bill of 1886, were unsuccessful.  A Scottish Home Rule bill was put before Parliament in 1913 but the process, as with the on-going debate over home rule for Ireland, was halted by the start of war. This growing awareness of a Celtic independence could have inspired Cornish Liberals to unite ideas about cultural uniqueness with the demand for increased political freedom. Alongside this the first Pan Celtic Congress that promoted solidarity and co-operation between Celtic nations was held in Dublin in 1901 with Cornwall becoming a member in 1904. Henry Jenner initiated the Cornish language revival with the founding of the first Cornish language society in 1903 and publication of his A Handbook of the Cornish Language the following year. In 1924 the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies was formed with aim of collecting and maintaining Cornish traditions, language and nationality; and in 1929 Ralph Dunstan published a collection of Cornish Songs in The Cornish Song Book.


The D.C.L.I.Boys opens with four bars from the song Trelawny, the national song of Cornwall and a regimental song of the D.C.L.I., immediately placing the song within a context of Cornish tradition (Trelawny was written in its modern form by Robert Stephen Hawker in 1824 but with its roots in earlier folk songs). A footnote verifies that these four bars are a “fragment of the old Cornish Popular air – “Trelawny.” The opening line, however, makes reference to Scotland:

We love to sing of the lads in kilts

From Scotland’s hills and dales


Dan Phillips goes on to cite Irish boys “with roguish eyes” and “gallant lads from Wales”: all Celtic nations. He then turns to Cornwall:


And others yet lest we forget

Who face the fresh’ning breeze

All bonny lads from Cornish dads

From the land between the seas


“Lest we forget”, from Kipling’s poem Recessional of 1897, became a phrase in common use by the end of the First World War and although used by Kipling to describe the transient nature of empires it evolved to denote remembrance of thousands of lives lost. Here, however, Dan Phillips is talking about the D.C.L.I. in particular but using a phrase that could equally denote a wider Cornishness and an identity that should not be forgotten. “Bonny lads from Cornish dads” is a pithy use of internal rhyme that lightens the tone of the lyrics whilst “the land between the seas” confirms Cornwall’s autonomy: it is a land, not a county or an area of England (which is not named in the song.)


The D.C.L.I. Boys is written for voice with piano accompaniment in 4/4 time and in G Major, a bright, cheerful key that is not too demanding of the pianist. It has a strong marching rhythm that featured in many First World War songs. It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, for example, both have a strong and steady beat with an underlying ‘um-pah’ accompaniment. This uniformity, however, is interrupted in the penultimate line (“All bonny lads from Cornish dads”) where the word “dads”, rising to a top E, is held while the piano plays an arpeggiated chord (the notes being played in quick succession creating a harp like effect) before resuming the previous tempo for the final two bars of the verse. The tune modulates in these last two lines from G to D major giving an uplifting and fervent tone that enhances the accompanying words.


The chorus returns to Trelawny and to G major. The footnote on the first page also credits Trelawny as “used in a portion of the Piano Accomp. in the Refrain.” For the first four bars the treble part of the accompaniment plays part of the Trelawny tune as a descant above the words:


A cheer for the lads from old Cornwall

Once more for her bonny sons


The fifth line of the chorus, “They forward go to face the foe” also features two bars from Trelawny, here played within the same range as the vocal part. The Western Morning News article from 1927 reports that at the D.C.L.I. Old Comrades supper in London Miss Mildred Wilmot sang “Dan Phillip’s song “The D.C.L.I. Boys” to the tune of Trelawny.” Wilson Manhire, the composer, is not credited. The writer of this short article possibly believed The D.C.L.I. Boys to be simply a re-wording of Trelawny but this is not the case. Elements of Trelawny’s melody are skilfully interwoven into a marching tune that echoes and takes inspiration from the original but The D.C.L.I. Boys is a song and piece of music in its own right. Wilson Manhire was a well established and prolific composer and arranger of music for piano, voice and violin, and a talented pianist. He is now sadly over looked although one of his collections of piano arrangements remains in print. (100 Easy Classics for Piano arranged by Wilson Manhire and Lynn Palmer.)


The chorus is bold and confident in both its lyrics and musical arrangement, placing it within the category of countless other First World War songs written to encourage and keep up morale. The words present a stirring image of the D.C.L.I. Boys, ‘bonny sons’ heeding the bugle’s call and marching off to face the foe and danger. The opening bars of Trelawny serve as a further reminder that the boys are Cornish, the “lads from old Cornwall”. On the line “When bugles call” the piano plays a rhythm of a crotchet followed by a triplet creating a dah da-da-da  dah da-da-da effect mimicking a bugle call. Wilson Manhire also uses the piano to similar means on the word “drums” with a tremolo over two notes in the bass clef, the notes being rapidly alternated to suggest a drum roll. The final image of the chorus is of “flashing steel of the battlefield”, the tune slows and broadens on “battlefield”, with connotations of gallantry and swashbuckling heroism somewhat removed from the realities of trench warfare. The final line: “Yes the Cornwall’s will be there!” is sung extremely loudly ending on a resounding G major chord from the piano and an optional high G for those with a vocal range to manage this.


