Isaac Rosenberg: poèmes de guerre (1914-1918)


August 1914

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

Août 1914

Combien de notre vie
Brûle en ce brasier ?
Le cher grenier du cœur ?
Tout ce qui nous manquera?

 Trois vies font une vie –
Le fer, le miel, l’or.
L’or et le miel ne sont plus –
Ne reste que le dur et le froid.

 Notre vie c’est le fer
Coulé au cœur de notre jeunesse.
Un trou brûlé dans les blés mûrs
Une dent brisée dans une belle bouche.

On Receiving News of the War

Snow is  a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! Ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

En apprenant la nouvelle de la guerre

Neige est un mot étrange et blanc.
Ni la glace ni la neige
N’ont demandé au bourgeon ou à l’oiseau
Le prix de l’hiver.

 Mais le gel, le givre et la neige
Du sol au ciel
Ont couvert cette terre d’été.
Nul ne sait pourquoi.

 Il est dans tous les cœurs.
Un esprit ancien,
D’un baiser mauvais, a vicié
Notre vie.

 Des crocs rouges ont lacéré Son visage.
Le sang de Dieu s’est répandu.
Depuis Son séjour solitaire, il pleure
Ses enfants morts.

Ô fléau ancien et pourpre!
Corromps, consume.
Rends au monde
Son éclat immaculé.

Through These Pale Cold Days

Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,

While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again —
For Lebanon’s summer slope.

They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.

Par ces jours pâles et froids

 Par ces jours pâles et froids
Quels visages sombres brûlent
Depuis trois mille ans
Et leurs yeux fébriles se languissent

 Tandis que sous leur front
Leur âme orpheline tâtonne
Vers les lacs d’Hébron,
La colline d’été du Liban.

Ils laissent ces jours blonds et calmes
Derrière eux dans la poussière,
De leurs yeux vivants ils voient
Qu’ils sont morts depuis longtemps.

The Jew

Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.

The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?

Le Juif

Moïse, dont j’ai jailli des entrailles,
D’une lampe dans le sang alluma
Dix règles constantes : une lune
Pour des hommes inconstants, sans lumière.

 Le blond, le bronze, le roux
Du même sang houleux
Suivent les marées de la lune de Moïse.
Pourquoi donc me méprisent-ils ?

Sarah Montin est Maîtresse de Conférences en littérature et traduction à L’université Sorbonne-Nouvelle. Elle travaille sur la poésie de guerre et a publié une monographie sur les war poets britanniques (Contourner l’abîme. Les poètes-combattants britanniques à l’épreuve de la Grande Guerre, Sorbonne Université Presses, 2018). Elle a traduit en français plusieurs d’entre eux, dont Ivor Gurney (2016)  et Isaac Rosenberg (2018) pour les Éditions Alidades.

I Always Thought I’d Die


recited by the poet 

I Always Thought I’d Die

in a nuclear wink, would not have time
to know what hit me. Or, after
distant flashes and the shock waves, slowly
of radiation sickness, combs full of hair,
bleeding from the eyes, fingernails,
nostrils, anus. After the president’s head detonated,
I walked the mile home

                                                     from history class,
dusty concrete along Augusta Road, scanning
the sky for the first needle-glints of Russian missiles.
But it was just Oswald, a mere ten years older
than I was, I know now, son of one Robert E. Lee,
a marine, like my father—like Lee O. himself—but dead
before the boy was born.

                                                           Young Oswald thought
god was a dog, a star, rats. His smiling chinstrapped
mug looks a lot like my teammates’
Wells and Strobo, who both joined the Corps right
after high school, got themselves killed
in short order. Oswald was in radar, a word
he couldn’t get wrong.

                                                     Like my father
he qualified sharpshooter. Like my father
he was honorably discharged. Unlike my father
he didn’t deserve it. He never killed anybody
until he did Kennedy and Tippet. He never
boxed, he never looked like Clark Gable.
My father believed

                                             somebody on the grassy knoll
did it, even though he knew about the trip
to Moscow. He slashed his left wrist. He met
a girl with a Shakespearean handle, fathered
a kid he named after a summer month,
came home a family man, purchased
an Italian rifle

                                 created within a few miles 
of the Shroud of Turin. Unlike my father,
who sweated in thick Savannah air hugging
creosote poles, Lee found it hard
to hold a job. I have looked out that window.
Despite what you have heard, it was
an easy shot.

                               My father killed several men
on what he always called The Island. It wasn’t easy
with an M 1903, certainly not with a bayonet, never
had second thoughts about Hiroshima. They boarded
a stinking troop train for San Diego, waited
all day in the Carolina heat, were ordered
back to barracks.

                                       No A-bomb, no Ronnie Smith,
he said, a million marines, soldiers, sailors, fly boys—
a million would have bought the farm
on the mainland. He figured his number was up,
but, boom, boom, the war was over.  He took
his malaria to Chatham County, married an operator 
with the middle name Lee,

                                                             and sired, as they say,
me. And though my Uncle Don, skinny and jumpy
as Lee Harvey himself, rolled hundreds of warheads
from Travis Field to Hunter Air Force Base
about the time I turned twelve—by convoy right
through the heart of my hometown, down
what is now MLK Boulevard—

                                                                      looks like I’ll make
three score years and ten. Haven’t been vaporized
or particularly irradiated, far as I know. 1Y’ed out
of Vietnam, despite football. It wasn’t the concussions
or the trick shoulders, knees, arthritic feet, hips, spine.
Blood pressure off the chart, the doc growled.
No Hiroshimas in my lifetime. Not yet.

Poet Laureate of Virginia 2014-2016, Ron Smith is the author of four books of poetry, Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery (University of Central Florida Press, 1988), Moon Road: Poems 1986- 2005 (Louisiana State University Press, 2007), Its Ghostly Workshop (LSU Press, 2013), and The Humility of the Brutes (LSU Press, 2017). His poems have appeared in many periodicals, including The NationThe Kenyon ReviewThe Georgia ReviewThe Southern Review, Five Points, and in many anthologies. His awards include The Guy Owen Prize from Southern Poetry Review and The Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest. Ron was an inaugural winner of the $10,000 Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize and subsequently served for ten years as a curator for that prize. He has taught poetry and poetry writing at University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, and Mary Washington University. He is currently the poetry editor for Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature and Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, VA, where he also holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. His Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, judged by Margaret Atwood “a close runner-up” for the National Poetry Series Open Competition and by Donald Hall as “the runner-up” for the Samuel French Morse Prize, will soon be issued by MadHat in a handsome second edition.

Wilfred Owen, or ‘1914’ in Scouse: a review of ‘Wilfred Owen in/and France’ and Wilfred Owen / Resonances Exhibit


World War I, Wilfred Owen, World War I Centenary, Memorial Sites, Ors


‘Wilfred Owen in/And France’ and Wilfred Owen / Resonances Exhibit (Symposium, November 5-10, 2018 at Mont Huey Campus and at the Forester’s House in Ors, Exhibit November 5-6, 2018, Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France; organized by Elise Brault-Dreux, Brigitte Friant-Kessler, Nicolas Devigne, and Sarah Montin) 


We are presently commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, as no one can ignore after the French government’s inspired ceremony on November 11 immediately followed by the Peace Forum where the world leaders were in attendance, excepting the notable absence of Donald Trump. Further afield from international media coverage, researchers have been grappling with issues of remembrance too. For those who wonder how remembrance can be more than the mere empty shell of a ritual, the art students at University Polytechnique Hauts de France may provide some valuable insights. They prepared artworks about Wilfred Owen’s death, 100 years ago on November 4, 1918, interacting with Owen’s famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ under the guidance of Brigitte Friant-Kessler and Nicolas Devigne.  Before they began preparing their artworks, on view in the Resonances Exhibit, they visited the Forester’s House in Ors, which is where Owen spent the last evening before he was killed, and they also visited his place of death. 

            The memorial site was renovated and opened to the public in 2011. A description of the place on the Wilfred Owen Association website insists on the house looking like ‘a solid sculptural object’. Indeed it does from the outside, and resembles a sanctuary on the inside, where draft versions of Owen’s most famous poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ are inscribed on glass panels that cover the walls. Dally Minogue and Andrew Palmer, authors of The Remembered Dead (CUP 2018) described the artful choices made by Simon Patterson in the renovation and design of the Ors Forester’s House memorial  during the conference ‘Wilfred Owen in/and France’. They emphasised how the place itself honours Owen’s poetry as much as it honours the poet. Visitors descend a curving white walkway in which Owen’s last letter to his mother, written in this place, is engraved in the walls. A hush goes with them into the cellar where Owen and some 26 other men took shelter, lit a fire, ate dinner, and wrote letters before going to battle in the morning. It is a small space, amounting to less than one square meter per person for sitting, sleeping, and eating. It is no wonder that Owen mentioned the smoke of the fire in a letter that was otherwise euphemistic and reassuring.

            The art students of Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France saw the manuscript of Owen’s poem on the glass surrounding the walls on the ground floor of the house. They took the opportunity to read and understand the text, and they visited the places on the recommended walking tour, including the place of Owen’s death and his grave. This resulted in various artworks, from paintings to collages, films, photographs, and sculptures. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was translated into Chinese and juxtaposed with a poem by Chairman Mao on a fan and then photographed. The artworks were often subtle and all transmitted emotion. The transpositions were particularly powerful. They provided a memory that was actualised and in action. An introduction to the exhibit Resonances was given by Nicolas Devigne and Maxime Turpin with Marcel Lubac during the conference.

            Why did Owen decide to return to France, after suffering shell shock during the Battle of the Somme, and being treated at Craiglockhart Military Hospital (where he met Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, much as Pat Barker poignantly described in Regenerationin 1991)? As the French specialist of British War Poetry Roland Bouyssou explained during the conference through one of Owen’s letters, Wilfred wrote that he felt like a shepherd to his men. His desire seems to have been to try to help others through the experience of that hell that he knew so well. He was an officer, but from a different background, and had grown up speaking Scouse more than Received Pronunciation, as Paul Elsam pointed out. Elsam recited ‘1914’ with a Scouse accent—demonstrating the point that Owen was a poet from lower classes, as opposed to landed gentry (though he did, before he died, frequent the Sitwells). He considered that school children today should be exposed to Owen’s poetry with the same Scouse accent, since it would make his poetry seem more accessible to a wider audience.

            ‘Owen in/and France’ was the occasion to remember the role of France in Owen’s life: he started learning French while still young, and prided himself on learning it. He read La Chanson de Roland, Daudet, Verlaine, Flaubert, Renan…and proved to be, at least on one level, just as influenced by French symbolism as T.S. Eliot. While teaching English in Bordeaux (beginning September 1913), one of his students suggested he spend the summer vacation tutoring her child in English. So on July 30, 1914 he arrived at Bagnères de Bigorre. War then broke out, and people looked at him askance, wondering why he had not been drafted. A few weeks later he met a figure that greatly influenced the course of his poetry, Laurent Tailhade, who may be rapidly described as a satirical poet, single handedly playing the satirical role of Charlie Hebdo during his time. Tailhade  wrote against anti-dreyfusards in Poèmes aristophanesques(1904). Owen was eventually given the book by the poet, and asked his mother to send him his copy in a letter—and then volunteered to go to war in September 1915. He had been aware of 60-year-old Tailhade volunteering to go to the front in autumn 1914.

            Wilfred Owen is the best known British war poet today, thanks to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, first performed at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, and also thanks to Pat Barker. But while Owen is still not a household name in France, there is little excuse for such ignorance, because his poetry has been translated into French by Xavier Hanotte, who also made Owen a fictional character in one of his mystery novels, as Joseph Duhamel noted. Gilles Couderc, specialist of Benjamin Britten and a native of the Pyrenees, spoke of Owen’s possible attraction to Catholicism while at Bagnères de Bigorre where he would have seen Lourdes, if only from the train.

            Neil McLennan, a Scottish historian speaking to some forty budding young historians who made a point to be present at the conference, asked everyone to cross their arms, and then attempt to cross them a different way, to concretely demonstrate how difficult it may sometimes be to take new insights about subjects we think we know. He has located the golf course in Edinburgh where Owen, Sassoon and Graves met.

            Jérôme Hennebert offered a very intense paper on the French poetics of Owen, moving from English romanticism through French Symbolism and Decadence back into Owen’s war poetry. It was complemented by Laure-Hélène Anthony’s paper about Owen’s last completed poem, ‘Spring Offensive’ and by Michael Copp’s paper showing that Pound as well as Owen drew from the poetry of Laurent Tailhade. Thomas Vuong then offered an analysis of all of Owen’s sonnets to see if the forms were English or French.

            Conference participants visited the exhibit Résonances in detail during the inauguration evening, rejoicing in the student’s profound interpretive works. The conference ended the following day with a visit to the Forester’s House in Ors, where we were greeted by the mayor of Ors, who well understands the importance of the place for all poetry lovers. Damian Grant recited two of his poems about Owen, and they were also shared with us in French by Madeleine Descargues. After that, it remained for us to visit the cellar where Owen and and the other soldiers  huddled during his last evening alive. Arriving at the ground floor, we all observed the Owen poems projected on the walls in respectful meditative silence.

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec teaches English at Université Caen Normandie and co-edits Arts of War and Peace with Mark Meigs.

Ron Chernow’s Grant: Dealing with an American History Dilemma


Civil War, Reconstruction,

Ron Chernow, Grant, New York: Penguin Press, 2017


The scholarly literature on the forty-five men who have became presidents since 1789 flourishes today. Some like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy maintain a steady attraction and inspire more studies than others due to their auras and fates but, broadly speaking, almost no president actually leaves observers indifferent.

From the point of view of today’s scholars and lovers of historiography, what is striking about these political figures is the variations that appear over time in the way they are perceived and described. Enjoying a bright reputation during his career and lifetime does not protect a president from future, less positive reassessments. Similarly, an unpopular president may benefit from later studies. Scholars’ analysis can put a president’s reputation on see-saw from one decade to another. And the see-saw itself can become a topic keeping interest in the president alive.

Take Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States. Grant does not really benefit from the great aura that would make him a frequent topic in class rooms. He is not a particularly popular figure nowadays. His military career gets summarized with the term « butcher, » and his political career is connected with “corruption,” “butcher.” « Drunkard » is a term attatched to both great periods in his public life: not the ingredients of a flattering portrait. Yet those interested in the Civil War and post-Civil War eras know that Grant was, in the late 19th century, a popular man, a lauded figure and a military hero. He was famous and popular as the commanding general of the UnionArmy against the Confederacy. He gained an indisputable aura which enabled him to serve two terms as president. One million American citizens witnessed his funeral parade. But that aura has now lost its gloss. Grant has almost become ananonymous. How did such a drift in opinion happen? Did the History the United States commit injustice leting a pivotal figure down?

In the post-war years, in the North, Grant was eulogized as an American hero. That comes as no surprise. But surprisingly, he also benefited from a significant reputation in the Southern states. Most southern generals and commanders – some of whom he encountered as early as West Point or during the American War with Mexico – respected Grant. Grant was not loathed by the former rebels. Meanwhile, his personal outlook concerning the future of the United States embraced a careful and even friendly approach towards the Confederate states and their inhabitants. The Confederacy had to be crushed but the Union would need to reintegrate these secessionist territories. Thus, in spite of his brutal tactics on the battlefield, Grant was a prominent champion of leniency towards Confederates during the war and of reconciliation after.[1] He thought this approach was the best way to make all tensions disappear between the North and the South.This is why the terms of surrender he imposed at Appomattox were perceived as magnanimous, and inadequately severe in the eyes of some Northerners. This burnished his image in the South, where newspapers praised his “soldierly good faith” and forgiving attitude towards those he had fought.[2] In1868, after the Republican Convention had chosen him as the party’s candidate, he endorsed the party’s platform while reiterating his desire to see a complete national reunion and reconciliation. The final words of his speech read “Let Us Have Peace,” a phrase used by the Republicans as a slogan during the electoral campaign.[3] Grant’s position explains why Southern papers were favorable to the former general’s presidential candidacy. Despite his affiliation to the RepublicanParty – which appeared then as the nemesis of Southern causes –, they saw him as a non-party candidate, whose only wish was to see peace and unity restored [4] Throughout the United States, the figure of Grant inspired respect and admiration.This was the case in prosperity, but also in tough times like the beginning of the Long Depression in 1873, that opened his second term.

