Popular Songs During World War 1

Contemporary sheet music cover for the enduring classic World War 1 song, It's a Long Way to Tipperary.
Contemporary sheet music cover for the enduring classic World War 1 song, It's a Long Way to Tipperary. | Source

The Songs of World War 1

The songs popular in World War One were often more than just simple entertainment. Some were adopted by the troops themselves, sometimes as marching songs, sometimes as early forms of protest, but often just as a wistful lament for home. On the home front, for many families, popular songs expressed their feelings of hope and loss and they would listen to them at the music hall or, if they were lucky, at home on a Gramophone.

Governments recognised the potential of popular songs for propaganda. Many songs employed subtle propaganda, for instance promoting a rosy view of the home front and promoting it as an ideal worth fighting for, whilst other songs were more forthright. Broadly, World War One songs can fall into several categories:

  • Marching Songs
  • Barrack Room Songs
  • Recruitment Songs

It's a Long Way to Tipperary (US Version)

Wilfred Owen and "Pack All Your Troubles"

The poet Wilfred Owen took a line from "Pack All Your Troubles", a song he would himself have heard in France, and composed his own bitter, satirical poem inspired by one of the lines: Smile, Smile, Smile.

Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag Video

Marching Songs

One of the most popular songs of the war was "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", the story of a young Irishman who leaves his best girl behind to find his fortune in London. The song was written a couple of years before the war, in 1912. Legend has it that the composer, music hall singer Jack Judge, composed the song in a pub for a bet. The wager was that he couldn't write a song in time for the following evening's performance. He won his five shilling bet and his song soon saw service as a marching song when it was adopted by British soldiers.

One of the first regiments to march to the song were the Connaught Rangers, who sang it as they marched from Boulogne at the very beginning of World War One. The Daily Mail's war correspondent reported seeing their march on 13th August 1914 and the paper published the story days later. Soon more regiments were singing the song and in November John McCormack, a famous tenor, recorded the song. It became a worldwide hit, and the lyrics were adapted to suit other nationalities.

"Pack All Your Troubles (In Your Old Kit Bag)" was another music hall song that was adopted by the troops for marching. Written in 1915 by George Powell under the pseudonym George Asaf, the song was entered into a competition for the best morale building song. It won and became a classic, although in retrospect its cheery optimism jars with the dreadful reality of trench life, a fact noted by wartime poet Wilfred Owen (see right).

George Powell's brother Felix, a Staff Sergeant, wrote the music for the song, but George himself was a pacifist and became a conscientious objector when conscription was introduced.

"It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Pack All Your Troubles" were by no means the only marching songs, but they were two of the most popular. Not all marching songs were so sentimental; others were more cynical and some would have been downright bawdy and probably frowned upon by the officers. Which leads onto the next category: songs for the barracks and trenches.

Oh! It's A Lovely War

"Oh! It's a Lovely War", with its first line "Up to your waist in water, up to your eyes in slush, using the kind of language that makes the sergeant blush" probably gives a better picture of the life of the troops than many other songs. The song inspired the title of the musical film, "Oh! What a Lovely War" and was featured in the film, along with many other popular World War One songs.

Songs from the Barrack Rooms and Trenches

Daily life in the trenches or further behind the lines could be monotonous and soldiers would amuse themselves by singing. Not all of their songs were music hall fare and many of them probably wouldn't have sung these songs in front of their mothers or sweethearts. One favourite was "Mademoiselle from Armentieres", a song to which many new verses, rarely complimentary to the mademoiselle, were added. The song was often known as "Hinky Dinky Parley Voo". Another version, to the same tune, was "Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine" which concerned the amorous adventures of the three officers and an inn-keeper's enthusiastic daughter, all couched in very Anglo-Saxon language, none of which would be repeatable in a sitting room back home.