Two more verses follow. Verse two continues the chorus’s theme of valour, bravery and Cornishness, opening with a “cheer for the western lads” who are “All true Trelawny boys”. It is in this verse that we find the song’s only reference to a wider British Isles: “They’re heroes all at their Country’s Call” but the proceeding and final line of this verse then clarifies that the D.C.L.I.s are fighting for their “regiment’s flag” (rather than a more general ‘King and Country’) thus bringing the song neatly back to its theme of the D.C.L.I. as an intrinsic part of Cornish nationality.


Verse three opens,


Hats off to the boys from old Tre, Pol and Pen

Each name could I but spell


“Tre, Pol and Pen” is part of an old rhyming couplet (“By Tre Pol and Pen / Shall ye know all Cornishmen”) recorded by Richard Carew in his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602. It also provides the opening to a version of Trelawny (Trelawny III written by Hawker c.1835 and is included in Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book: “And shall they scorn Tre, Pol and Pen?”) As prefixes Tre, Pol and Pen are still commonly found in Cornish place and surnames. Dan Phillips’ reference to this phrase again confirms the importance of Cornish heritage using place and name as a further source of identity. This is followed by another injection of humour: Cornish names can be difficult to spell, even for Cornish writers. Then, for the first time in the song the mood shifts, losing its bravado and becoming more thoughtful and introspective:


The absent ones who charg’d the guns

When horse and hero fell


“Horse and hero” is a line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade of 1854, uniting the heroism of those who have died serving the D.C.L.I. with that of the courageous but ill-fated British Light Cavalry in the Crimean War. The song bids these lads “a long adieu” and the style now becomes almost whimsical with “Brief life is but a dream”, a line possibly taken from a poem by Lewis Carrol, Life is but a Dream of 1903, or the children’s nursery rhyme Row, Row, Row Your Boat that dates in its current form back to 1852. Verse three acts as a poignant reminder that war is not all about valour and derring-do, so while the first two verses and the chorus are those of a keeping up morale song, verse three is more typical of a song that is reflective and sad, where war and death are inevitable although not criticised. The verse closes,


Till bugles call the ONE AND ALL

We’ll keep their memory green


Bugles” reminds us of The D.C.L.I. Boys’ military context as a marching song, and “ONE AND ALL” (printed in capitals), as the Cornish motto again reiterates that this song is about the D.C.L.I. but equally about Cornwall and Cornish identity. The final line looks forward but it is a future of remembering those who have died and keeping their memory alive, as both loved ones and as soldiers of the D.C.L.I.


The D.C.L.I. Boys fits easily into the huge catalogue of songs to emerge from the First World War. The title is that of a marching song and in keeping with this The D.C.L.I. Boys’ music is rhythmic and invigorating with lyrics that speak of courage and spirit. This is tempered with touches of humour and, in the final verse, acknowledgement of war’s reality and inevitable sadness. The D.C.L.I Boys, however, is far more than solely a First World War song. Its use of Trelawny as the introduction and part of the chorus together with lyrics that reference Cornish identity as a separate land, people and culture make Wilson Manhire and Dan Phillips’ song part of the early 20th century movement to promote recognition and preservation of Cornish traditions and individuality that continues into the 21st century.


The song’s overriding theme, through the voice of a First World War Song, is that of Cornishness and the importance of Cornish ethnicity with six references to this throughout the verses and chorus. The qualities of the D.C.L.I. Boys are credited to them being of Cornish parentage rather than being soldiers, therefore making these attributes ones potentially shared by all Cornish people. Not every soldier serving in the D.C.L.I. was a Cornishman, however. Before conscription was introduced at the start of 1916 volunteers had some choice as to which regiment they joined and the Pals Battalions recruited thousands of men on the basis that they could train and fight alongside their friends. From 1916 conscripts were placed wherever they were needed. Harry Patch, who became Britain’s last surviving Tommy, recalls in his memoir that rather than being conscripted into the D.C.L.I. he “would have chosen the Somerset Light Infantry”. Harry was born in Somerset in 1898. Many others who served in the D.C.L.I. during the First World War were similarly not born in Cornwall with men conscripted from as far away as London, Leeds and Sunderland. The co-writer to Harry’s memoir, Richard Van Emden, observes that “By the time Harry joined the 7th Battalion in June 1917…his not coming from Cornwall was the norm rather than the exception.” The D.C.L.I. Boys, however, certainly gives the impression that the boys are exclusively Cornish (“All bonny lads from Cornish dads…All true Trelawny boys”). It is, of course, a song and not an army list. Dan Phillips uses the virtues and character of the D.C.L.I. boys as a vehicle to describe the Cornish and their identity as a people. Both are brave, spirited and independent; both deserving of recognition for their shared culture and heritage.   