Such positive feelings towards Grant underwent a serious blow after his death in 1885, especially from late 1890s onwards as one version of old Southern pride gave birth to the « lost cause » discourse. It is around this time that the most common criticism against Grant gained popularity, even among those who were not true partisans of this revisionist narrative.[5] The victorious general became a butcher, whose lack of military skill had been compensated for by an overwhelming superiority in resources and number of conscripted men. The seemingly quiet man was first and foremost a confirmed alcoholic. And the respectable public figure became an anti-Semitic amateur soldier and a corrupt politician.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, a whole array of pamphlets, articles and books have told the story of General Grant spreading a certain view of him. The point of this review is not to list all of them. Rather, we can summarize the most salient historiographical trends and the narratives they promoted. Historian Ethan S. Rafuse set out to do this in an article published in 2007, “Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1881-2006.”[6] As the title indicates – paraphrasing a quote from General William T. Sherman –, Rafuse stated that Grant was a mystery, around whom still revolves conflicting opinions and images. First respected and even eulogized by southerners, Grant’s actions and decisions were soon criticized by the backward lookinf lost cause discourse around the turn of the century. Several historians, notably, Bruce Catton, tried to redeem Grant’s reputation after World War II. According to Rafuse, as a result of these scholars’ efforts, “by the time of the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s, Grant had, at least in scholarship, been restored to the high place he held in the hearts of his countrymen at his death and was once again recognized as one of history’s truly great captains.”[7]

Yet, the backlash continued now and then and multiple historians clashed over his legacy. Writing in 1973, historian Martin E. Mantell found it regrettable that “the major role that Grant played in the postwar years has been too little appreciated, the generally accepted opinion of him being reflected in Avery Craven’s recent description of ‘a pathetic, bewildered, shuffling figure whom others used for ends he never understood.’”[8] Meanwhile, works like William S. McFeely’s acclaimed biography published in 1981 reused the “butcher” argument and proposed a darker narrative of Grant’s life and successes.[9] Nonetheless, the last decades have seen the publication of a scholarly literature has given a brighter portrait of the general, reassessing Grant’s qualities and legacy once more. Overall, it appears that the figure of Grant is a recurrent bone of contention especially among American presidents. And though scholars may have finally abandoned the Manichean mindset and found a middle ground between the glamorized image of Grant in the glow of victory, and the fundamentally negative critics that came afterwards, we cannot be sure this new nuanced vision will last. “America’s most reconsidered General” – as Phil Leigh, “an armchair Civil War enthusiast” put it in an article published on the website of the New York Times – still remains indeed a “mysterious” figure for scholars.[10]

It is in this context of warmer reassessment of Grant’s achievements and legacy that Ron Chernow – already author of acclaimed biographies of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington – proposed his narrative and vision of Ulysses Grant’s life and career.

The introduction makes clear that Chernow set out to follow in the line of recent historians’ brighter reassessment of Grant’s career and legacy. He hints at the necessity of reevaluation in order to have a faithful image of the man, as general and as president.[11] By presenting his own narrative of Grant’s entire life, Chernow tries to give a new portrait of the general and clarify the most prominent traits of his life and personality, whether these traits are positive ones or not. In doing this, from Grant’s reputation of “butcher” at war, to the never-ending accusations of corruption during his presidential administration coupled with a notion that Grant gave little consideration to African-American people, Chernow does not shy away from tackling the trickiest, most discussed and most damning aspects of a long public life. In other words, he shows a blatant will to rectify these biases when they appear false and unfair to him, but he also seeks to explain Grant’s flaws instead of repeating hackneyed prejudices.

            Chernow must deal of course, with the double accusations of “butcher” and “bad general.” It is true that Chernow reminds the reader that Grant did not seem predisposed to the army life he came to embrace in his adult life. The young student Ulysses had convincing results in subjects such as mathematics but did poorly in military subjects. Nonetheless, decades later, he found himself commanding successfully vast armies during the Civil War. Even after his victories, which led to the South’s defeat, Grant’s skills as commander have been questioned and debated, even today. The main case for accusers, among whom lost cause supporters, has been that “he had merely been the lucky beneficiary of superiority in men and resources.”[12] Chernow points out, however, that “the plain fact was that six Union commanders before him had failed, with the same men and materiel, whereas Grant had succeeded.”[13] Of course, this leads to the other, « butcher, » side of the criticism. Grant’s detractors come at him with the charge that he was a butcher who reached victory through careless and brutal tactics causing needlessly heavy losses on both sides of the battlefields. Chernow uses several arguments to justify Grant’s military approach and debunk this “butcher” theme. Early on, Chernow explains, Grant had no enthusiasm for violence of any kind: for hunting, fighting and of course war. During the Mexican War, Grant had his “first unforgettable taste of the horrors of combat,” and “experienced no schadenfreude as he observed Mexican troops surrender, only infinite pathos for their miserable plight.”[14] This same sympathy and its accompanying magnanimity would appear years later when he faced Confederate armies. Though he demanded unconditional surrender from his enemies, he never went further, and ordered that all prisoners be treated well. This attitude promted Chernow to remark that “once again the man badly stereotyped as a butcher showed more sensitivity towards his fallen adversaries than his colleagues.”[15] What Chernow emphasizes throughout his book is that Grant cared for all the soldiers involved in the conflict, whether they fought for the Union or not.[16] Furthermore, Grant was aware of what war was and what he had to do to obtain victory against his opponents. This means that he had no idealized view of the conflict, made sober speeches which “[stripped] away romantic flourishes from military rhetoric” and “didn’t whoop with delight over enemy losses” even after a military triumph.[17] Of course, today, his detractors still mention his use of a “total war” style during the Civil War with its inevitable brutalities.  But as Chernow puts it:

The caricature of Lee as elegant and faultless whereas Grant was a clumsy butcher misses the point that Grant had much the harder task: he had to whittle down the Confederate Army and smash it irrevocably, whereas Lee needed only to inflict massive pain on the northern army and stay alive to fight another day.[18]

Grant’s only option was to push the southern states into a situation where they would have no choice but to surrender, hence the need for his armies to display this more aggressive approach. In another conflict with another objective, Grant – but also Sherman – may have used a different strategy and avoided the accusations of being butchers.

Another inevitable and important point Chernow must address is the relations Grant had with African-American people. Chernow said in the introduction that the general is still remembered as not particularly carring for this group. But what appears throughout Chernow’s work is that Grant was actually very concerned by the conditions of Black people and criticized the institution of slavery. Furthermore, African-Americans themselves were aware of this and acknowledged his role in their struggle to have more rights. Born to a strongly abolitionist father, Grant growingly became himself an opponent to slavery. This would cause much trouble with his wife’s family: slave owning and anti-Yankee. This situation gave Grant the opportunity to display his aversion for slavery explicitly. He swore he would free his father-in-law’s slaves if they came into his possession – a promise he eventually fulfilled.[19] During the war he gradually understood that Unionism and abolitionism were more and more linked, which reinforced his opinion that slavery needed to be suppressed in the country. Before the Civil War, it is unclear if he wanted to see African-American people have the exact same rights as white people. According to Chernow, it is during the conflict that Grant’s mind shifted towards the idea of a full voting citizenship for former slaves. Employing contrabands and helping runaway slaves, he soon expressed the will to arm “Negro soldiers” and have them fight alongside the white troops.[20] After the war, his image as a champion of African-American people was further strengthened. After the tragic racial violence during the Memphis riots of May 1866 and in the absence of a response from President Johnson, as military commander he gave orders to protect more former slaves in the Southern states – and fight groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, “in the face of a recalcitrant president, Grant was rapidly emerging as the foremost protector of persecuted southern blacks.”[21] Two years later, chosen as Republican candidate for the presidency, he endorsed a platform that committed to “black equality before the law and the right of freed people to participate in southern politics.”[22] This commitment to the African-American population was reaffirmed by Grant in his inaugural address as he spoke of the necessity to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment by which the right to vote was eventually extended to non-white people and former slaves. Chernow explains, Grant also appointed several African-American men to diplomatic positions – for the first time in American history – such as Ebenezer D. Basset who became minister to Haiti, but he also hired numerous “ordinary blacks” in the federal bureaucracy.[23] Despite this, there were still occasional rumors and scandals over Grant’s supposedly unfriendly attitude towards African-American people. For instance, there had been allegations that Grant snubbed Frederick Douglass during a dinner with commissioners, allegations that Douglass himself denied.[24] Douglass proved to be a faithful ally of Grant, and Chernow refers multiple times to the admiration Douglass displayed for the former Union general. When evoking the endorsements Grant received from the Black community during the 1872 campaign – among which there was the support from the leaders of the Convention of Colored Citizens of New England –, Chernow writes:

By far the most important black endorsement came from Frederick Douglass, who actively campaigned for the president. […] For Douglass, Grant was the general who had effected with the sword Lincoln’s emancipation policy, then extended those gains by backing the Fifteenth Amendment. “To Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement,” Douglass stated.[25]

Therefore, it seems clear that Grant’s relationships with African-American people have been largely misunderstood and minimized. While some have tried to picture him as another white man inherently uninterested by the struggles of people of color, Chernow aims at proving the contrary. Chernow claims that “Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves.”[26]

            Another point that is sometimes linked to Grant’s relationship with Black people is his supposed antisemitism. It is easy to charge the general with such accusations in regard of the General Order No.11 he issued during the Civil War, in December 1862. This order written in the context of struggles against the black market, all Jews – considered as a “class” – were expelled from the district under Grant’s command, i.e. an area covering parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. Chernow does not try to clear Grant’s name or pretend this order was not blameworthy. Rather, he explains how Grant tried to make amends with the Jewish community after the war as well as the extent to which this community endorsed him in spite of what he had done. During the 1868 campaign, after stating that he regretted his wartime decision and meeting with Jewish personalities, he received the support and vote of a majority of Jews. As with African-Americans and also with Native Americans, Grant appointed Jewish people to federal positions. Furthermore, he reiterated his wish to be forgiven by this community, hence his decision to attend the dedication of a synagogue in Washington in 1876.[27]

            The accusations of alcoholism are another frequent charge against Grant. In Chernow’s biography, this is a theme appears in almost every chapter. Alcohol seems to have always been a threat to Grant since early adulthood. Sobriety was jeopardized when Grant was far from his wife Julia for any long period. Something that often happened because of his military service. Chernow corroborates that the man who later became a national hero was indeed a drunkard at times and that his career could have ended prematurely as a result of this. Yet, he also emphasizes – contrary to other studies – that Grant sought help and eventually managed to control his urge to drink. Two persons helped him in this long struggle: his wife Julia and his aide-de-camp and trustworthy friend John Rawlins. The positive influence Rawlins had during the war and afterwards is certain, as Grant’s tendency to drink seemed to have completely disappeared when Rawlins was by his side. While the accusations never ended, the presence of these two persons enabled him to stay strong. Rawlins’ untimely death in 1869 could have disrupted this victory over alcohol, but Chernow is adamant that Rawlins’ influence – with Julia’s presence – helped him to remain sober. Rawlins’s influence was broader than the mere question of temperance. Appearing as the only person Grant could rely on blindly, he is portrayed by Chernow as a safeguard against all the attacks the general could face concerning his public image and reputation. Chernow also suggests that his presence during Grant’s presidency could have been helpful:

With his unrivaled candor, Rawlins had occupied a special niche in Grant’s life that nobody could re-create. Selflessly protective of Grant’s reputation, Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption, elevating the ethical tone at the executive mansion. With Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser upon whose judgment he could implicitly rely. Stung by criticism, Grant would retreat into silence and lick his wounds. Rawlins might have penetrated that reserve. Into the vacuum left by Rawlins moved crafty, cynical politicians for whom the credulous Grant was often no match.[28]

            It is interesting to highlight this passage, because it can lead us to the overshadowing question of flawed statesmanship that haunts Grant’s image. Chernow’s allows us to see the numerous flaws Grant displayed during his two terms. Yet, Chernow invites us to see the reasons behind them, and he does so from the very beginning thanks to his analysis of Grant’s personality, his approach to power and how he handled his relationships. Concerning his personality, Chernow often resorts to the terms “naïve” or “credulous” and even mentions the “guileless nature” of Grant, the same nature that would endanger his financial situation at multiple times as he embarked in numerous business mishaps – which were prompted by Grant’s obsession with the issue of his family’s financial security.[29] In this regard, the accusations of corruption become less easy to deal with. Surely, Grant made mistakes, but they originated in his character. Chernow writes that “his sin was one of naïveté, not malice or lack of scruples,” that “he could not imagine subordinates guilty of sleazy behavior” and highlights the “[irony] that Grant’s presidency became synonymous with corruption, since he himself was impeccably honest.”[30] Chernow even states that “Grant had the misfortune of presiding over America in the corrupt Gilded Age,” meaning that this was not the man who was responsible for these flaws and mistakes but rather that he was a victim of the overall social, economic and political environment.[31] On multiple occasions, Grant is described as a man who abhorred favoritism and nepotism . As a young man, h wished to become colonel and “head a regiment or cavalry brigade” thanks to his merit only. Later as a politician he wanted to get rid of the spoils system.[32] But the cynicism of his era – and his personal misfortunes – made him gradually change his mind. That’s how “he ended up willy-nilly a captive of the spoils system,” “decided to reward loyalty above ideology” and displayed his fidelity to his own family and friends, thus resorting to nepotism.[33]

            The last point is worth mentioning regarding the portrait Chernow draws in his biography concerns the issue of Grant’s political ambition. This is perhaps the biggest gray area in Chernow’s study, since we are never sure of Grant’s stance towards power. Was he really a “helpless casualty of his own fame” from military successes?[34] Was he sincere when he claimed he had no political ambition and would be pained to see his name in connection with a political office?[35] Or did he just seize the opportunity when it appeared before him? Until the end of the Civil War, Grant is described as a truly modest man, lacking political ambition and refusing to be seen as a potential presidential candidate. Yet, it is never clear afterwards whether he really wanted to have political weight or if it just so happened and he could not refuse it. The most jarring element is how Grant suddenly viewed himself as the only one able to unify the North and the former Confederacy by using his aura and the respect Southern leaders had for him because of his magnanimity during the war.[36] At the same time, he did not seem to really want the presidency since he expressed the wish to remain in the army. At the same time, he did not refuse his nomination by the Republican Party. Once elected, he felt as if the presidency had come to him in spite of himself. At the end of his first term, he hesitated at the prospect of a second one, but once again his prestige made him the perfect candidate for the Republicans. Years later, after a long trip around the world following the end of his second term, he came back to the United States and became once more a potential candidate despite the informal two-term limit. Only the surprising victory of James Garfield at the Chicago convention prevented him from running for a third term.[37] In the end, the only sure thing is that Grant’s closest friends – Rawlins and Sherman – always disapproved of his rising interest in political matters, fearing he would be corrupted by power.[38]

            It is interesting to notice that Chernow uses the same quotation as Ethan Rafuse in the very last pages of his book. Indeed, in the last paragraph but one, he also mentions Sherman’s statement that “Grant was a mystery even to himself, a unique intermingling of strength and weakness such as he never encountered before.”[39] Ironically, these words, repeatedly quoted, stress that even those who knew Grant best could not understand him completely. As Chernow reminds us several times in his biography, Grant was an introvert and kept many things to himself, an inheritance he attributed to his mother.[40] Thus, it comes as no surprise that Grant’s closest friends could be surprised and doubt of their knowledge about him. Even when he finally decided to write his memoirs he did so at Mark Twain’s insistence and and the prospect of providing a source of money to his family, rather than from a genuine will to open up to the public. In the work, Grant deliberately remained mute on some aspects of his life. Some of these are understandable like his embarrassing relationship to drink, but others are more curious such as the absence of John Rawlins who was yet certainly his most loyal friend. Because of this silence, which stems from his very personality, Grant did not provide us with the key to the “mystery.”

As said earlier, many historians have tried to unravel this mystery. Perhaps because Grant is a pivotal figure in America’s darkest and most divisive period, the opinions about him have become just like his “total war” strategy: uncompromising, all-or-nothing. Thus, when he has not been idolized, he has suffered from biased, ideological revisions that have sometimes been adversarial by definition. The lost cause arguments fall into this category. Even today, historical discussions about the Civil War and the post-war years can lead to stormy debates. In a sense, Ulysses Grant has become the victim of his own divided time. Recent studies like Chernow’s book may finally have abandoned a Manichean mindset and freed themselves of ideological discourse. Perhaps the Union general can hope to see his former reputation – at least partially – restored in historians’ but also in the people’s minds.

[1] In an article published in Francis Trevelyan Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, William Conant Church – a journalist who served as Lieutenant-Colonel during the Civil War for the Union in the United States Volunteers – wrote the following: “Numerous circumstances in the life of Grant illustrate his consideration for others. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, where over thirty thousand Confederates surrendered to him, July 4, 1863, he directed his exulting troops ‘to be orderly and quiet as the paroled prisoners passed’ and to make no offensive remarks. The only cheers heard there were for the defenders of Vicksburg, and the music sounded was the tune of ‘Old Hundred,’ in which victor and vanquished could join. The surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, April 9, 1865, was characterized by almost feminine tenderness and tact, and a sympathetic courtesy toward the conquered so marked that an observer was moved to ask, ‘Who’s surrendering here, anyway?’” William Conant Church, “Ulysses Simpson Grant,” in Francis Trevelyan Miller, Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, New York: The Review of Reviews Co., Vol. 10 (1911), p. 32

[2] Ron Chernow, Grant, Penguin Press (2017), p. 553

[3] Letter from Ulysses S. Grant to Ge. Joseph R. Hawley, President National Republican Convention, dated May 29th, 1868. The letter can be found here:

[4] Martin E. Mantell, Johnson, Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction, Columbia University Press (1973), p. 41

[5] William Conant Church praised Grant’s presidential record but seemed to question whether Grant truly controlled the situation and knew what he was doing: “During his stormy period of civil administration. Grant was like a landsman tossing upon an angry sea who makes his port by virtue of the natural drift of the winds and tides rather than through his skill in navigation.” William Conant Church, “Ulysses Simpson Grant,” in Francis Trevelyan Miller, Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes, Vol. 10 (1911), p. 350

[6] Ethan S. Rafuse, “Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1881-2006,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 849-874.