Officers would probably have disapproved of the bawdier songs, but turned a deaf ear. However, they would probably have complained about the songs which began to emerge in the trenches which had a more anti-war and anti-establishment theme. "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire" poked bitter fun at the politicians and army hierarchy who were out of harm's way whilst the whole battalion were "hanging on the old barbed wire". Again, "Bombed Last Night" was not popular with officers, as it bemoaned the lack of gas respirators, "one respirator for the four of us".

Songs and War

Songs about war have been composed for centuries. For centuries there have been ballads about wars. "The Battle of Chevy Chase" for instance, about a Scottish victory over the English, possibly dates as far back as the fourteenth century and definitely to the sixteenth century. Often the songs from this period described the battle, emphasising bravery, daring deeds and the sorrow of loss. Moving into the eighteenth century and into the Napoleonic Wars, songs became patriotic, utilising dance music and more upbeat lyrics.

Marching, But Not Singing

Aussie troops from 6th Brigade marching back to rest billets after the Battle of Pozieres in 1916 with 2nd Brigade watching.  The troops aren't singing; with nearly 2,000 battle casualties it's not surprising.
Aussie troops from 6th Brigade marching back to rest billets after the Battle of Pozieres in 1916 with 2nd Brigade watching. The troops aren't singing; with nearly 2,000 battle casualties it's not surprising. | Source

Propaganda Songs

Many World War One songs had an element of propaganda woven into the lyrics, whether it was plain old patriotism or the picture of a home worth defending. Some had more a more forthright message and were clearly recruitment songs. These tended to be more popular at the beginning of the war; by 1916 the army couldn't rely on the power of song to fill the ranks and conscription was introduced.

Paul Rubens' song "Your King and Your Country Want You" was a firm music hall favourite at the start of the war. They lyrics praise a young man's sporting prowess, but tell him that it is now time to join up as he is needed for the war. He is promised that he will be missed but loved no matter what fate befalls him. The song was also sung at recruitment rallies and those young men who resisted its enlistment message would often be handed white feathers.

"I'll Make a Man of You" was another music hall recruiting song, a little saucy in tone. The young lady singing the song recalls her many "suitors", all of them young men in uniform. She has made men of them all. Her one woman plan for solving the army and navy's recruitment woes is that she is "willing, if only you'll take the shilling, to make a man of any one of you".

Some soldiers may have remembered hearing "I'll Make a Man of You" and parodied it in the song "I Don't Want to Join the Army", a song very bitter in tone in which a man says that he doesn't want to go to war and get shot to pieces but would rather stay in England living off the earnings of a "lady typist", or in another version "a high class lady" (presumed to be euphemisms for a prostitute) and fornicate his life away.

Memorial to a Song Writer

Jack Judge sits reading whilst a soldier looks over his shoulder.  Statue outside Victoria Market Hall in Stalybridge.
Jack Judge sits reading whilst a soldier looks over his shoulder. Statue outside Victoria Market Hall in Stalybridge. | Source

Enduring Classics

Several of the favourite hits of World War One survived after 1918 and were pressed back into service in 1939 when a new generation of troops sang them as they marched across Europe and beyond. Even after World War Two, some of the songs have remained in the public consciousness. Stalybridge, the town where Jack Judge wrote "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" recently celebrated the centenary of the song and have erected a statue not only to Jack Judge's memory, but to the memory of those soldiers who enjoyed his song.

Bravo Bristol!

Rediscovered: Bravo Bristol!

In 2011 a man researching his family history at the Bristol Records Office chanced upon the sheet music to a long-forgotten World War 1 song. "Bravo Bristol" was written in 1914 by Fred Weatherly and set to music by Ivor Novello. The song was designed to rouse men to join the Bristol Battalion. The writer and composer pledged all proceeds to Battalion funds and after its rediscovery, the song is once again benefiting servicemen; the proceeds from a new recording will be donated to the charity Help for Heroes and Soldiers of the Gloucestershire Museum.