Given its distinctiveness it may seem surprising that this song has ended up, 100 years on, with the many forgotten songs of the First World War. Evidence suggests that it was a successful and popular song during the War and at least until 1927. This popularity may have been confined to Cornwall; The D.C.L.I. Boys was published by H.J.Watkins & Co. in St Austell who might not have enjoyed the circulation of a London or more central publisher. Much of Wilson Manhire’s work was published by H.Freeman & Co. of Brighton and several London publishers including notably Chappell & Co. Ltd.  If this is the case, however, it does not account for the disappearance of the song in its native Cornwall. Song writing and the consumption of songs began to change during the Second World War. The heyday of music hall was over with live music increasingly taking the form of concerts and dances provided by jazz and swing bands. Sheet music for piano and voice remained popular but it now had to compete with gramophone records that had become more available and affordable, and radio. Characteristics of songs were changing too. Morale sustaining songs were still favoured with some making the transition from the First World War (Pack up your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag, for example). Others were missing: recruitment songs were not needed with immediate conscription and with the horror of the First World War only twenty years ago much of the bravado typical of many of its songs disappeared, replaced by nostalgia and hopefulness for a future time of peace.  It may be the case that The D.C.L.I. Boys didn’t quite meet the requirements of a Second World War song, or that during a war affecting civilians in an unprecedented manner, ideas and ideals about Cornish nationality were put on hold. More research is needed into the history of this fascinating song, and its composer and lyricist, in order to tell its story to the extent it deserves.


The D.C.L.I. Boys is not included in Ralph Dunstan’s Cornish Song Book. It may have been too modern for inclusion in 1929 (most of the songs selected are traditional folk songs and carols). Ralph Dunstan admits in his introduction that “There may be other songs hidden away in cupboards, attics, or barns, which ought to have found a place…” The D.C.L.I. Boys is one such song, until recently hidden in a museum archive box, that now needs to be given its rightful place as a culturally significant work of the First World War and even more notably of the beginning of the Cornish nationalist movement. Cornish identity and the uniqueness of Cornwall’s history, geography and culture is still relevant and contemporary. In relation to this, and its own re-emerging story, The D.C.L.I. Boys now needs to be sung and heard again by 21st century voices and audiences.



February 2019



The D.C.L.I. Boys Marching Song

Wilson Manhire / Dan Phillips


We love to sing of the lads in kilts

From Scotland’s hills and Dales

And Irish boys with roguish eyes

And gallant lads from Wales

And other yet lest we forget

Who face the fresh’ning breeze

All bonny lads from Cornish dads

From the land between the seas



A cheer for the lads from old Cornwall

    Once more for her bonny sons

    When bugles call in line they fall

    And march to the roll of the drums

    They forward go to face the foe

    All danger they will dare

    ‘Mid flashing steel of the battlefield

    Yes the Cornwalls will be there!


Then here’s a cheer for the western lads

The brave D.C.L.I.s

With flags unfurled they face the world

All true Trelawny boys

No falt’ring they, but thro’ the fray

They storm o’er dale and crag

They’re heroes all at their Country’s Call

To fight for their Reg’ment’s flag


Hats off to the boys from old Tre, Pol and Pen

Each name could I but spell

The absent ones who charg’d the guns

When horse and hero fell

To lads so true, a long adieu

Brief life is but a dream

Till bugles call the ONE AND ALL

We’ll keep their memory green


Article written & researched by Janet Brinsley, Citizen Curator (2018-19) at Bodmin Keep.



Bibliography / Sources

BBC iWonder / Malone, G. How Did Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag Become The Viral Hit Of World War 1?, 2018

Dunstan, R. The Cornish Song Book, 1929

Mullen, J. Propaganda and Dissent in British Popular Songs of the First World War, 2011, halshs.archives-ouvertres.fr

Patch, H. with Van Emden R., The Last Fighting Tommy, 2007

Palmer R. “What A Lovely War!” British Soldiers’ Songs from The Boer War To The Present Day, 1990

The Western Morning News, articles 17.1.1918, 23.11.1927, Wilson Manhire obituary 24.7.1942.