   David W. Blight makes another summary of the historiographical debate around Grant in his article “The Silent Type,” published on the website of The New York Review on May 24th, 2018. Link:

[7] Ethan S. Rafuse, “Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1881-2006” (2007), p. 851

[8] Martin E. Mantell, Johnson, Grant and the Politics of Reconstruction (1973), pp. 2-3. Inner quote from Avery Craven, Reconstruction: The Ending of the Civil War, New York (1969), p. 275

[9] Rafuse asserted that the main reason for this shift was to be found in the context of publication. McFeely did not write in the aftermath of World War II like Catton, but in the post-Vietnam War years, i.e. “in a climate of cynicism and disenchantment with the American Dream and an acute sensitivity to the gap between its glittering promises and oft-tarnished reality.” Ethan S. Rafuse, “Still a Mystery? General Grant and the Historians, 1881-2006” (2007), p. 853

[10] Phil Leigh, “America’s Most Reconsidered General,” Opinionator section on the website of The New York Times, published on May 1st, 2013. Link:

[11] “Dismissed as a philistine, a boor, a drunk, and an incompetent, Grant has been subjected to pernicious stereotypes that grossly impede our understanding of the man.” In Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. xx

[12] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 516

[13] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 516

[14] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 44-48

[15] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 326

[16] Chernow makes it clear that Grant did truly care for the soldiers under his command, a point that has to be put forward since previous studies had suggested the contrary. He mentions that Grant often spent time in camps with his men, but also that he made sure that medical facilities and care were available, such as with hospital boats. He even refers to Frederick Law Olmsted, secretary of the US Sanitary Commission, who inspected Grant’s camps and debunked the negative rumor, highlighting how soldiers seemed in high spirits with him. See Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 246 and p. 278.

   Cf. footnote number 1 on Grant’s consideration towards Confederate soldiers and the Appomattox

[17] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 127 and p. 181

[18] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 370

[19] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 106

[20] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 288-289

[21] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 571-572

[22] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 616

[23] Thanks to this propensity to appoint African-American men, he received the support of George T. Downing of the National Convention of the Colored Men of America and of Frederick Douglass. See Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 642.

[24] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 718-719

[25] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 746.

[26] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 858

[27] It was the first time an American president ever attended a synagogue consecration and yet another instance of Grant atoning for General Order No. 11, his infamous war edict.” Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 837

[28] For Chernow’s full account of Rawlins’s death and legacy: Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 667-671

[29] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 347

[30] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 678 and p. 728

[31] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 729

[32] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 131

[33] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 732. Chernow also notices that “when Lincoln employed patronage for political ends, which he did extensively, [the historians] have praised him as a master politician; when Grant catered to the same spoilsmen, they have denigrated him as a corrupt opportunist.” Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 733

[34] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 558

[35] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 328

[36] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 614-615

[37] See Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 902. Chernow highlights the fact that Grant was ahead in the vote after the first ballot.

[38] Chernow evokes a growing “schism” between Sherman and Grant and notes Rawlins’s comment on Grant’s supposed vanity with the adulation people demonstrated towards him. See Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), pp. 328-330 and p. 339

[39] Ron Chernow, Grant (2017), p. 958

[40] Chernow explains as soon as the introduction and the first chapter how the “unadorned” Grant “modeled himself after his mutely subdued mother, avoiding his father’s bombast.” See Chernow, Grant, p. xx and p. 6

Thibaud Hesry is currently involved in research on the American Civil War and the Reconstruction period at Paris Diderot University.

A Review of John Greening, To the War Poets


War Poets, Deictic Realism, Remembrance, Polyphonic Poetry

John Greening, To the War Poets, Manchester: Carcanet, 2013


‘At the visionary edge’ (53) could well define John Greening’s poetic stance in his collection To the War Poets published by Carcanet Press Ltd in 2013. Although the title constitutes in itself a dedication to mostly dead poets, the gift sent to the beyond, as if the passage of time did not matter so much, can only be received by the living. Being meant as paradoxical tributes to a category of fellow writers, the poems of this British author who has been the recipient of many literary prizes, are tangible tokens that poetry can actually partake of the duty to remember. Hence, the first question we as readers have to ask ourselves is: will our role be limited to that of silent witnesses? The front cover, which reproduces a detail from Richard Walker’s acrylic on canvas entitled ‘The World War One Memorial’, might give us a clue as to what our answer should be. Indeed, on seeing the legible letters or postcards, some of them bearing birthday wishes, the opened or sealed envelopes, and the newspaper cuttings, which all aim at the illusion of verisimilitude through realism, we cannot but put ourselves in each recipient’s or even sender’s place. Being reminded from the outset of how important any means of communication is in wartime, we quickly come to realize that the poems which follow are themselves the vehicles of a manifold correspondence whose purpose it is to examine the issue of patriotism already materialized by the British flag. The artefacts presented, which are both German and British, possess a truly deictic dimension since they showthrough the superimposition of once incompatible or even conflicting realities how the fate of a nation can be reflected in the secret and intimate signs of individual daily lives where partisanship is only too natural.

         As for John Greening, his standpoint becomes manifest as early as the table of contents, his translations from German poets testifying to his willingness to take into account more than one angle by appropriating the texts of so-called former enemies and adapting them to the mother tongue. These dual semiotics of his, which also highlight the absurdity of war, both armies having had to endure the same atrocities, turn the collection into an echo chamber for a score of artists including Georg Heym, Georg Trakl, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Edmund Blunden, John Clare, Siegfried Sassoon, W. B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Thomas, Elgar and  Waldo Williams, whose personalities and aesthetics come through. This polyphony of voices enables the reflector to enhance the various similarities and dissimilarities that have separated and isolated such various styles over time. Yet the readers might regret the absence of footnotes or endnotes summing up the biographies of the poets mentioned or specifying the historical context in which each poem was written.  These could have helped to read the testimonies in the right light and assess more easily the kind of departure John Greening takes from the literary traditions he refers to. And all the more so since the original texts have not been reproduced so that for those who might have wished to do so, there is no means of comparing them with their translations. 

         However, this editorial choice does not really lessen the resounding impact of the collection as a whole though the metaphor which comes to mind on first reading may rather be that of the kaleidoscope. As you turn over the pages, you get to seehow a given number of themes relating to the reality of war happen to combine so as to make difference reflect sameness and singularity, multiplicity, while abstract paradigms are being counterbalanced by concrete situations. In that respect, the function of toponyms often used as epigraphs  – ‘the names / that aren’t from dead-leaf catalogues of dreams / but rooted in a real place’ (30) – such as Ypres (29), Bapaume (38) ‘Port Said’ (48), and ‘Dunkerque’ (78), should not be overlooked since they suffice to conjure up memories of the historical past by setting the scenes of sieges and battles and imposing a specific atmosphere from the very beginning. What is most striking is indeed the visual quality of John Greening’s verse as the readers’ imagination is summoned by being addressed directly, often in the imperative mode, the motto seeming to be: ‘Look at this picture’ (72). ‘Ypres. To Edmund Blunden’ (29) illustrates the poet’s manner, in the pictorial sense of the word, for here as elsewhere he cannot resist the temptation to paint the real instead of just wording it: 

          It’s Brueghelesque. The User Canal. One angler
          with two rods and an (unnecessary) mud-brown brolly.
          A bell is tolling midday-and-beyond behind me
          and birdsong all around. One magpie. Two carrion crows.

The paratactic style of this short extract, which characterizes numerous other poems from this collection, allows him to compose little vignettes whose conciseness and delusive simplicity make for poetic intensity and depth. To some extent, the alternation of sentences with and without verbs creates an effect of perspective as one ground seems to succeed another while the touches of colour enlivening nearly every page are part of a pointillist palette which contributes to such arresting images as ‘The white cliffs are like all the paper they could not have – […] and that steady grey horizon is a never-ending pencil lead’ (‘Dover. To Isaac Rosenberg’, 20,  l. 1, 3) or such synaesthesias as ‘a falling bird / a sudden / black dissonance’ (‘St Julien. To One Who Was With Me’, 59, l. 10-12). 

         With either Brueghel (29), Constable (71) or Turner (35) in mind, the poet thus invites us to follow him into his own imaginary museum of the Great War and other conflicts or of present-day scenes, so as to ponder on them for a while in the blanks, along the dashes whose minus signs can yet introduce as many hermeneutic additions. The objectivity he claims, ‘while I – / in my green raincoat – cast / the necessary cold eye’ (42), explains why hard facts are given as such without ever being tinged with sentimentalism (cf. 48) as he prefers to portray people uncompromisingly or to confront violence and death head-on, as some soldiers would their enemies.  He is nevertheless aware that the reality of war has never been so close and so distant, mediated and projected as it is onto the multiple screens which people our everyday lives (38, 44). The revealing phrase ‘thumbing a remote’ (30) might apply to this oxymoronic literary standpoint which brings together proximity and its opposite, be it in space, time or memory. The recurring telescoping of different eras going so far back as antiquity or even the mythical past (44-45, 53) and of different cultural areas heightens the sense of loss through contrast and gives rise to a kind of intransitive nostalgia. For its object seems to be an ever elusive ideal akin to the ‘sacred polyphony’ of ‘dawn’ (45) or to the mirage vision offered by the fine poem ‘Wadi Halfa’ (49), which ‘would be the thousand and second night’. 

         The gaps thus opened by the loose slivers of images which follow one another along the many run-on-lines conveying a sense of urgency or of impending doom and reverberating the introductory epigraph from Wilfred Owen, imply that the readers have to provide the missing links to try and make sense in peacetime of what, in wartime, appears all too often senseless. Many poems being unrhymed, their musical quality is hence to be found in the swift rhythm which at times mimicks the hectic pace of life introduced by new technology and subtly links the bigger picture with its minute parts to elicit a feeling of empathy for any potential victim. More denotative than connotative, richer in comparisons than in metaphors, all the attempts at defining reality as it supposedly was or is like, point at universal truths through the frequent use of the aoristic present tense or through indirection.  For instance, the lexicon of war is sometimes transposed into another context (19, 31, 33, 55) or figures of displacement are meant to express repressed feelings: ‘the rain / weeping against the window but unable to trouble us’ (24). 

         As with Brueghel, story-telling prevails while the tension between inscription and erasure, what is said, denied, or remains unsaid, endows an overall aesthetics of fragmentation with a tragic quality the better to let the archetypal find contemporary referents. In the image of their synecdoches, these pictorial narrative poems, which cannot but come across as truly modern, focus on the anecdotal details suggesting the whole in a way that is reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s style (57). Though famous artists mix with anonymous people, the impersonal is pre-eminent, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as the nominalized adjectives like ‘The young’,  ‘the old’ (25), triggering generalizations which nevertheless remain idiosyncratic thanks to the often unexpected associations of epithet and noun. The presence of death looms so large that to somewhat muffle ‘The screams of the grown-not-old’ (33) haunting the evocative landscape, whose sporadic animality calls to mind Ted Hughes’ imagery (56), the poet often resorts to humour:

          No larks,
          just the passing 
          And no chance of a poppy
          that isn’t paper or plastic.
          The children among the graves
          are dressed as if they were
          themselves a floral tribute.
          (“’Essex Farm,’ Yser Canal. To John McCrae, » 26)

The insistence on the mortal nature of the body (43, 48, 51, 59, 60, 63) as opposed to the ‘corpus, [the] body of work, / whether poetry or prose’ (79) which may reach posterity (48), explains why so many poems have turned into epitaphs (27, 60), while others stage ‘a festival of black humour on the Isle of Wight’ (53). Playing on the homonymy of proper names, such as Wight (53) or Graves (79-80), on numbers such as 11 which symbolizes the commemorative month of November (25), on musical notes (64), the poet endeavours to defuse the tension which has built up as he travels across British or foreign lands and describes places which are so many objective correlatives for other realities. 

         When more traditional in content, John Greening’s verse is less so in form for he revisits the canon and experiments with the layout as when he spaces out the stanzas to hint at various instances of destruction in wartime or not (55, 68), even making his paragraphs look like the keys of a piano threatened by a ‘buzz-bomb’ (64). If ‘Art mocks Life and Terror / is trompe-l’œil’ (37), the interactive guessing game, which raises more questions than it can provide, nevertheless aims at combating illusions, and not just optical ones: ‘Abducted / by memory card, I’m / danced up around / Ben Bulben, cropped / and Photoshopped / to fit the image of / the poet’ (41). As the readers leaf through the collection, they could well consider poetry to be  ‘La Flèche d’Or:/ this golden arrow / straight to the heart’ (17), or the great question mark which takes the shape of life and tries to encapsulate its mystery only to perpetuate the sense of wonder.

Cathy Parc is Associate Professor of English at the Catholic University of Paris and is the author of Calvin et Hobbes de Bill Watterson (2013) and L’Anglais du Monde Politique (2014). She also co-edited Poetry & Religion: Figures of the Sacred (2013).

In Brighton Looking Back — Women’s Memories of World War Two


World War II, Women and War, Oral History

This paper explores the findings from interviews made with women about their experiences of war, in keeping with practices of oral history begun in the 1970s. Four interviewees from the Brighton area represent different age groups and varied experiences of the war which are commented on in some detail.


            The research this article is based on is part of a personal research project focusing on representations of women in the Second World War. It is linked also to the four-year research project, “Women and Conflict”, which the gender group, “Groupe études [genre]” (affiliated to the “Cultures anglo-saxonnes” research team at Toulouse – Le Mirail University) is currently engaged in. My personal focus is mostly on wartime cinematographic representations of women. The analysis of a large number of films of the period, which portray women in fairly innovatory gender roles, led to a questioning as to the possible genuine gender role evolution during the war and the articulation between these changes and cinematographic images. My article, “Women and War Films in Britain (1939-1945): Signs of Emancipation or Cases of Manipulation”, published in LISA[1] was motivated by the desire to investigate whether these films were portraying, on the screen, authentic gender role changes in society or whether, as organs of propaganda, the films were promoting gender roles which the State and a certain number of well-placed citizens deemed useful to the nation during this period of armed conflict.

This above-mentioned, first article on the subject called on interviews carried out with women, in relation to their war experiences, which had already been published and on other printed source material. Although aware that many researchers have already interviewed women about their wartime experiences, thus perhaps making any further contributions appear unnecessary, I was also aware that there is debate, in some cases, over the interpretation of some of the interview content. Furthermore, I was interested in coming to terms with the whole area of oral history and the methodological and theoretical issues it raises. I was keen to carry out a number of interviews personally, in order to gain additional, direct information regarding women’s own evaluation of their experiences and to check on the veracity of some affirmations made about the intrinsic value of women’s oral narratives of their experiences. The first task was to select some possible candidates for interviews.

Oral history: theory and the beginnings of practice

I chose the Brighton area as I had some contacts with an association devoted to the development of local history research – East Brighton Bygones Local History Society[2] and other contacts with women, thanks to family networks, who had lived through the war.

Before proceeding any further in the description of the panel of interviewees and the results obtained it is pertinent to refer to some of the methodological hazards which the practice of oral history engages one with. In her article “Women, Wartime and Autobiography: Gendering the Genre”, to be published in a coming issue of LISA, Karen Meschia, member of the “Groupe études [genre]”, offers a comprehensive synthesis of the interest of the domain of oral history for feminist historians and also points out the pitfalls in relation to which the approach has been criticized. For my own appraisal I have drawn, in part, on her comments.

The practice of oral history in Great Britain developed significantly from the 1970s onwards[3]. Drawing on methods borrowed from sociology and ethnology, the interview and observation of a population, its apparent possibility of giving historical visibility or voice to social groups previously ignored by historians was met with enthusiasm. Paul Thompson, a major figure in the development of historiography in the direction of oral history, talks of obtaining “evidence from the underside”[4]. He firmly believed that oral history would enable dominated social groups to re-appropriate their own histories. “History becomes, to put it simply, more democratic” [5], he claimed, thanks to the fact that “witnesses can now be called from the underclasses”[6]. For feminist historians the concept of “underclass” was well suited to qualify female populations which were seldom represented in the foreground of historical constructions. They were thus quick to adopt the methods of oral history with the aim of recounting “how it really was” for women. However, some among them were almost as quick in beginning to question the methodological and epistemological reliability of this aim. For one thing it was pointed out that women are said to “mute” their own thoughts and feelings[7]. So, to what extent can we consider that they will recount their lives in their own terms, their experience “as it really was”, rather than simply adopting the “terms of prevailing concepts and conventions”[8]. Other researchers questioned whether “women”, as such, form a coherent group: “[…] there is very little agreement after all on what it is that constitutes, or ought to constitute, the category of women”[9]. They wondered whether gender identity unites women into a coherent group more than ethnicity and class identity divide them. Denise Riley[10]  and Jane W. Scott[11] go so far as to assert the impossibility of using women’s accounts at all. In turn, this methodical methodological deconstruction of the potential of oral history for the study of women, the suggestion that in no way could women obtain “agency”, alarmed a number of feminists who were keen to hold onto an opening towards women’s voices, onto a possibility of placing women within history, via their own accounts[12]. Penny Summerfield thus proposed that the researcher should concentrate on the manner in which the account is constructed and on the way in which individual accounts interweave with collective accounts, in effect, on a form of intertextuality between individual and collective accounts. Summerfield thus establishes the context first with a corresponding typology of female assessments of their roles – one finds the “stoics” and the “heroics” (those who claim they just acted because they had to and those who uphold a dynamic, activist opinion of their participation) and she examines how her cases fit into the picture.

Meanwhile, Graham Dawson draws attention to the therapeutic function of autobiographical accounts, stating that they enable people to achieve a form of “composure”: at once a composing or putting together of self, via the telling, and the reaching of some form of tranquillity, thanks to this formulation of the experience[13]. However, the examination of one of her cases leads Summerfield to wonder whether on some occasions the recounting does not have a “dis/composing” effect on the narrator. Indeed, she observed that Anne Tomlinson, one of her interviewees, fitted into the “heroics” category as regards the beginning of her narration (“This was a marvellous moment”[14]) but as she advances in the time of the account she seems to be led to call in question more and more the possibility of occupying an active role outside the home and ends even by questioning the usefulness of her action as a mother within the home. She thus seems to move more towards “dis/composure” than towards “composure”[15].

