Popular Songs During World War 1
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
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
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
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.
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.