Come Cheer Up My Lads


Something for the weekend.  Heart of Oak.  Written by actor David Garrick in 1759, with music by Dr. William Boyce, the song is a rousing tribute to the Royal Navy.  Garrick penned the song during the Annus Mirabilis of 1759 when Church bells in Great Britain and America were constantly ringing in celebration of British victories, including the taking of Quebec, on land and sea.  The song was an immediate hit both in Great Britain and its colonies.

The video clip above is taken from That Hamilton Woman (1941) starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier.  In many ways simply a historical pot boiler common for films during the period, the film also celebrates British resistance to the tyranny of Napoleon which of course strongly resonated with British audiences in 1941.  It was Churchill’s favorite movie and he would frequently show it to guests during the War.

The playing of Heart of Oak at the beginning of the clip is not a conceit of the film.  When British ships of the line were sailing into battle the bands of the ship would strike up Heart of Oak, always a favorite of the sailors on board.  Serving in miserable conditions, sometimes pressed (“compulsorily volunteered” was the phrase), the song did reflect how the sailors perceived themselves.  They were almost all ardent patriots, as they demonstrated during the fleet mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797, when the mutineers turned over to the government French agents who attempted to make common cause with them.  The leaders of the mutineers told the authorities that they were entirely loyal to England, and they simply wanted redress for their grievances, which the Admiralty eventually granted.  Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, where he smashed the combined French and Spanish fleets and established British naval supremacy for a century, understood the patriotism of the common seaman, which is why he sent the fleet the message, “England expects every man to do his duty” prior to sailing into the fight.

Nelson in the film is shown as saying of the decorations that he wore in the engagement, “I won them in battle?  Then I’ll wear them in battle.” although he of course realized that this made him a prime target for French snipers.  Nelson had previously lost a right arm and a right eye in prior engagements.  At Trafalgar his luck ran out and he was killed by a French sharpshooter.  However, his stance was not foolhardy.  To direct a fleet action in the early Nineteenth Century an admiral needed to be on deck, and Nelson understood that the attribute prized above all others by the men he led was physical courage.  Nelson was a complete cad in his personal life, but he had in abundance that quality.  The men would fight much harder if they saw their officers coolly displaying complete contempt for death in action, and therefore it was necessary for Nelson to do so.  Additionally, throughout his career he had struggled for better conditions for the men under his command, and they fought their hardest when led by him.


Come cheer up my Lads, ’tis to glory we steer,

To add something more to this wonderful year.

To honour we call you, as freemen, not slaves,

For who are so free as the sons of the waves?


Heart of oak are our ships, jolly tars are our men,

We always are ready, Steady, boys, steady,

We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again!

We ne’er see our foes but we wish them to stay,

They never see us but they wish us away.

If they run, why, we follow and run them ashore,

For if they won’t fight us, we cannot do more.


They swear they’ll invade us, these terrible foes;

They frighten women, children, and beaus,

But should their flat bottoms in darkness get o’er,

Still Britons they’ll find to receive them on shore.


We’ll still make them fear, and we’ll still make them flee,

And drub ’em on shore as we’ve drubb’d ’em at sea,

Then cheer up my lads, with one hear let us sing,

Our Soldiers, our Sailors, our Statesmen, our King.


We’ll still make ’em run, and we’ll still make ’em sweat,

In spite of the Devil and Brussels Gazette,

Then cheer up my lads, with one heart let us sing,

Our Soldiers, our Sailors, our Statesmen, our King.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. “Come, cheer up, my lads, ’tis to glory we steer,
    “To add something more to this wonderful year;
    “To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
    “For who are so free as the sons of the waves”

    O the irony!
    Surely the ‘freemen’ referred to cannot be the sailors kidnapped by gangs and regarded as ‘scum’ by their officers and subject to floggings worse than most actual slaves endured?

    Ah, the English, God bless their black souls.

  2. “Surely the ‘freemen’ referred to cannot be the sailors kidnapped by gangs and regarded as ‘scum’ by their officers and subject to floggings worse than most actual slaves endured?”

    Indeed they were Thomas, and I believe that most of the pressed men would have denied that they were slaves and would loudly have claimed that England was the home of freedom in the world, all the while hating being pressed. The ambivalence of the common seaman, loving his country and hating the conditions in which he served, was well shown in the 1962 movie Damn the Defiant, where a ship that mutinies joins in battle with the French to save the Mediterranean fleet from fireships.

    In regard to flogging, the vast majority of sailors, pressed and volunteers, were never flogged. They would not usually have reacted to viewing flogging with the same horror that we do, because it was a common punishment of the day in civil life as well as the military. George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army asked for authority from Congress to raise the ceiling for flogging from the biblical 39 lashes to 500 because malefactors, according to him, laughed at the punishment. (Congress refused his request.) When flogging was abolished in the Royal Navy and the Royal Army there was a strong protest from the men who feared that discipline would collapse without effective threat of punishment The past truly is a different country!

    About half the men in the Royal Navy were pressed men, with the rest volunteers. Contrary to myth almost all pressed men were taken from merchant ships at sea, men picked up off the streets in ports often being useless aboard ship. Desertion was always a problem, although after a year of service a sailor was quite unlikely to desert. The Age of Nelson was a time of gradual improvement in the lot of the common seamen which would lead to an end of impressment in 1814.

  3. Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It’s nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.
    — Winston Churchill

  4. G K Chesterton said it rather well:
    “A war that we understood not came over the world and woke
    Americans, Frenchmen, Irish; but we knew not the things they spoke.
    They talked about rights and nature and peace and the people’s reign:
    And the squires, our masters, bade us fight; and scorned us never again.
    Weak if we be for ever, could none condemn us then;
    Men called us serfs and drudges; men knew that we were men.
    In foam and flame at Trafalgar, on Albuera plains,
    We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
    We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
    The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
    And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
    And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.”

  5. The Secret People poem you quote was written in 1907 by Chesterton. It has much more to do with Chesterton’s views on distributism than it does with the actual history of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that Chesterton knew little about as demonstrated amply whenever he wrote on the subject. A lengthy article on the poem appeared in the Guardian in 2005:


    Of course the poem was written prior to Chesterton’s whole hearted, and life long enthusiastic endorsement, of Britain fighting in World War I which rather puts a different ironic after gloss on reading Chesterton’s poem.

    Go to the link below to to read the entire poem:


  6. Chesterton’s ideas of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were largely coloured by Hilaire Belloc, whose grandfather had fought in the armies of Napoléon; those armies that gave a code of laws to a continent and restored the concept of citizenship to civilisation.

  7. And brought death to millions and military dictatorship. I rather agree with Burke:

    “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons, so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements ,sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wiseman, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems is equally true as to states: — Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-informed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

    But power, of some kind or other, will survive the shock in which manners and opinions perish; and it will find other and worse means for its support. The usurpation which, in order to subvert ancient institutions, has destroyed ancient principles will hold power by arts similar to those by which it has acquired it. When the old feudal and chivalrous spirit of fealty, which, by freeing kings from fear, freed both kings and subjects from the precautions of tyranny, shall be extinct in the minds of men, plots and assassinations will be anticipated by preventive murder and preventive confiscation, and that long roll of grim and bloody maxims which form the political code of all power notstanding on its own honor and the honor of those who are to obey it.”

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