It is within this theoretical framework that the accounts of the Brighton interviewees are examined. The focus is turned towards the extent to which they seem to be, indeed, united by gender identity or opposed by class or ethnic identity or other considerations: in the light of their accounts the article addresses the issue as to whether one can talk specifically of “women’s experiences” and “women’s voicings” of the experience, in their case, looking at the degree to which there are shared elements in theirs narratives. Attention is turned to whether they appear to “mute” their own voice, providing stereotyped discourses on women’s experiences during the war, rather than authentically individual ones. The research also questions the extent to which their discourse seems to correspond to a process of “composure”, as Dawson suggests, or rather to “dis-composure”, as Summerfield intimates is sometimes the case.

As Karen Meschia points out there are a multitude of organisations and institutions in Britain which have set up projects around the gathering of individual memories of the Second World War. One of the most ambitious, national in scale, is that of the “BBC People’s War Archive”. However, there are also numbers of lively local initiatives and it is one of these with which contact was established: “East Brighton Bygones”. Four of my interviewees were known to one of the association’s volunteer coordinators and she arranged for me to interview them. They are here named as Eileen, Eve, Iris and Beryl. The fifth, here named Marie, I met via a family network of relations. The link between them is that they all now live in or near Brighton[16], although they are not all natives of the town, nor did they all spend the War in Brighton. Beryl is Brighton born and has always lived there, on the eastern side of the town. Eve and her parents lived for a time in Brighton before the War and were there when the War broke out, living on the western side of the town. Marie and Eileen are both originally from the north of England. Marie, from near Manchester, spent part of the War in Scotland and moved to Brighton after the War when she followed her husband, a southerner, down south. Eileen, from Howarth Moor, spent the War in Manchester and ended up teaching in Brighton, some time after the War. Iris was from Oxford, spent the War in London, went back to Oxford after the War and moved to Brighton six or seven years ago.

At the time of the outbreak of war they were aged four (Beryl), nineteen (Iris), twenty (Marie), twenty-four (Eve), twenty-five (Eileen). There are evidently variations in their stories and points of view, in relation to their age differences, in particular, naturally, as regards Beryl’s account. The number of interviewees is small but the material they give access to is extremely extensive, partly because each woman, in fact, refers to experiences of other women apart from herself – particularly mother, aunts, grandmothers or friends and colleagues – so that there is a multiplication of the original sources. Furthermore, quite by chance and not due to any pre-conceived plan of selection (although this should have been the case), the five women offer an amazingly varied cross-section of class background and of possible women’s roles during the War. They run from an upper-middle class member of the Women’s Volunteer Service whose father taught at Eton (Eve), who says, “But we had lots of friends who had cars. Even with chauffeurs” (3)[17], to Beryl whose parents ran a greengrocers’ shop in east Brighton, who would probably be considered lower-middle class. Eve was a trained journalist (London University) but, before the War, quickly replaced journalism with work in advertising. She was also a highly skilled and trained fencer who took part in European Championships before the War. Marie Boole says of her parents that they were “medical people, though Mummy didn’t work any more then. She had been a nurse and my father was at the hospital” (1). They had a large house, with six cellars and she says: “I would never tell people what our house was like because it was like showing off” (3). She herself joined the WAAFs once she had overcome her parent’s objections to their daughter going into the forces. Eileen says she came from “a typical bourgeois Baptist family” (3), with a father who went from “being a Liberal to a Conservative” (3) and a mother who “was a feminist” (3). She took a degree in French at London University, before enrolling for a secretarial course for graduates and, by the time the War started, she had travelled “[…] round the world, paying [her] way, doing secretarial work” (1). She joined the Communist Party just before the War. At the beginning of the War she went into War Control, then “[…] went into the munitions industry as personnel manager” (1). At the outbreak of War Iris King, aged nineteen, had already been training to be a nurse for two years. She would have dearly loved to be a doctor or, as second best, a teacher but she says of herself and her family, where she was one of four sisters and a brother: for a “[…] young girl of my kind of education, nursing was extremely badly paid but you were kept and you had your training and it was one thing you could go into. I mean, if you were very, very bright you could get to University but in those days you had to be extremely bright and get bursaries and scholarships and that kind of thing, to be able to go to university because not many women went to university anyway and even teachers’ training colleges which a lot of girls would go to, my particular family couldn’t afford to send me […] (2).

Women’s accounts of the War

In the short space of this article it is not possible to draw on all the material these women’s accounts provide: as mentioned above, they cover experiences running from that of the child observer to the Women’s Voluntary service worker, or the member of an armed force for women, the employee in the munitions industry, the nurse. That is without counting the extensions of the interviewees towards their mothers or aunts, variously participating in fire watch duty, running a shop, taking in evacuees, working as Red Cross volunteer, growing vegetables to sell for the benefit of air force widows and so on.

Thus for each woman a particular aspect or event, sometimes more, has been chosen which seemed to be given priority in her account, it being understood that the account of each contained many other aspects it would be of interest to dwell upon.

Being a child, Beryl’s role in the War is very much that of an observer and her account brings to the fore events of her and her family’s daily wartime life. At the start of the War she was four, a young age to remember clearly, yet she does remember the day war was declared: “[…] we were fishing at Slackham Ponds, with my aunt and uncle in their little car […] we threw everything in the car and hotfooted back to Brighton […] And we got home and sat in the basement with our gas masks on, for hours”. (1) By the end of the War she was ten, so remembers many aspects of daily life, for example, being at school during air raids: “[…] to get to the shelter we had to go out of the door, down some steps and across an open playground […] most of the time we weren’t able to get to the shelters, so we sat in the corridor […] on the floor, arms and legs folded […] and they used to get us singing as loud as we could”. (1) On one occasion, when she was at school, her own street was bombed: “[…] the butcher’s shop […] had a direct hit and the butcher was killed […] And we had a big hole up in the passage wall and my mother’s front room that, you never went in, you know, high days and holidays, it was a mass of rubble and dust”. (1) She talks with admiration of her mother running the shop, with one assistant, after her father joined up. She also brought out the many letters written home by her uncles serving abroad, so her account unfolds on a variety of narrative levels. One of the memories which is the most forceful to her or “poignant”, as she says, concerns a letter, addressed to “Rose and Beryl” (Rose being her mother), from one of her uncles, who wrote home telling of what he had seen when, whilst serving in the area, he was able to go on a visit to Rome and he ends: “I’m looking forward to being home again, Cheerio, Ern” (8). He was killed two weeks later, leaving an eighteen month old daughter. Beryl says of herself: “I was heartbroken! Absolutely heartbroken!”. She dwelt for a considerable time on the death of her uncle and on how, subsequently, her aunt found a job, got herself some qualifications and brought up her daughter and a nephew whose mother left his father for someone else during the War.

As is apparent in Beryl’s account, Brighton was not a safe place to be yet, at the beginning of the War it was deemed safer than London and was chosen as a destination for evacuees. At the outbreak of War Eve had recently married an Australian naval officer and had intimated to her husband that she would join the WRNS. However, he was not greatly in agreement and asked her to follow him to Australia. Eve hesitated and her mother, a member of the Women’s Voluntary Service [WVS] said: “I think you’d better join it until you know what you are going to do”. (1) So Eve obeyed and set to helping to collect and to sort clothes and to find volunteers to take in evacuees. As she says, she went “[…] round all the places that I knew where people lived which, of course, was the wrong thing to do. We went to people who had rather nice, rich homes” (1). The WVS was then told that within the next three weeks “[…] ninety pregnant women with their other children […]” would be sent down. “Pregnancy! We had never thought of that!” says Eve, who re-contacted the “nice, rich homes” saying: “Some of them may be…mildly…pregnant, you know. They might have a couple of children with them” (3). Eve describes the arrival of the evacuees: “[…] it was a terribly windy day when they arrived and, of course, none of them had real luggage. They had brown paper parcels and string bags. And one child had brought a canary in a cage. And many children had brought dogs. And some of the dogs escaped in Brighton station […]. And, I suppose, about sixty per cent of the houses who said they would have people said, ‘Oh no, I’m afraid we couldn’t possibly have a pregnant woman, that really wouldn’t do!” So, Eve went to the working-class, Whitehawk end of Brighton, Beryl’s east side and through her mother’s cleaning lady found places for many of the women. But, having a number left over, she went to the two large seafront hotels the Metropole and the Grand where she knew the proprietors – “I always had danced every Saturday night at the Metropole, in my young days, so I knew the man who managed it, very well” – and he agreed to house the pregnant women for the night, on the ballroom floor (3). Eve hired about thirty lilos [inflatable mattresses] for the women, from two establishments which hired lilos out to swimmers and “[…] was up nearly all night, running round the houses that needed extra blankets and pillows. And we also, of course, had to get food then”. (4) The next day the hotel proprietors rang to say they had been up all night too: “We’ve had six or seven births” (4). At the end of her tale Eve says: “So, that was the sum total of what I did for the WVS because I was leaving on November 5th or something, fireworks night. So that was the only work I could do in England. But when I got to Australia […] I was immediately hauled in to do fund-raising for the Red Cross” (4).

Iris, who had started nursing, in 1937, at seventeen, in a children’s hospital in Hampshire moved to London in 1940 in order to pursue her training and arrived there at about the same time as the bombing started. She worked at the Middlessex Hospital in the middle of London. She says of her experience: “[…] we were kept extremely busy because […] every morning you would have all the bomb casualties coming in and some of them were just the ordinary people who’d been bombed in their houses and some of them were the workers, the firemen and those people who were out, you know, on their ladders, hosing down the fires, getting them under control. They were wonderful men, they were, up their ladders and one young man, a bomb landed in the middle of his ladder and he had every bone, I should think, in his body fractured but he lived and was wonderful to nurse” (2). When not on duty during an air raid the nurses were supposed to be in the air raid shelter, in the sub basement of the hospital which Iris disliked intensely: “[…] there were three different pipes, one was hot water, one was cold water and the other was sewage and I could imagine, you know, a bomb coming and I would be drowned in hot water, cold water and sewage” (4). She preferred to be “[…] on night duty when [she] could be up and on the wards and not down in the shelter” (4). The advantage of nursing was the kindness of people towards the nurses: “People were extremely good to us, as nurses, you know, invited us to their homes […]” (4). “There would be a set of families in the area who put open invitations to any nurses to go and have a meal with them or stay with them. I made very good friends, you know, I’ve still got today […]” (5).

Marie had been teaching for a short while when the War broke out. She was in a reserved occupation and could have gone on teaching but she very much wanted to get into the armed forces. At first her parents opposed her request but they ended up by allowing her to join the WAAFs[18]. Their hesitation was no doubt due to fears for Marie’s moral respectability as her mother said, when Marie was leaving, “Well, hun, don’t come back if you do anything wrong” and Marie says today: “I had no idea what to make of it because you didn’t talk about anything because you had to be good, not like today. If there were girls of eighteen and they were pregnant and having a baby we used to cross over in the country lane and not speak to them. We weren’t allowed to because it was a disgrace” (2).

Marie was delighted with her life in the WAAFs. She found that above all else it gave her “freedom” (2). The word appears many times throughout her account; When she finished her three months training and went home to see her parents she was really “[…] delighted to tell [her] parents that [she] would be allowed two late passes, until 23.59, a week and the other time was ten o’clock” (2). She considered that her time in the WAAFs taught her a lot, in particular “[…] to mix with everybody”. The word “mix” is recurrent and she says it gave women “[…] a chance to travel and to leave their villages […]” (2). For Marie the WAAFs seemed to open up horizons for herself and other women. She uses the words “open”/“open up” on many occasions to describe the nature of the war experience for women. After her training in Shropshire she was sent up to Forres, near RAF Kinloss. She went by train and she says: “[…] I’d never travelled on my own before…So, it did teach you a lot because I never went anywhere unless my father took me or Mother did and I went all the way, right up to Scotland on this train […] Then you went up to Forres and there was a station master and he was a station master and a gardener, lovely things used to come up and he had different hats for the occasion. And it was lovely. And I loved it in the winter time. I had one leave up there and I really enjoyed it. […] Oh, it was lovely” (7).

Eileen’s account differs from the others due to its more politicized nature. It is perhaps correct to say, in her case, that the War was characterized by her working life which was no doubt politically determined since she decided to work in the munitions industry, in an industrial environment, and by her concern with the supporting the Soviet Union in opening up a Second Front. As she says she would “[…] go around chalking on the pavements: ‘Open up a Second front” (2). She was a personnel manager in the munitions industry and she says of her work: “I would go out to all the little towns around Manchester to talk to the women, to ask what they needed, to struggle for better nurseries, for better welfare for women in the factories” (2). “I would go out to talk to the women. ‘What do you need?’, ‘Better childcare?’ ‘You must fight for it’. This led to, after the War, the election of the Labour government with an incredible majority. That was another campaign I worked for” (2).

When asked if she considered that the War created opportunities for women she uses the same concepts and vocabulary as Marie in her reply: “It certainly did. I think it opened up tremendous opportunities. […] It brought them freedom – in the forces” (2).

The hazards of war: danger/fear/death

None of the accounts make light of or forget the dangers of war and references to bombing and death appear in each woman’s account. Beryl begins by talking of the bombings in her district and talks of her uncle’s death. Iris, on the equivalent of the second page of her account tells of the bomb victims. Marie, after talking of the opportunities War brought immediately turns to the dark side of the experience: “A lot of sad memories, yes, because…Everybody seemed free and easy and especially in the air force because you didn’t know if those boys were going off that night or that morning so everybody made the most of everything. I lost a few friends, yes” (7). None of them really talk of fear, apart from Iris, to the extent that she says she was afraid of being drowned in hot and cold water and sewage in the sub basement bomb shelter. I asked Marie if she was ever frightened to which she replied: “No, do you know, I can never…In fact, I think, with being young, when I look back it looks more like excitement, a lot of us, I think, did like that but I think the older generation and our parents were very, very concerned but I was young, it’s like when you, you, you, I mean they don’t see danger” (9). However, Eileen sums up perhaps best the strength of the experience when she says: “I happened to live through a crisis period of history…colouring all our experiences since. Blair never went through the War. The War is our reference point still. Everything we did was authentic because we did it ‘devant la mort’[19]. It was like that for us” (3).

A shared “women’s discourse”?

Eileen uses the plural “our”, “we”, “us” referring to all those people who lived through the crisis period of the War and the object of this paper now is to ask to what extent we may consider that women have a specific voice with regard to their wartime experience. In reaction to comments made by historians such as … to what extent may we refer to this group of individual experiences as being those of “women”? Can it be said that their experiences or the voicing of them have specifically feminine characteristics? To what extent do they share a discourse as women? Are they in fact more separated by social background and life experiences than they are united in being “women”?

Firstly, one can consider whether the concept of a “muted” woman’s voice appears to be appropriate as regards these five women’s accounts. Certainly not, if one takes into account the level of their capacity to describe their diverse experiences in very lively and personal terms. The figures of speech and the personal details lead the accounts away from what might become a stereotyped tale. Marie Boole makes one comment which could correspond to a stereotyped formula but it is immediately countered by her own real concern: “You wanted to help your country and also it gave me freedom […]” (2). And her summing up of the protective value of the Home Guard is both lively and a long way from being a propaganda stereotype: “They wouldn’t have stood a dog’s chance, if the Germans would have got here […]” (9). Her enthusiastic presentation of her time in the WAAFs is also balanced by her comment relating to a certain lassitude towards the end of the War and a desire to return to more simple feminine concerns: “Towards the end I was getting to want…because we used to have thick grey stockings and thick black stockings…I was longing to get into silk stockings […]” (3). Again this is immediately countered with the regret for the end of the experience: “[…] you missed it when you came out […]” (3).  Eve is very down to earth in her comments on her voluntary work – she gives an almost cinematographic account of the evacuees’ arrival in Brighton and describes the evolution of her involvement without either playing up or down the significance of the action. In Australia she presents her participation in Red Cross work as rather a chore, using the verb “hauled in to” to describe how she joined in but later comments indicate that she took pleasure in participating: “[…] sorting clothes is really rather important[…] (4) and “[…] I was quite a good organiser […]” (5). Her mode of expression creates an effect of authenticity.

The five women share in their discourse the expression of a strong assertion that the War opened up opportunities for women and each of the adult women (Beryl’s mother included) was involved in taking up these opportunities. Equally, in the discourse of each, one glimpses the boundaries to these opportunities and the way in which these boundaries are or were more or less accepted: it seems to me that the existence of these boundaries and the women’s attitude towards them unites them in the need to confront obstacles specific to women, although it is also true that, due to class differences, the boundaries were not always placed equally for each of the women. Eve with her pre-war career in advertising, the confidence her status as a fencer could give her, would seem to have little in common with Iris who could become neither a doctor nor a teacher. However, even Eve, when she had a child had to bend to the accepted convention: “[…] when I had a child, of course, I couldn’t do any more war effort […]” (4) and further on she says, “[…] unfortunately, you see, when you have children you’re precluded from doing anything physically […] (5)”. Iris has obviously never accepted the fact that she could not take up the career which she wanted to, due to lack of money and being a girl. This leads her to be almost self-critical towards what she did do, to, apparently, de-consider the role of nurse: “I’m afraid I’m not a true woman in the war. I know, my mother, she was wonderful. Again at making do and mending […] the kind of cooking they did […] I rather got stuck being a nurse […] I couldn’t really get into the forces. I think I would have done had I finished my training earlier. I would have gone into one of the forces, definitely, yes” (8). Later she implies of herself that she was not a “real” nurse: “My sister…She was a real nurse…She wanted to be a nurse. I mean I didn’t” (10). Marie achieved what she set out to achieve in face of the War crisis, to overcome her parent’s objection to her going into the forces and her WAAF experience, she says did her a lot of good: her only worry was that she would not be a satisfactory interviewee, which seemed to me, probably, a very specifically feminine concern. If Eileen herself achieved much in her life she is well aware and vocal on the way in which women were put back in their places after the War, as women: “We [the women in her factory] were all very high-powered. We did all their policy after the War. And within six months we’d been replaced. I got the flu, so they gave me the sack. I got three months’ salary” (2). She expresses the idea that women, as women, have still not achieved economic equality with men: “You look at a picture of an EEC meeting and they are all men. There are a few token women. We’ve not really got far economically. Personally and sexually, they’ve got on, but not economically. Equal pay here has not been achieved” (2).