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Comments 18 comments

UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Very interesting article, judibee! I'd never heard of "lady typists" before-- I wonder what secretaries thought of that. Maybe I should include "lady typist" in my slang hub.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi David - I'm not sure if "lady typist" was general slang or simply a euphemism in that song. I've read a blog post and resulting comments that debated the subject at some length!

Thanks for your comments, always appreciated, and glad you found it interesting


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Judi. my memories from hearing this song were rather than 'lady typist' was 'a high class lady'. All irrelevant to yet another brilliantly researched hub.

Voted up / Interesting.

Graham.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Graham - it's not irrelevant at all and you are absolutely right, the song sometimes refers to a "high class lady" which again, is arguably an ironic euphemism for a prostitute. Glad you enjoyed it!

Thanks for commenting, always good to hear from you :-)


billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Okay, Judi, just so we are clear on this matter....I am not old enough to have lived when these songs were popular. Having said that, I actually know all of these songs. LOL

Great job my friend; as always, very interesting!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Bill - okay, I'll take your word for it :D Actually, my daughter is very good on WW2 songs and can sing quite a few, courtesy of a school project last year - maybe I should get her to write a hub for me!

Thanks for your comments, lovely to hear from you on a damp, dreary British summer evening!


GoodLady profile image

GoodLady 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

A niece piece of research. Like others who have commentated, I wasn't alive for the World Wars but the songs are all so familiar and I'm pleased they roll on - and that you have written about their stories. Thank you. Love your series on the Wars. You make history come alive for us. I hope I've posted it on Facebook!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi GoodLady - most of the songs were familiar to me, although I hadn't heard the one about the three German officers and their adventures with the innkeeper's daughter - very forthright language!

Thanks very much for your comments, I appreciate them as always and thanks for sharing.


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

I have to agree with Bill, the songs are before my time but I know them though I have to say I know more WWII songs than WWI.

I like the way you explained each song and gave it's history.

Voted up and interesting.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi tillsontitan - I think it's great that any of us remember any of these songs! I wonder how many songs from 2012 will be around in 2112? These are a great link to a momentous time in history and I am glad we can still hum along to them.

Thanks very much for your comments, much appreciated.


gmarquardt profile image

gmarquardt 4 years ago from Hill Country, Texas

Great and fasinating work. I very much enjoyed reading this hub.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi gmarquardt - very glad that you enjoyed reading this hub - I very much enjoyed writing it!

Thanks very much for your kind comments, much appreciated!


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Spielen sie das Tipperary Song!

It's a Long way to Tipperary is one of my favorite songs of all time. Weird? Maybe. But I love it. But I also enjoyed the movie Oh, What a Lovely War when I was a kid, so maybe I'm a little off. =p


Just Ask Susan profile image

Just Ask Susan 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

I too know most of these songs but now have learnt the history behind them, which was interesting.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi Natasha - I'm totally off - most of what I like pre-dates the 1920s! My daughter (age 12) loves WW2 songs - Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major being her favourite - so I guess it runs in the family :D

Hi Susan - I think the history of everyday stuff is often the most interesting - far better than political and economic history for me.

Thanks both of your for your comments, always good to hear from you.


point2make profile image

point2make 4 years ago

I know the songs but you filled in the history and answered some questions. Thanks for the info. Very interesting hub....voted up.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK Author

Hi point2make - so glad to be able to fill in some gaps for you - researching the hub did the same for me! Thanks very much for your comments, I appreciate them.


Gill Thumwood profile image

Gill Thumwood 2 years ago

I am desparately trying to find a sheet music copy of 'I'll make a man of you', from Oh it's a lovely war. Have got all the other songs from it but this one has been torn out of the book. I'm singing it in a concert in May and the pianist needs to practice and and so do I !!

Is there anyone out there who can help please?

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    Judi Bee profile image

    Judith Hancock (Judi Bee)738 Followers
    70 Articles

    Judith has a long standing interest in World War 1 and has spent many hours researching the lives of the men of her town who fell in WW1.



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