A further factor which I see as uniting them, as women, is that of the multiplicity of roles they have carried out in their life times, including those of caring mothers and grandmothers. Naturally, bringing to the fore the importance of the role as mother may be “feministically” incorrect, however, it is a role which has occupied time and energy in each of the women’s lives and each speaks with pleasure of their child or children and grandchildren. In spite of the objections of Denise Riley I am not sure we can ignore this domain of feminine experience[20]. Who is the researcher or interviewer to deny the interviewees’ stated personal centres of interest?[21] Motherhood is certainly a shared characteristic, as is the multiplicity of roles these women adopt simultaneously or in succession. Beryl underlines how her mother ran the shop, looked after the house and her daughter and took delight in doing her fire watching. Eileen had three children, worked and “[…] worked nationally for CND” (3). She says of herself: “I had a very full and fulfilling life. I’ve been very fortunate” (1). At the end of the War Marie married, had children then went back to teaching and has followed her grandchildren’s development with enthusiasm: “I wanted to live long enough to see what they’re doing and how they’re going to grow up” (15). Iris went on nursing because she and her husband needed the money. She believes small children would be best looked after by their mothers but in the impossibility of doing this herself it was her mother who looked after the small grand-daughter when Iris was at work. Eve also had several children and helped her husband run a language school in Iran.

Finally, these women seem to present a form of unity, beyond differences in social background and life experiences, thanks to their capacity to construct their “history”; they seem to illustrate equality in the face of constructing their own and their family’s history and show equal pride towards it. This may not be an activity which is specifically attributable to their gender identity. However, they do each bring to the fore female members of their families, particularly mothers and grandmothers and we note that the militant Eileen centred her attention in wartime on trying to help working mothers with their childcare problems. It seems clear in this group of women that they see gender as having determined a significant part of their lives, that they have shared experiences as women although gender is, no doubt, only one amongst other recognized identities.

As regards the women’s attitude towards the telling of their stories I consider that they are accounts related to the concept of composure rather than “dis-composure”. Even in the case of Iris who tends to undermine the value of her nursing because it was more an imposed, rather than chosen, profession. Each woman took evident pleasure in sharing her story and it seems to me that the central issue is quite simply to witness how these women recount their wartime experience and evaluate its importance to them. As they stand and as they account for themselves they are a part of a historical process and we can and, I consider, should listen to them.

[1] La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. IV n°3/2006 ISSN 1762-6153.

[2] Society started by Mr Netley (Manor Road, Manor Farm, Brighton) in 2003. It was awarded funding by the Scarman Trust to enable it to build a website. It has rented a shop on Manor Farm, Brighton where members will be able to meet, work on their personal projects and put on photograph exhibitions. Article on the Society: “Amateur historians who won’t let bygones be bygones”, by Karen Hoy, in the local Brighton newspaper The Argus, Monday February, 20th 2006: 22.

[3] Creation in 1973 of “The Oral History Society” in Great Britain.

[4] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past. Oral History [1978] Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 8.

[5] ibidem, 8.

[6] ibid., 112.

[7] See the work of Shirley Ardener, Perceiving Women, New York: John Wiley, 1975.

[8] Kathryn Anderson and Dana Jack, « Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses”, in Sherner Berga Gluck, Daphne Patai, eds;, Women’s Words. The Feminist Practice of Oral History, London: Routledge, 1991.

[9] Judith Butler, GenderTrouble, Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990, 1. S.B. Gluck and D. Patai share this point of view.

[10] See Denise Riley, “My conviction is that […] there can be no version of motherhood as such which can be deployed to construct a radical politics”, Denise Riley, “Am I that Name? Feminism and the category of ‘Women’ in History, London: Macmillan, 1988, 1. “To put it schematically: ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories, which themselves change; […]”.

[11] Jane W. Scott, “Gender: a useful category of Historical Analysis”, in Jane W. Scott, ed., Feminism and History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 152-180. 

[12] “ Scott’s theoretical position seemed to deny such an endeavour [to discover women’s agency in history]; it seemed to deny agency”, Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998, 10-11.

[13] Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes, British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities, London: Routledge, 1994.

[14] Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, 86.

[15] “Dis/composing the Subject. Intersubjectivities in Oral History”, in TessaCosslett, Celia Lury, Penny Summerfield, Feminism and Autobiography. Texts, Theories, Methods,London: Routledge, 2000, 91-106.

[16] The only one who now lives outside Brighton spent many years in Brighton before moving, recently, a little further away.

[17] Figures in brackets refer to the page numbers of each separate account.

[18] Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

[19] Eileen uses French.

[20] “ My conviction is that […] there can be no version of motherhood as such which can be deployed to construct a radical politics”, Denise Riley, “Am I that Name? Feminism and the category of ‘Women’ in History, London: Macmillan, 1988, 1. “To put it schematically: ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories, which themselves change; […]”.

[21] The central issue is the importance of the female voice. The respect for that voice should be maintained even when the “content” of the discourse does not please the opinions of the receiver.

Elizabeth de Cacqueray was recently Senior Lecturer in English Studies at University Toulouse Le Mirail. Her research focuses primarily on the portrayal of women in British Cinema during World War II. She contributed « Official Art of World War II by British Women Artists: Directing the Gaze » to Constructing the Memory of War in Visual Culture Since 1914, The Eye on War (Routledge, 2018), edited by Ann Murray.

Sentimental Imperialists: Ethel Thomas HEROLD and the Philippines


Ethel Thomas Harold, Philippines, Spanish American War, Empire, World War I, Imperialism, World War II.

The story of Ethel Thomas Harold began in Wisconsin, where she was born into a Republican family. Her brother’s work in the Philippines just after the Spanish American war soon led to her own activity there, beginning in the 1920s.  Her story is one of U.S. imperialism in the 1920s new woman, women’s suffrage, and even being taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II. Then there followed Cold War conservatism, and how her life panned out reflects on US history and follows from the heights of American expansionism and imperialism to the 1960s. The key contours of that life are traced here.


An Igorot man quietly stepped out from the bushes and said, “Mrs. Herold, don’t go in there, you will be hurt.”  On this cool Friday evening in early February 1927, thirty-year old Ethel Thomas Herold had been out with her husband Elmer for a seven-course meal and a few hands of bridge at the Pines Hotel in Baguio. [Baguio is a city in a mountainous region 246 kilometers north of Manila on the island of Luzon. It is popularly known as the Summer Capital of the Phi lippines due to its cool climate.] The Herolds, along with their friend and colleague Jim Wright, had been celebrating the news of Ethel’s first pregnancy.  When they returned to the Trinidad Farm School, where they all taught, Jim had unlocked the front gate and Elmer drove the Chevrolet onto the school grounds to drop Ethel at their cottage before garaging the car.  This was when the young man, a student at Trinidad, whispered his warning to Ethel.[1]

In the next instant, Ethel noticed a large group of boys streaming out from behind the exchange, heading for the cottage.  Elmer, startled at the sight, leapt out of the car.  He and Ethel reached the front of the exchange at about the same time, shocked to see “our dear Mr. W lying on his back in the dirt with a rope around his neck.”  The Herolds and their household servant managed to disperse the students and rescue Jim, who was visibly shaken.  Ethel locked the noose in a trunk in their cottage but when she went back outside she carried Elmer’s walking stick with her.[2]

The remaining students, now a bit calmer, informed Jim Wright, who served as the school’s superintendent, that they had grievances.  Elmer told them that they should all settle down, get a good night’s sleep, and talk over the complaints in the morning, that attacking a teacher was no way to make a point.  But the students refused to be dismissed and started yelling, “Our fathers were head-hunters.”  While Elmer and Jim each tried to reason with them, Ethel looked closely at every boy there because she knew that she would have to make up a list of the troublemakers’ names.  Suddenly several students knocked Jim down again and Ethel lit into them with Elmer’s walking stick, hitting “as hard as I could and hit[ting] heads, backs, anywhere.”[3]

More of the students dispersed after the second unsuccessful attack on Jim Wright.  Elmer, fearing Ethel might suffer a miscarriage, escorted her into their cottage and put her to bed.  As she gratefully sank into sleep, the Baguio police arrived.  Though the violence had abated, the hostility had not–the next morning about two hundred students informed the teachers that they were on strike.  Elmer then refused to release their weekly rations, telling them simply, “No work, no food.”[4]

The implications of this riot extended outside of the Baguio area because it could be perceived as an assault on American authority in the Philippines.  The Manila newspaper reported on it several times and Governor-General Leonard Wood had been apprised of the situation almost immediately.  In his diary, he referred to it as “an unfortunate riot or strike” that was “a sort of bolshevik movement among the students.”  Jim Wright, he knew, was “one of the most kind and tolerant of our superintendents and has done so much for the boys.”  Wood dispatched the assistant director of education and the director of the civil service to Trinidad to investigate, and by mid-March he was convinced that Jim and Elmer had done nothing to provoke the students.[5]

Yet the Governor-General wanted to personally assess the situation.  He decided to go to Baguio to recuperate from a hernia problem and while there he visited Trinidad.  Wood’s personal call reaffirmed his conviction that this had been a serious incident.  He believed that the rebellious students had intended to do lasting bodily harm to Jim Wright, and that “fortunately,” Ethel and Elmer had been there to save him.  Wood encouraged Jim to “be much more rigid in his discipline with everybody who was guilty of participation in the attack upon him.”  He wanted those students expelled and prohibited from ever returning to the school grounds.  At the end of March, he noted in his diary that all was calm at the farm school.  Ethel Herold concluded that she and Elmer “were mighty sorry our Igorots had done this.  It showed us clearly that they needed more help and guidance.”[6]

“Empire is with us,” Robert Bickers wrote in Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai, “in our waking lives, and in our dreams and nightmares.”  This was certainly true of Ethel Thomas Herold, whose life was shaped by empire, by American colonialism in the Philippines.  “Our Igorots,” “help and guidance.”  Ethel’s phrases express an entire attitude toward America’s overseas empire that Stanley Karnow has described as “sentimental” imperialism.  Her experiences in the Philippines personify the colonial domesticity described by Vicente Rafael and others.  Ethel helped promote U.S. imperialism through education and benevolent work, and she participated in what Catherine Forslund, in her work on Anna Chennault, has described as “informal diplomacy”: “Any exchange between citizens or groups of citizens from two or more nations outside the boundaries of the official governmental institutional apparatus.”  Ethel’s belief in this American venture was grounded in her commitment to Republican Party politics as well as her perceptions of class, gender, and race.[7]

Born in 1896 in rural southwestern Wisconsin, Ethel learned from her parents a dedication to family, community, and the Republican Party.  Her eldest brother Bart departed for the Philippines in 1901, among one of the first groups of American teachers to work there at the end of the Spanish American War.  As a child, Ethel grew up on Bart’s stories of the Philippines.   As she grew into a young woman, formally educated at Lawrence College in Wisconsin and informally schooled by her support of U.S. participation in the Great War, she came to believe in the United States’ mission in the Philippines, as formulated by the Republican Party, to Americanize the Filipinos.  Soon after marrying her college sweetheart, Elmer Herold, in 1920, the couple traveled to the Philippines for a two-year teaching stint.  They stayed for almost forty years.

While Robert Bickers described Richard Tinkler, the Englishman adrift in Shanghai, as a “nobody,” Ethel Herold was somebody, at least in the communities where she lived.  In Potosi, Wisconsin, the Thomas family operated a prosperous farm, lived in the biggest house in town, and could afford to send Ethel, their youngest daughter, to a private liberal arts college.  In Baguio, Ethel and Elmer Herold comprised part of the American educational and business communities, necessary and highly visible components of the American imperialist structure.  During the 1920s and 1930s, Ethel helped “invest colonialism with the sense of the domestic and the sentimental,” first as a schoolteacher, then as an officer in the charitable Monday Afternoon Club, activities that required regular interaction with Filipinos.[8]  Whether in Potosi where she grew up and where she retired, in Appleton where she attended college, or in the Philippines, Ethel Herold never shrank from work or leadership roles.

According to Mari Yoshihara in Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism, white women’s involvement in discussions about Asia provided them with “an effective avenue through which to become part of a dominant American ideology and gain authority and agency which were denied to them in other realms of sociopolitical life.  By embracing Asia, women gained material and affective power both in relation to American society and vis-à-vis Asian subjects, which brought new meanings to their identities as white American women.”  Ethel intended her life to have meaning; she intended to make contributions to her communities in Wisconsin and in the Philippines.[9]

This exploration of a single life serves as an effective method of investigating the history of U.S. imperialism.  Robert Bickers used the same approach for studying an aspect of twentieth-century British colonialism.  He described his work about the life of Shanghai policeman Richard Maurice Tinkler as “a biography of a nobody which offers a window into an otherwise closed world.”  During the twenty years Tinkler spent in Shanghai between the world wars, he worked first as a policeman, then at other even less prestigious jobs, existing on the margins of Britain’s empire, but with more freedom and choices than he would have had in England.  Ethel Herold lived at the center of America’s empire, which also accorded her more freedom and choices than she otherwise might have had stateside.  Plus her experiences show how and why women participated in U.S. imperialism.  If Shanghai was a “closed world” to the British in the first part of the twentieth century, so were the Philippine Islands to Americans.  Ethel’s biography opens a gateway into that world.[10]

Scholars have written about U.S.-Philippines relations, but those books tend to focus on the war years (Spanish-American or World War II) and/or highlight the activities of the military and political elite.  These include works by Kristin Hoganson, James Bradford, Brian McAllister Linn, and H.W. Brands.  Missing from these studies is an examination of women’s involvement, especially during the interwar years of maintaining the empire.[11]

Recently some scholars have broadened the meaning of foreign relations, moving it out of the male-dominated spheres of formal diplomacy to show how women, through their lives and work abroad, helped to shape public perceptions of foreign countries.  In addition to Catherine Forslund’s book on journalist Anna Chennault, there is Kelly Ann Long’s about Helen Foster Snow, another American writer who focused on China.  Karen Garner and Marjorie King have published biographies of American social workers in China, Maud Russell and Ida Pruitt, respectively.[12]  Although Ethel published little about her life in the Philippines, she was an enthusiastic public speaker, especially in the post-World War II years.

My biography of Ethel Herold (Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines, 2011) also draws its inspiration from two historical studies of the lives of “ordinary” women.   A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s study of the rhythm of life of an average American woman in the early national period.  Ulrich’s reconstruction of Ballard’s life in Maine demonstrates how Ballard’s importance stems from her very ordinariness: her life represented the lives of thousands of women of her time who adjusted to life in the new United States.  Richard and Joy Day Buel’s The Way of Duty: A Woman and her Family in Revolutionary America tells the story of Mary Fish Silliman, an upper-middle class Puritan woman who drew strength from her religious teachings to endure the trials of the American Revolution.  Silliman’s story is crucial to the understanding of women’s lives from the late colonial to early national period, especially the war years.[13]

Women’s historians have lately turned their attention to women and the Republican Party.  Melanie Gustafson examines Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924, and Catherine E. Rymph picks up where Gustafson leaves off with Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right.  Both are scholarly treatments that highlight the activities of many women.  Janann Sherman’s biography, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Margaret Chase Smith, written with an eye to attracting a crossover audience, focuses on a well-known political figure.  These books focus on women and the Republican Party, whereas Sentimental Imperialist underscores Ethel Herold’s party loyalty but examines her political activities within the broader and deeper context of her daily life.[14]

Through its focus on empire and politics, my book shows how war shaped Ethel’s life.  The Spanish-American War, the Great War, World War Two, and the Cold War.  War dominated the twentieth century and dominated Ethel’s life.  The Spanish-American War led to the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, which ultimately affected her marriage and her career.  As a high school history teacher, she actively participated in home front support of the Great War.  The Second World War had a direct impact on her life: she spent the duration as a prisoner of the Japanese.  The Allied victory and the subsequent Cold War brought about an end to America’s empire, prompting yet again significant changes in Ethel’s life.

With Ethel Herold’s story, I bring empire, politics, and war down to the personal level.  The book, based on Ethel’s unpublished autobiography and World War II diary, family letters, and contemporary newspapers, also focuses on the main historical events of the twentieth century and their importance for American women.

Potosi, Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century was a charming and progressive town, situated in the southwestern part of the state along the Mississippi River.  Its inhabitants—farmers, miners, and railroad workers—staunchly supported the Republican Party.  The approximately fifteen hundred residents embraced modern changes such as the introduction of rural free mail delivery and electricity, eager to keep pace with the rest of the country.  Ethel Thomas, the youngest of five children, was born in 1896, on the family’s Willow Wood farm just outside of town.  Within a few years, her father, Clem, gave up the uncertainties of farming to become a mail carrier but was also active in local government, belonged to the Modern Woodmen of America, and was a faithful Mason.  Her mother, Elizabeth, was active in the Home Band and the Ladies’ Aid Society.  Ethel learned that she must be useful, always within the boundaries of acceptable behavior for a white, middle class woman.  But she felt the lure of far-away places.

Two key events from her childhood, both involving her eldest brother Bart, helped form her perceptions of her place in the world.  First, in 1901, Bart, a fresh graduate of one of Wisconsin’s normal schools, went to work as a teacher in the Philippines.  The United States took over these islands from the Spanish at the end of the Spanish-American War, determined to bring democracy to the Filipinos, and education was a cornerstone of American policies there.  Bart’s experiences, described in his letters home, left a lasting impression on Ethel and would ultimately inform her future career decisions.

Second, a murder in Potosi during the summer of 1910, when Bart was home on leave from his teaching assignment, shaped Ethel’s notions about the relationship between Anglos and non-Anglos.  The murder involved a dispute between Hispanic workers on the Burlington railroad, and Bart, the only Anglo in town who knew enough Spanish to act as translator, served in that capacity to make sure that the accused had a fair trial.  Bart’s involvement in the case, coupled with his teaching career in the Philippines, impressed upon Ethel the duty of white Americans to take care of others.

The Education of a “New Woman”

Elizabeth Thomas insisted that Ethel work for five years prior to marriage because she wanted her daughter to be self-sufficient and self-confident.  They ultimately agreed on teaching, an acceptable and useful profession for a young single woman.  In 1913 Ethel matriculated at Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, a private Methodist liberal arts school with a statewide reputation for its music conservatory.  By entering college to pursue a degree that would qualify her to teach high school, she joined the tens of thousands of “new women” across the United States determined to receive an education and take their place in the working world.

Ethel became a “new woman” of the twentieth century, but she shaped that definition to suit her own vision for her future.  Three  key events were focal points during her college years: meeting Elmer Herold, a young man from Prairie du Chien who planned to become an engineer; organizing the campus Equal Suffrage Club; and participating in home front support for U.S. involvement in World War I.  These years, during which Ethel matured into adulthood, coincided with national political debates over the Jones Bill, designed to provide a blueprint for Philippines independence.

Ethel and Elmer met at the beginning of their freshman year, and if it was not love at first sight, it was something very close.  Both ambitious, hard-working young adults, they decided to direct their energies at finishing college and establishing themselves in careers.  They studied hard, pursued extra-curricular activities (Ethel took singing lessons and was known throughout her life for her fine voice), and still managed to find time for dating.

In 1916, during her junior year, Ethel immersed herself in a highly political extra-curricular project: the creation of the Equal Suffrage Club.  Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, urged young women on college campuses across the country to get involved in the fight for suffrage.  Ethel served as the Club’s secretary-treasurer and helped recruit approximately one hundred members, mostly, but not exclusively, female.   The group at Lawrence was bolstered by the appearance in Appleton of noted British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst.  That year Ethel also attended the Republican National Convention, traveling with a group of students and professors to Chicago, where she took part in a massive suffrage parade.

Ethel’s final semester at Lawrence coincided with U.S. entry into World War I, and Elmer Herold, like many of his male classmates, left the college just weeks before graduation to join the military.  Ethel promised to wait for him.  A heady patriotism dominated the early weeks of the war, and Ethel, always deeply patriotic, struggled to keep her mind on her classes, which no longer seemed quite so important.  Yet she managed to finish up her coursework even as she volunteered for Red Cross work and took park in other supportive home front activities.

The Great War and the Influenza Pandemic

Personal and political issues converged for Ethel during the war years.   The Philippines receded in importance, both for Ethel and for the U.S. government. During the summer of 1917 Ethel lived at home in Potosi, where she continued with Red Cross work—Elizabeth Thomas turned her sewing room into the town’s Red Cross center–and tended a wartime garden.  Ethel moved to nearby Lancaster in the fall where she taught high school history and participated in home front support work.  For her, the war and its political, social, and economic affects on the United States were of the utmost importance.  While she sent letters and homemade fudge to Elmer Herold, Ethel used war news to teach history to her students.  She also worked with the local agency of the Food Administration, traveling through Grant County teaching housewives how to economize, frequently singing patriotic songs to keep everyone’s spirits up.

When the Spanish influenza hit in 1918, the town of Lancaster shut down and Ethel went home to Potosi to wait out the epidemic.  Without teaching to keep her busy, she turned her attention to domestic work, helping her mother produce household goods.  Red Cross work continued as well.  Although Ethel witnessed the illnesses and deaths of her friends and neighbors in Potosi, the flu miraculously did not touch her or her parents.

An interruption in the flow of letters from Elmer, however, caused Ethel to fear the worst.  Though he did catch the flu, which rampaged through military encampments, he survived it, as well as a tour of duty in France.  Elmer returned to Potosi in 1919, and formally proposed to Ethel.

 Sentimental Imperialist

Ethel and Elmer married in 1920.  As was proper for a white middle-class woman, Ethel quit her teaching job.  The Herolds moved to Kewanee, Illinois, where Elmer took a job teaching high school science while he worked on an engineering degree through a correspondence course.  Ethel could not remain idle.  She worked as a substitute teacher and took on volunteer work through one of the local churches.  However, Ethel and Elmer’s youth and idealism, their belief that they could and should make a real difference in the world, prompted them to look for more challenging opportunities.

In 1922, the couple decided to go the Philippines.  Looking for adventure and the opportunity to do something worthwhile, they signed on to teach in Filipino schools.  Ethel had never forgotten her eldest brother Bart’s stories of his work and travels in the Philippines, and even Elmer had become mesmerized by them.  They were convinced that, in the spirit of former President McKinley’s desire for “benevolent assimilation,” industrial and vocational training were the keys to Filipino advancement.

Stationed in one of the northern provinces of Luzon, the Herolds spent their days teaching English to Filipino children, using their free time to get to know their students’ families.  During their first year there, Elizabeth Thomas died, and Ethel always believed that her departure, which her mother opposed, was partially to blame.  Elmer tried to distract his wife from her grief with a long horseback tour through the Mountain Province, including “headhunting” territory.  This episode, which Ethel detailed decades later, instilled in her a deep interest in Filipino culture and it launched some friendships that would become especially valuable during the Japanese occupation.

During their second year of teaching, Ethel and Elmer became increasingly disenchanted with the way the Philippines schools were run—not enough emphasis was put on the basics, they thought.  So after their two-year contract expired, they returned to the United States, taking an extended world tour along the way.

After a year back in the United States, when Elmer again taught high school science and Ethel tried to write a book about their adventures, the Herolds decided that they no longer felt comfortable in the U.S.  Much of this had to do with Ethel’s continued distress over the death of her mother and the conviction that the States did not feel like home any more.  They wanted to go back to the Philippines.  Dr. W.W. Marquardt, who initially recruited them as teachers, asked Elmer to revise a science textbook for use in the Philippines, and he helped facilitate another teaching assignment for Ethel and Elmer.

The Herolds returned to Luzon in 1925 to take positions at the Trinidad Farm School, a perfect match for them given their educational philosophy.  But they taught for only two more years, until a disturbing event prompted them to re-evaluate their careers.  Shortly after Ethel became pregnant with their first child, a group of disgruntled students staged an uprising at the Farm School.  The students’ discontent was not aimed at the Herolds (a student warned Ethel of the impending trouble), but they took it personally.  Ethel believed that she had done everything she could to understand their culture and was genuinely shocked to find out that some of the students viewed the American teachers as uninformed interlopers.  The incident forced her to realize that not all Filipinos appreciated the presence of the Americans.  Ethel’s pregnancy provided her with a legitimate and understandable reason for resigning her position.  Elmer did so as well, accepting a job as master mechanic with the American-owned Heald Lumber Company in Baguio.

Ethel and Elmer settled into a lovely company-owned home in Baguio and had two children, Billy in 1927 and Betsy just two years later.  Like many other Americans living in the Philippines, Ethel had at her disposal a small staff of servants to do the cooking and cleaning and to help with childcare when necessary.  She and Elmer joined the Baguio Country Club and led an active social life.  They were able to take two around-the-world tours in the 1930s, stopping at home in Potosi each time.  Their life in the Philippines afforded them luxuries and opportunities that were unimaginable for most white middle-class American families caught in the grip of the Great Depression.

Even though she was out of the paid labor force, Ethel wanted to do something that would make a difference in Baguio.  The defining event of her pre-war years was the 1933 founding of the Monday Afternoon Club, a charitable organization made up of American and European women living in and around Baguio.  Ethel reluctantly attended the first organizational meeting, fearing that it would be run by missionaries, and ended up as one of the Club’s early officers.  Over the next few years she carved out a niche for herself, volunteering in as many capacities as she could.

So the Herolds stayed on in the Philippines—Elmer working seven days a week at the lumber company, Ethel throwing herself into volunteer work, Billy and Betsy receiving a fine education at the private Episcopalian Brent School.  Never isolated in Baguio, Ethel was well aware of world events: Nazi aggression in Europe, Japanese expansion in the Pacific.  But like most other Americans, she did not believe that these troubles would involve the United States.  Even as the Japanese expanded their reach into China and French Indochina, the Herolds remained in the Philippines, a decision that had dire consequences for the family.

Empire in Flames

On Monday morning, December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked the Philippines.  At the same time, on the other side of the International Dateline, Pearl Harbor was also under attack.  Caught up in international political issues over which she had no control, Ethel moved quickly to guard the safety of her family and community.  The Herolds scrambled to build air raid shelters and to stock up on food and other supplies.  Ethel took Billy and Betsy up the Mountain Trail, away from the city, to stay with friends, then she returned to Baguio to be with Elmer and to lead first aid classes at the country club.  After the situation stabilized, she retrieved Betsy and Billy and the family threw themselves into Christmas preparations.  During these weeks, Baguio braced for war, and Ethel did what she could to help.

On December 22, the Japanese launched a major, successful invasion at Lingayen Gulf; Baguio lay directly on their path to Manila.  Five days later, Japanese troops moved into Baguio, taking over the city without a struggle (American troops had already moved south in an attempt to protect Manila).  Ethel and Elmer were wakened late that night by Japanese officers pounding at their front door, demanding to know how many people lived in the house, how many weapons they had.  In a curious and sometimes terrifying visit, the Japanese removed their boots, as was their custom, before threatening and harassing the Herolds.

The next day, the Japanese ordered all Americans and Europeans to the Brent School for registration, then informed the civilians that they would all be interned for an indefinite period.

Surviving internment required discipline and organization, two things at which Ethel Herold excelled.  This chapter focuses on the political issues of internment and their personal consequences: Ethel’s involvement with the women’s work committee, debates over sleeping arrangements, and the controversy over voting rights in the camp.

The Japanese initially concentrated the Allied nationals at Camp John Hay, a military recreation center located adjacent to the Herold property.  The Japanese instructed the internees to organize themselves and to live together as a community, albeit a captive one.  The men set up a General Committee made up of male internees.  Since the men were forced to live in separate barracks, the Committee initially appointed a Women’s Committee to oversee matters pertaining to women and children.  Positions on the Women’s Committee later became elected.  Ethel agreed to serve as the head of the women’s work committee, a job she took only when one of the ministers reminded her of patriotism and duty.  Her strict demands on the women to contribute to camp work earned her the enmity of many of the internees.  But she firmly believed that if they did not all work together, and work hard, they would not survive the war.  Besides, even her harshest critics readily acknowledged that Ethel did more work in the camp than almost anyone else.

Because of his experience with Japanese workers at the Heald Lumber mills, Elmer was chosen to act as the liaison between the Japanese captors and the civilian internees.  While others squeezed into the available barracks space, separated by gender, the Japanese allowed the Herolds to live together, rationalizing that they could most easily find Elmer if he was with his wife.  Their living arrangements, which continued even after the internees were moved to Camp Holmes, sparked considerable discussion about equality and fairness.  The debate played itself out in the spring of 1943 when the General Committee considered reallocating precious living space to allow families to cohabitate.  This episode revealed power politics within the camp, politics inextricably tied to personal issues.

During 1942 and 1943, a political controversy over suffrage raged through the camp.  Some of the women resented the fact that they had a separate Women’s Committee and were not allowed to vote for members of the General Committee, which was run by the men.  Yet Ethel, one of several women always elected to serve on the Women’s Committee and one of the strongest defenders of American democracy, considered this a trivial issue under the circumstances.

 Work seemed endless in internment.  In addition to her duties for the camp as a whole, Ethel also had personal, family issues to tend to, all of which were more critical because of the situation.  In early 1942, she successfully fended off a request from a Japanese officer for young American women to be sent to the Pines Hotel to serve as “waitresses.”  Ethel understood that the Japanese intended to use the women as prostitutes and she was determined to do anything to prevent that, especially when she realized that her daughter Betsy’s turn might soon come.

In August 1942, the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, came into camp and took Elmer away for a day, bringing him back unharmed–fortunately for Elmer because he refused to give them the information they sought.  They returned for him the following year, though, to help them look for Herman Kluge, a former employee of Elmer’s who had joined the guerrillas in the mountains of Luzon.  Ethel did not want their dear friend Herman captured, because she knew what the Japanese would do to him, but she also feared that the Japanese would punish Elmer for not cooperating enough.  The Japanese never took out their frustrations on Elmer, though, and his trips into the mountains usually resulted in him bringing back additional supplies for the internees, food and other items donated by friendly Filipinos.  Herman Kluge, however, was eventually captured and executed by the Japanese.

Ethel and some of the other women also managed to revive the Monday Club, soliciting unwanted items from internees to dole out to the neediest people in camp.  But starvation began to set in during 1944.  The Japanese cut the camp’s food rations and refused to allow outside parcels in.  The biggest blow came in September 1944 when Rokuro Tomibe, the camp commandant who tried to do as much for the internees as possible, was transferred and replaced by a harsher overseer.  Tired of constant hunger, Billy Herold and a friend stole a chicken from the Japanese coop, presenting it to Ethel to cook.  This desperate bid to stave off starvation could have brought down the harshest punishment from the Japanese, and Ethel was furious with her son for putting so many people in jeopardy.  But ever practical—and very hungry–she managed to cook the bird without attracting attention.  The Japanese never found out.

On December 28, 1944, the Japanese closed down Camp Holmes and moved all of the internees to Manila, settling them in the partially bombed-out prison called Old Bilibid.  There, Ethel and her family endured the worst weeks of the war.  As the Japanese braced for the battle of Manila, enraged that General MacArthur had made good on his pledge to return to the Philippines, they made no provisions for their captives beyond some poor quality rice and tea.  Even as American troops fought their way to Manila in a desperate race to liberate the military and civilian prisoners of the Japanese, Ethel watched as the people around her slowly starved.  She and her children were plagued by almost every kind of disease provoked by malnutrition; Elmer’s frequent urination signaled that he would soon succumb to starvation.  This time there was nothing Ethel could do.

American troops reached Bilibid, accidentally but most fortunately, on February 3, 1945, quickly liberating its inhabitants.  Even as the battle of Manila raged around them, the Herolds enjoyed the bounty the Americans brought with them—cartons and cartons of rations, food like Spam that soldiers derided but the liberated internees savored.  In a matter of days, Ethel and Elmer gained ten pounds and were back on the road to recovery; Billy and Betsy enjoyed the same rapid return to health.  Walking through the rubble of Manila, visiting friends who had been interned at Santo Tomas University, socializing with soldiers, Elmer told Ethel about his plans to get the Heald Lumber mills operational.  But first, under orders of the U.S. military, they had to return stateside.  In April 1945, while the world war still raged, the Herolds arrived safely in San Francisco, their first time in the states in seven years.

Ethel, Elmer, and the children visited relatives in Montana and Wisconsin for a few months, marveling at everyday conveniences, reveling in their freedom.  After losing just about everything they had, Elmer worried about how he was going to get back on his feet.  When he received permission to return to the Philippines in the fall of 1945, Ethel accompanied him out west where he boarded a ship in California.  As much as she dreaded the separation, she knew that Elmer had to get back to work, that he had to salvage the Heald Lumber Company.  Ethel turned her attention to her children and her community.  She gave public lectures about their wartime experiences, and at the end of each talk always solicited donations for the Filipinos.  Even if she could not live in the Philippines, she could figure out a way to help along the post-war rebuilding.

As soon as Ethel found out that she could join Elmer, she made arrangements for Bill and Betsy to continue their schooling in the States, and left once again for her expatriate home.  The Japanese had destroyed almost all of Baguio during their retreat in 1945.  The Herold house was rubble; only the chimney was left standing.  When Ethel saw all of the need around her, she began to distribute the goods she had sent from the states, and officially re-launched the Monday Club in November 1946.  Using the Burpee catalog, she also began to literally re-seed the Mountain Province, by providing packets of vegetable seeds to Igorot students, a program that would later be run by the Asia Foundation as Seeds for Democracy.

But the war had permanently altered Baguio.  As much as the Allied victory dealt a deathblow to fascism and militarism, it also brought an end to U.S. imperialism in the Philippines.  In July 1946, the islands finally received independence, and Ethel correctly observed that white people were no longer as welcomed there.  Yet Elmer’s livelihood was in the islands, and so was Ethel’s heart, so they stayed.  She grew increasingly critical of Filipino politics and policies, many of which excluded foreigners, including Americans.  From that point on, Ethel knew that they really were interlopers, that they could not remain indefinitely.

The growing Cold War occupied much of Ethel’s thoughts throughout the 1950s.  When the Korean War broke out in 1950 she feared that the fight against communism would extend to the Philippines and that she might become a prisoner once more.  Yet she again refused to leave Baguio.  Elmer was determined to stay there, and Bill and Betsy, now young adults, did not need her as they did when they were children.  Her place was with her husband.  Sandwiched between Monday Club activities and ever-growing social events, Ethel kept up with the national and international news.  Still a staunch Republican, her political views began to take a turn toward conservatism, which would deepen with each passing year.

Ethel also struggled with her memories of internment.  In 1949 she began to edit her war diary, and the following year the Hollywood movie Three Came Home had a powerful affect on her.  Memories were not the only legacy of internment.  All of the Herolds suffered recurring health problems, and the separation from her children caused some family strain.  Finally, in 1959, Elmer retired from Heald Lumber; Ethel was named Baguio Woman of the Year for her contributions to the city.  The couple was treated to innumerable fetes prior to their departure in July.

Back in the States

Ethel and Elmer established themselves on the Bonn farm in Potosi, property Ethel had inherited from a childhood friend.  They intended to spend summers there but to winter in the warmer climates of California and Arizona.  During the 1960s, Ethel carved out a public life by giving talks and by volunteering to the local Republican Party.  From the 1970s until her death, motivated by grief and a desire to create a family history, she wrote the story of her life and struggled with how public she wanted to make it.

When the Herolds were at home on the farm, Ethel lectured to General Federation of Women’s Clubs chapters about the Monday Club and to local PTAs on teaching in the Philippines, donating her speaker’s fees to the Monday Club.  In 1963, she represented the Monday Club at the GFWC’s international meeting in Milwaukee.  Many of the talks she delivered had political overtones, since they in some way commented on U.S. foreign policy, a topic that continued to interest Americans in the 1960s.

Ethel and Elmer also became involved in the local Republican Party, performing campaign work in 1960 and serving as delegates to the state convention in 1961.  Both ardently supported conservative Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Ethel’s beliefs could be classified as traditionally politically conservative in that she considered a small, unobtrusive national government to be the most proper for and beneficial to the United States.  Yet she was not necessarily socially conservative: on matters of race and gender her opinions reflected a curious inconsistency.  Ethel closely monitored national and international politics during the 1960s and 1970s.  She opposed the war in Vietnam because she believed that it was not in the best interests of the United States to get involved.  She decried the violence that had cropped up around the civil rights movement but not necessarily the goals of the movement itself.

In 1963, Ethel and Elmer embarked on a world tour, which brought them back to Baguio one last time in early 1964.  Ethel enjoyed the visit but felt saddened that it no longer seemed like home.  On June 24, 1970, the couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in the old Thomas home in Potosi, and they had only one more anniversary together before Elmer died of heart trouble in August 1971.

Devastated by Elmer’s death, Ethel began writing her “Memory Quiz,” a massive autobiography that she considered part family history, part therapy.  It was her way of keeping Elmer close to her while she documented the major events of her life.  In 1973 she rented out the Bonn farm and moved to a retirement community in Phoenix, Arizona.  Despite failing eyesight and other age-related health problems, Ethel remained as active as possible.  She visited family and friends, gave occasional lectures on her experiences in the Philippines, and reworked her war diary for publication in a small journal that focused on Americans in the Philippines.

In the 1980s, deteriorating health finally forced Ethel to give up the last of her independence and move to Alabama to be looked after by Bill and his family.  She died there on March 30, 1988, at the age of 92.

[1] Ethel Thomas Herold, “Memory Quiz,” p. 248.  A copy of the unpublished autobiography is in the possession of the author.

[2]“Memory Quiz,” p. 248.

[3] “Memory Quiz,” pp. 248-249 and “Trinidad Riot Investigation Helps Wright,” Manila Daily Bulletin, 16 March 1927, p. 1.

[4] “Memory Quiz,” p. 249.

[5]Leonard Wood Diary, March 8 and 15, 1927, Vol. III (January 1, 1927-May 27, 1927), Papers of Leonard Wood, Box 24-25, Library of Congress.

[6]Leonard Wood Diary, March 22-25, 1927, Vol. III (January 1, 1927-May 27, 1927), Papers of Leonard Wood, Box 24-25, Library of Congress; “Memory Quiz,” p. 254.

[7] Robert Bickers, Empire Made Me: An Englishman Adrift in Shanghai (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 1; Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (New York: Random House, 1989), 12-13, Vicente L. Rafael, “Colonial Domesticity: White Women and United States Rule in the Philippines,” American Literature 67 (December 1995): 639-666; Catherine Forslund, Anna Chennault: Informal Diplomacy and Asian Relations (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002), xiv.

[8] Rafael, 639.

[9] Mari Yoshihara, Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 6.

[10]Bickers, 4-5

[11] Kristin Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippines-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); James C. Bradford, Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War and its Aftermath (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993); Brian McAllister Linn, Guardians of Empire: The U.S. Army and the Pacific, 1902-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); H.W. Brands, Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[12] Forslund, Anna Chennault; Kelly Ann Long, Helen Foster Snow: An American Woman in Revolutionary China (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2006); Karen Garner, Precious Fire: Maud Russell and the Chinese Revolution (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); Marjorie King,  China’s American Daughter: Ida Pruitt, 1888-1985 (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2005).

[13] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Knopf, 1990) and Joy Day Buel and Richard Buel, Jr., The Way of Duty: A Woman and Her Family in Revolutionary America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1984).

[14] Melanie Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001); Catherine E. Rymph, Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism from Suffrage through the Rise of the New Right  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006);  Janann Sherman, No Place for a Woman: A Life of Margaret Chase Smith (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000).

Theresa Kaminski earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She taught American history and American women’s history for over 25 years at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Her study of Ethel Thomas Herold was published in 2011 by the University of Tennessee Press as Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines. In 2015, Kaminski published Angels of the Underground: The American Women Who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II with Oxford University Press. In June 2020, Lyons Press will publish Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War: One Woman’s Journey to the Medal of Honor and the Fight for Women’s Rights.

Remembrance and Imagination: ‘In Flanders Fields’ as a Cultural Tool of Collective Memory


Collective Memory, Mediation, World War I, Canada, Popular Culture, War Poetry, John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields” (1915), Rudyard Kipling, “Recessional” (1897), War and Sports, Montreal Canadiens, Commemorations,

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae is an oft-repeated poem at Canadian Remembrance Day services. This paper examines how lines from the poem are used in two instances that the poet might never have imagined – on the reverse of the Canadian ten-dollar bill and as a motivational slogan in the dressing room of a professional hockey team. Drawing on James Wertsch’s analysis of collective memory made possible through textual resources, this paper discusses how the poem has come to function as a type of transparent frame for promoting particular collective sentiments. The poem itself becomes an object to draw attention to contemporary sentiments of mundane nationalism (in the case of the ten dollar bill) and a celebrated athletic heritage (in the case of the hockey dressing room). In each case the specific events of the Great War are obscured by the manner in which the mediated text brings McCrae’s words close to particular communities without referring back to the conflict itself.


In 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae composed a piece of poetry that has had an enduring presence in the Canadian imagination. McCrae – a veteran of the Boer War and a respected physician and academic – penned “In Flanders Fields” following the battlefield death of a close friend and former student, Alexis Helmer. Since its origins in May 1915, the poem in three stanzas has become a standard part of Canadian remembrance services on November 11. Children regularly repeat the poem in school assemblies.  The familiar poppies and the bravely singing lark that close the first stanza are used by educators to guide literary and artistic projects leading up to Remembrance Day. While nearly a century has passed since the Great War began, its impact on Canada cannot be understated. However, the memorialization of the conflict, as Jonathan Vance points out  – that it was a moment of great national unity between Anglophone and Francophone publics and that those who served participated in a willing (predominantly Protestant) Christian sacrifice, has much to do with a post-war desire to make sense not only of the loss of over 60,000 men, but to foster particular social, cultural, and religious values as integral parts of Canadian identity in the early twentieth century. In an era of change wrought by war and sweeping economic and political upheavals, McCrae’s poem served as a reminder of the continuity between those who had served, who had paid the ultimate sacrifice, and those who remained to carry on the torch in future battles.

“In Flanders Fields” is indeed part of a set of national commemorative practices surrounding Remembrance Day, however, it also appears in unexpected places. The permutations, interpretations, and appropriations of McCrae’s literary text have led us a long way from the Western Front of the Great War. In fact, they lead to two very different sites – the reverse of the Canadian ten-dollar bill and the dressing room of a professional sports team, the Montreal Canadiens. By discussing these two examples, I hope to show that the poem itself acts as a type of embedded transparency that is persistently present but is rarely a consciously considered aspect of Canadian collective memory. In these instances, particular lines from “In Flanders Fields” are lifted from their place in the poem and recast as tools for something else. James Wertsch describes this reworking of a text in Voices of Collective Remembrance. He writes that

[w]ithout our being fully aware of it, the cultural tools we employ to remember something like … World War I have a sort of memory, or at least memory potential, built into them. Furthermore, these cultural tools and the affordances and constraints built into them are unequally distributed among various collectives, and as a result these collectives may by expected to remember the “same” event differently. (54)

Critically exploring the unequal distribution of the memory potential in “In Flanders Fields” as it is selectively used on the Canadian ten-dollar bill and in the Canadiens’ dressing room, raises larger questions about collective memory and collective belonging. Who are the dead of Flanders speaking to in the twenty-first century? Who today carries the torch passed so many years ago and what form does the contemporary battle take? While these are metaphoric questions of battles and torches, they illuminate how present-day efforts at Great War remembrance often tell us more about contemporary concerns surrounding active and latent forms of remembering associated with different types of communities, rather than the actualities of the 1914-1918 conflict.

Text and Context

When he wrote the poem in 1915, John McCrae was in his early forties – a bachelor, though a sought after dinner guest in Anglophone Montreal before enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force – and well established in the Canadian medical field as a respected pathologist and educator for his work at McGill University (Graves). As a poet, McCrae’s verse was published in university periodicals through the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. His death from pneumonia in January 1918 while serving in Belgium meant that he never learned of the enduring resonance and popularity of his poem, first published without attribution in Punch in 1915 (Prescott). McCrae himself is an unlikely hero-figure. Jonathan Vance describes an oft-used photograph of McCrae as follows: “his uniform fits poorly over too-sloping shoulders, his hair hangs in an undignified thatch, and his mouth has a strange lopsided quality” (199). With his passing, McCrae joins the dead of his poem – fixed forever in the fields of Flanders while those who survived and those who would come later are left to heed the exhortations of the fallen. Nearly a century after the Great War, Vance notes: “modern critics may be lukewarm to the poem, but contemporaries could scarcely find a superlative sufficient to describe it” (199). Despite its popularity as an integral aspect of Remembrance Day services across Canada, it is rarely studied as a piece of literature. Critically evaluating the poem requires moving beyond rote repetition and asking difficult questions about conflict, propaganda, and remembering.

In her 2005 paper on McCrae’s poem entitled, ‘“In Flanders Fields » – Canada’s official poem, breaking faith,’Nancy Holmes offered a literary analysis of the sonnet. Holmes’ work responds to Paul Fussell’s condemnation of the poem in The Great War and Modern Memory where Fussell derides “In Flanders Fields” as propaganda and worthy only of scorn. Indeed, the poem can expose what Holmes describes as “all sorts of feelings of discomfort we have about colonialism, imperialism, warmongering, homophobia, and falseness”, but she acknowledges that there is a beauty and a power to it that contemporary critics may miss if they are quick to revile McCrae as a jingoist empire-endorsing proponent of war (25). The truth of the matter is complex and is reflected in contemporary feelings for the poem, which can best be described as an unusual blend of embarrassment and pride. These contemporary feelings also mirror the conflicted public sentiment for Canada’s recent military involvement in Afghanistan where critics view the mission as a betrayal of Canadian values beyond the scope of the imagined role of Canada as an international peacekeeper while supporters of service men and women, at the time of this writing, mark the return of those killed in action with somber observances on one of the nation’s busiest highways. “In Flanders Fields” does act as reminder of Canada’s complex past, but before I turn to two of the poem’s current (mis)appropriations, it will be helpful to take a closer look at the text itself:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up the quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The three stanzas of rhyming verse here are not in any sense a literary innovation. The poem succeeds as a cultural tool in part because of its structure, which lends itself to recitation and repetition. But what exactly is being communicated in McCrae’s poem?  “In Flanders Fields” features a speaker who advocates for the fallen soldiers as one of the dead. The kinship implied in the third line is stated clearly in the first line of the second stanza: “We are the Dead”. When the poem was written in 1915, the worst fighting of the First World War was still to come. The promise of adventure that might have attracted Canadians to enlist in the war effort was replaced with the growing realization that the Great War could go on for years as a battle of attrition. The speaker of “In Flanders Fields” urges his addressee to continue the fight as a way of “keep[ing] faith” with those who have already paid with their lives. The poem is a pact between the living and the dead and it has very little to say about the events of the battlefield. Here, McCrae’s poem differs from the work of two well-known British War poets. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, written by a man who would never make it to battlefield, glorifies even the opportunity that an English soldier might have to die for his country. At the other end of the spectrum, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” questions the notion that any glory could be found in horror of the War. With “In Flanders Fields” there are no graphic depictions of life and death in the trenches, nor is there any mention of King, Empire, or country. For these reasons, the lack of battlefield specificity and the emphasis on the relationship between the speaker and the addressee – “you” – lends the poem to reconfigurations where the original context of the piece can be obscured.

Cultural tools and Communities

Jonathan Vance begins a chapter of his seminal work on the mythology of the Great War in Canada, Death so Noble, with a discussion of “In Flanders Fields.”  He cites a 1930 newspaper editor who comments that the poem “passed into our common language, its thought was embedded in the thought of the generation for whom it was written; it has remained a heritage for the indefinite future” (199). In this example, “In Flanders Fields” is clearly more than a poem, it is defined as part of a Canadian common language, embedded in national thought, and part of a heritage to be passed on to future generations – this is the very definition of a textual resource as cultural tool. James Wertsch uses this term – “textual resource’ – to describe how a created narrative stands in or mediates between an event and our understanding of that event. Here the event in question is Canada’s participation in the First World War and our twenty-first century understanding of the conflict. Wertsch goes on to suggest that using textual resources is perhaps “not really a form of memory at all, but instead a type of knowledge – namely, knowledge of texts” (27). If collective understanding of something like the First World War is based on a text that stands between our present and our past, a poem like “In Flanders Fields” becomes a lens through which we can view past events in Canadian history. However, if there is no common understanding that links “In Flanders Fields” specifically to the First World War, the poem can be appropriated to serve a variety of needs. McCrae’s poem might have been common language for Canadians in the interwar period as Vance notes, but in its present uses, on the ten dollar bill and in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room, the lines of “In Flanders Fields” are only tangentially related to the 1914-1918 conflict.

In his discussion of the memory potential embedded in cultural tools, Wertsch draws a distinction between implicit and imagined communities. Implicit communities are made up of people “who use a common set of cultural tools even though they may be unaware of this fact and may make no effort to create or reproduce their collectivity” (64). These implicit communities differ from the “imagined communities” that Benedict Anderson details in his 1983 work where individuals share a sense of community by sharing a form of media like a newspaper, a particular edition of a book, and in the more contemporary sense, viewing the same television program and web pages. Both Anderson and Wertsch explore the peculiarities of nationalism – how diverse peoples form allegiances within geographic and socio-political borders – but for Wertsch, the suggestion of an implicit community allows for the fact that people use cultural tools for their individual purposes without concern for the fact that those tools circulate amongst a wider public. Individuals in implicit communities use cultural tools as utilities; once the tools have served their purpose, they are rarely given attention. For imagined communities, cultural tools offer links to other people both past and present. In the two instances I discuss below, McCrae’s words become free floating mythological signifiers that drift further and further from the signified (Barthes) – the Allied dead of the Western Front. However, as cultural tools, the use of “In Flanders Fields” on the ten dollar bill and in a hockey arena have in common that both are associated to two very different communities: an implicit one which pays little mind to McCrae’s poem and an imagined one with a specific cultural heritage that has a very limited relationship to the Great War.

Paying the Price: (in)visible memory potential

One of the poem’s first commercial uses was in a 1917 promotion for Canadian victory bonds (see figure 1). Here, a soldier stands amidst poppies gazing reverently at a grave behind a ruined village.

Fig. 1. Victory Loans Campaign Poster, 1918; If Ye Break Faith… ; CWM 19850475-013; Canada and the First World War; Canadian War Museum; Web; 18 November 2011. @Canadian War Museum.

Fig. 1. Victory Loans Campaign Poster, 1918; If Ye Break Faith…; CWM 19850475-013;  Canada and the First World War; Canadian War Museum; Web; 18 November 2011. © Canadian War Museum.

The audience for this advertisement is assumed to be familiar with McCrae’s poem so that the line that appears in the top left-hand corner without attribution to the author or even the poem from which it is drawn. The Victory Bonds advertisement shifts the notion of a contract – an obligation still exists, but it is no longer between the dead speaker and living combatants. The contract here is one of financial support from the home front population of Canada to soldiers in Europe. By selectively using lines from the poem we can gloss over the more troubling bits where the speaker asserts himself as a representative of the fallen with the words “We are the Dead”. As they are configured in the Victory Bonds image, the men who lie in European graves are sleeping, at peace, and will continue to rest soundly so long as the living fulfill their side of this financial bargain.

Ninety years after the Victory Bonds campaign made use of McCrae’s words, a connection between money and “In Flanders Fields” continues with the “Canadian Journey” edition of the ten-dollar bill first released in 2001 (see figure 2), which features the first stanza of McCrae’s poem in English and in French, Canada’s official languages (all bills in this series include quotations or verse in both languages). Once again, McCrae’s poem is a textual resource being exploited for a particular purpose.

Fig. 2. Reverse of Canadian Ten Dollar Bill; Canadian Journey; Bank of Canada; 2001; jpeg. Used with permission from the Bank of Canada.

However, when using a ten-dollar bill one tends not to actively remember much about the bill itself. Like any form of currency, the ten-dollar bill is by definition a cultural tool, considering that we live a society where we have agreed to exchange bits of coloured paper and metal discs for goods and services. Both the monetary and textual resources require what Wertsch terms an “active agent” – an individual who purposely engages with the material. In the case of the ten-dollar bill, the monetary use trumps the memory potential of the textual resource “In Flanders Fields.”

If we are to be active agents, moving beyond the role of individual actors in an implicit community and actually engaging with the words and symbols depicted on the ten-dollar bill, it requires a concerted effort. Actually reading the first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” is difficult – the purple script in tiny font on a pink background can be easily overlooked. The memory potential here goes largely unexploited – unless we know why Flanders is important, unless we have heard and repeated the poem on an annual basis, there is no context for remembering here. We don’t actually need to know about the specifics of the First World War at all if we are already familiar with the poem as part of an established pattern of remembrance. By including the first stanza, no individual is singled out – “you” – are not called upon to carry the torch, but to think about how “In Flanders Fields” works in combination with the other symbols depicted on the bill.

Clustered together with the first stanza of the poem at lower left is a collection of poppies and a banner that reads “lest we forget: n’oublions jamais”: a symbol and a slogan associated with the First World War but without clear attribution to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Recessional”, from which it is drawn. While McCrae is identified as poet here, the explicit reference to the dead of the battlefield is missing. In fact, Canadians seem to have little to do with battlefields judging from the collection of images on the bill: a dove hovers near McCrae’s words, while a female soldier uses binoculars to gaze into the future underneath the phrase “in the service of peace”. Finally, on the right, a representative trio gathers at a monument where two members of the military stand watch. There is no war here. Not only do we skip over the overt reference to the dead in the truncated version of the poem, the third stanza about “taking up the quarrel with the foe” is also missing. Despite Canada’s participation in three major conflicts in the twentieth century and the nation’s current involvement in Afghanistan, the Canadian imagination is largely committed to thinking of our military as peacekeepers working only, as the text at the top of bill reads, “in the service of peace” (Jefferess). Wertsch cautions us that textual resources, like the symbols displayed here, “are not neutral cognitive instruments that simply assist us in our efforts to remember. Instead we are often committed to believing or not believing them, sometimes in deeply emotional ways having to do with fundamental issues of identity” (9). By selectively using “In Flanders Fields,” the bill gestures towards a sanitized version of Canada’s past military involvement.

Collective Memory and the Canadiens

When the first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” becomes one of many “cultural tools” to think about war and remembrance, it loses its specific reference to the First World War. Wertsch’s notion of ‘distributed collective memory’ explains why personal understandings of the 1914 to 1918 conflict vary so widely. There is no one collective consciousness that mediates a community’s understanding of the past. Instead, memories are heterogeneously distributed amongst the members of the community and while individuals may share similar memories, they will also have participated in the same event in similar ways (Wertsch, 25). My own feelings towards the poem are mixed – it is impossible for me to “un-know” or stop remembering the Great War when I read “In Flanders Fields”, but I find myself getting caught up in the nostalgia and mythology that surrounds the poem – am I really remembering the events of the Great War when my mind wanders to primary school assemblies or televised Remembrance Day ceremonies?  For some reason I am more comfortable with a professional sports team’s obvious appropriation of McCrae’s poem than the easily missed first stanza on the ten- dollar bill.  The unabashed co-option of the poem by a general manager with a love of poetry (“Habs greatest GMs inducted into Builder’s Row”) who reached the rank of Lance Corporal in the Great War seems more appropriate than a bureaucratic committee determining which symbols appropriately represent the nation with its Anglophone and Francophone tensions.  While Frank Selke’s military service is glossed over in biographies and historical accounts of the Canadiens, the Hockey Hall of Fame notes that he began his sports administration career at the age of 14 and would coach a University of Toronto team to the Memorial Cup in 1919 (“The Legends”).  At the outbreak of the Second World War, Selke remained in Canada, heading the Toronto Maple Leafs organization on behalf of another legendary hockey executive — Conn Smythe — who raised an artillery battalion to serve overseas.  Managerial decisions made during the war would lead to a falling out between the two that would prompt Selke’s move to the Canadiens in 1946.

“[T]o you from failing hands we throw the torch / be yours to hold it high », the two lines in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room are a textual resource for the players, the organization, and the collective Canadiens fan base. The quotation links the past of the most successful hockey organization in the world, founded in 1909, to the current version of the team (fig. 3). At first it seems odd to find an English Canadian war poem in the largest city of a province that basically had conscription forced upon it in with the Military Service Act of 1917 (Hodgins, Rutherdale). The decision to install the words in the dressing room was Selke’s. The Anglophone from Kitchener, Ontario (which was known as Berlin until the outbreak of the Great War), chose to have the phrase painted — in English and French — above the lockers of the players who would become some of the most legendary men to ever play the game.  As Selke set about building one of the greatest teams in Montreal Canadiens history (as general manager of the franchise from 1946-1964, he helped to assemble a team that would win Stanley Cups in seven years), he actively sought to promote Quebec-born Francophone stars while “downplay[ing]  the huge contribution of the primarily al-English front office” (Goyens and Turowetz, 91-2).

Fig.3. Montreal Canadiens’ Dressing Room, Bell Centre, from Ian Robertson; To you…; 30 May 2010. Used with the permission of the photographer.

At the centre of this dynasty was Maurice Richard, a man Douglas Hunter calls “a symbol of the French-Canadian race, a mythic figure for the people of [Quebec]” (147). Richard was the first player to score fifty goals in fifty games, he won eight Stanley cups, and is memorialized in a trophy honouring the league’s annual scoring leader. The famous number nine is immortalized in children’s books, poetry, art, and film. He embodies the cultural, linguistic, and sporting hopes of an entire cultural community. There is no comparative figure in Anglo-Canadian history.

Richard’s notorious glare gazes out at the current roster of Canadiens from below the lines of “In Flanders Fields.” Here it is very clear from whom the torch is being thrown. Players face these words and the portraits of past Canadiens legends before every home game. Visitors to the Bell Centre have the opportunity to tour the dressing room when it is not in use by the players. Tourists can imagine themselves as part of the team. Even for those who do not have the opportunity to attend games in Montreal, the shared experience of watching Saturday evening games has helped to foster a nation-wide imagined community.  In Canadiens Legends Montreal Hockey Heroes, Mike Leonetti writes: “even on television the Forum [the Canadiens’ arena from 1926 to 1996] had a special air about it. With the seats close together, there was little room to maneuver, but it was a magical place, especially when the Canadiens were on top of their game” (14). In some ways, the Forum is much more real than the fields of Flanders that MacCrae writes about. The ghosts of the Forum – those who helped the club to twenty four Stanley Cups – seem to loom as large, if not larger than the thousands of young Canadians who rest in fields in Western Europe. As legendary hockey players succumb to age and illness, their names, numbers – and at times their mortal remains, (Richard lay in state at the Bell Centre following his death in May 2000) – are honoured.

Yet, those who fell in the Great War were never repatriated to Canada. Remembering the Canadian war dead has always required an imaginative investment in connecting the there and then of early twentieth century Europe with the here and now of contemporary Canada. It is as if Canadians have learned to remember the Great War via proxy and as the event itself recedes fully out of living memory, the tools used to mediate that remembrance can become unnervingly flexible in that they can be co-opted to serve the needs of present-day communities whose connection to the conflict is increasingly tangential.

Holding High the Torch: Contemporary Reflections

The key difference between the two uses of “In Flanders Fields” – on the ten-dollar bill and in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room – is the existence of two communities that Wertsch identifies: the imagined community and the implicit community. The first stanza of “In Flanders Fields” on the ten-dollar bill is a textual resource for an imagined community, transitioning out of its function as a resource for an implicit community when an individual pauses to reflect on the minute print. In a hockey arena in Montreal, McCrae’s words serve as the guiding link between past glories and present and future hopes for athletic success. For players in the dressing room, the words likely become part of the décor over time, fading from everyday awareness until one pauses again to consider the lines that were composed nearly a century ago. Regardless of how “In Flanders Fields” is used as textual resource, Wertsch reminds us that “Collective remembering is (1) an active process, (2) inherently social and mediated by textual resources and their affiliated voices, and (3) inherently dynamic. However we go about building on these claims, the voices of collective remembering promise to shape memory and identity for as long as we can peer into the future” (178). Key to this reflection on collective remembering is the fact that individuals themselves determine how they use textually mediated memory resources for their own specific purposes. Wertsch notes that “despite all [of the theorizing and analysis] we can’t ever say what people do with a text or if the recipient does what the producer intended” (117). John McCrae never had the opportunity to comment on the adoption of his poem as a national symbol or a cultural tool, of remembrance. However, the speaker in his poem directly addresses the reader; it is up to the reader to decide if the torch, and the complexities of nationalism, sacrifice, and the glorification of the noble dead are worth contemporary reflection and imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verson, 1991.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers Trans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” The Wordsworth Book of First World War Poetry. Ed. Marcus Clapham. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1998. 18.

“Canadian Ten Dollar Bill.” Canadian Journey. 2001. Bank of Canada, Ottawa. jpeg.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Goyens, Chris and Allan Turowetz.  Lions in Winter.  Scarborough: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1986.

Graves, Dianne. A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae. Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1997.

“Habs greatest GMs inducted into Builder’s Row.”, The Official Site of the 24-Time Stanley Cup Champions. 11 January 2007. Web. 21 November 2011.

Hodgins, Bruce, W. Canadiens, Canadian and Québécois. Toronto: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1974.

Holmes, Nancy. “‘In Flanders Fields’ – Canada’s official poem: breaking faith.” Studies in Canadian Literature 30.1 (2005): 11-33.

Hunter, Douglas. War games: Conn Smythe and hockey’s fighting men. Toronto: Viking, 1996.

If Ye Break Faith. 1917. CWM 19850475-013. Canadian War Musem, Ottawa. War Museum. Web. 18 November 2011.

Jefferess, David. “Responsibility, Nostalgia, and the Mythology of Canada as a Peacekeeper.” University of Toronto Quarterly. 78.2 (2009): 709-727.  

Kipling, Rudyard. “Recessional.” Kipling Poems. Ed. Peter Washington. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. 95-96.

Leonetti, Mike. Canadiens Legends: Montreal’s Hockey Heroes. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2003.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 527-528.

 McCrae, John. “In Flanders Fields.” In Flanders Fields and Other Poems. Toronto: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1919. 15.

Prescott, John F. In Flanders Fields: The Story of John McCrae. Boston: Mills Press, 1985.

Robertson, Ian. “To you…” 2010. jpeg.

Rutherdale, Robert. Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

“The Legends.” The Official Site of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Web. 21 November 2011.

Vance, Jonathan. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997.

Wertsch, James, V. Voices of Collective Remembering. Port Chester: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Megan Robertson completed her PhD, “Networks of Memory: Creativity, Relationships and Representations”  in 2017.  She is currently working as Learning Strategist at Kwantien Polytechnic University.  She has recently published: “What Sound Can Do: Listening with Memory” in BC Studies 197 (Spring 2018) and “Epistolary Memory: First World War Letters to British Columbia” in BC Studies 182: The Great War (Summer 2014).


Popular song in Britain during the two world wars


Popular music, Music hall, Crooners, World war I, World war II

During the First World War, music-hall played an important role in the war effort, organizing on-stage recruitment for the army, concert parties at the Front and free shows for the wounded in hospital. Satire and criticism of how the war was run could also be present.

By the Second World War, the official political discourse had changed. Lloyd George’s glorious sacrifice had become Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. The music industry had also changed, through the rise of the gramophone, the dance hall and the American crooner.

Popular music is more and more the object of academic study, but the war periods have been neglected. The present article aims at examining the production and the content of popular song in the two world wars. We will try to judge if popular song can at times represent a “voice of the people”, and to compare first war songs with second war songs. Finally, we will analyse similarities and differences between “commercial” popular songs and “trench songs”.


Lors de la première guerre mondiale, le music-hall joua un rôle important dans l’effort de guerre. Campagnes de recrutement pendant les spectacles, séances gratuites pour les soldats blessés, tournées de vedettes en France, contribuèrent toutes à l’effort national. Un air de satire et de critique de la gestion de la guerre était également perceptible.

Lors de la deuxième guerre, le discours officiel des hommes politiques a évolué. Le sacrifice glorieux de Lloyd George est devenu le « du sang, de la peine, des larmes et de la sueur» de Winston Churchill. L’industrie du divertissement s’est également transformée. Le gramophone est devenu un produit accessible à une grande partie de la population ; la musique populaire consommée en public émane désormais plutôt des dance halls que des théâtres de variété. L’influence américaine est très forte.

La chanson populaire et sa production sont de plus en plus étudiées, mais la période des guerres a été peu traitée. Cette contribution vise à examiner la production et le contenu des chansons populaires des deux guerres mondiales. Elle posera la question de savoir si ces chansons peuvent parfois représenter une « voix du peuple », elle cherchera à comparer les chansons de la première guerre avec celles de la seconde. Enfin, elle tentera d’analyser similitudes et différences entre la chanson « commerciale » produite en Angleterre et la chanson de soldat inventée par les troupes elles-mêmes.



Though popular music is the subject of increasing academic study, the war periods have been little dealt with.  In this contribution, I intend to look at the most popular themes of wartime songs, at the tone of the songs, at some aspects of their production and consumption, and at the use made of the songs for the war drive. For each of these topics, I will try to compare and contrast the situation in 1914-1918 with that in 1939-1945.

I will be dealing almost exclusively with music-hall in the First World War and variety and Big Band in the second. These genres by no means exhaust the popular music of the time. Brass bands and choral music in the First World War were tremendously popular, for example, but because of the nature of these genres were less affected by the war experience. Those forms tended to keep to a relatively fixed repertoire and did not attempt to deal with war issues and experiences.

My conclusions about popular song will necessarily be tentative: The First World War alone gives us several thousand songs to deal with making generalization difficult.

Voices of commerce, voices of the people

A preliminary question which has caused much controversy is that of the source of the values and messages of popular song: whose voice was behind the song? For Theodor Adorno, one of the first to attack the question frontally, the answer was not difficult: popular song was purely a commodity, fabricated only for profit motives by the “culture industry”, an industry which controled public taste. He wrote:

The culture industry fuses the old and familiar into a new quality. In all its branches, products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan (Adorno, 98).

Adorno’s was the most clear-cut version of a very common idea about commercial music and its messages. He wrote about the popular music of the 1930s, but his conception could just as easily have applied to music-hall. The characteristics of a culture industry were fully present at the beginning of the twentieth century. Theatre chains, sheet music publishers, and musical comedy producers already made enormous profits from the stars and the hits of 1914.

If, for Adorno, commercial music could not express the interests or priorities of dominated classes, others who have agreed consider that the voice of the people can be found elsewhere. The great collector and defender of folk music, Cecil Sharp, argued, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that “commercial” music-hall was destroying the “authentic” people’s music which had flourished in previous centuries. During the First World War, he considered that in England, the music he searched for had practically disappeared. He was looking for the “great tradition that stretches back into the mists of the past in one long, unbroken chain, of which the last link is now, alas, being forged” (Quoted in Gold and Revill, 59). Sharp undertook a series of journeys to the Appalachian Mountains to find more of the “true culture” of the English people among the descendants of English immigrants to America isolated by geography and poverty. His assistants wrote of their relief to find that in the Appalachian Mountains, their informers (singers) did not mix their “genuine” folk music with products of the music-hall, as they had done in England (Gold and Revill, 61).

Both these negative conceptions of “mass culture” music have been challenged. The whole discipline of popular music studies (Middleton, 1990, 2006) has been erected in opposition to the influential conception of Adorno, while such writers as Dave Harker have criticized Sharp and others as constructors of an imaginary and ahistorical “authentic” popular culture.

Others have claimed that commercially successful music might in fact carry a voice “of the people”; Colin MacInnes writes in his book Sweet Saturday Night:

since they [music-hall songs] were chiefly written by, and sung by, working class men and women for working class audiences, we may hear in them a vox populi which is not to be found in Victorian and Edwardian literature (MacInnes, 34).

And T. S. Eliot, not generally considered a populist, claimed (at the death of the music-hall star, Marie Lloyd):

Marie Lloyd was the greatest music-hall artist in England: she was also the most popular. And popularity in her case was not merely evidence of her accomplishment; it was something more than success. It is evidence of the extent to which she represented and expressed that part of the English nation which has perhaps the greatest vitality and interest (ELIOT, 659).

Certainly it does seem that music-hall songs were able to reflect and explore the harsh conditions of life of a fair part of their audiences. This was clear well before 1914. Gus Elen’s hit, recorded in 1899, If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between portrays the comic pride of a working man in his little garden in the overcrowded streets of the slums:

Oh it really is a wery pretty garden
And Chingford to the eastward could be seen;
Wiv a ladder and some glasses
you could see to ‘Ackney Marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in between

The song I live in Trafalgar Square, published by C. W. Murphy in 1902 laughs at homelessness. The tradition continued through World War One. The music hall song My Old Man by Fred W. Leigh and Charles Collins in 1919 and made popular by Marie Lloyd, relates the experience of a couple who have to move house in a hurry since they cannot pay the rent. The mass experience of wartime could be expressed in music hall songs as well.

This reflection of working-class experience was however very much held within constraints of genre, consensus and a certain respectability. As has been pointed out by Gareth Stedman Jones, the workplace, site and source of many of the harshest experiences, was absent from the subject matter of music-hall. Conflict with figures of authority was also rare. The songs expressed suffering rather than resistance, although cocking a snook at authority by celebrating the pleasures of hedonism or the joy of refusing to look for work was possible (A little of what you fancy does you good recorded by Marie Lloyd in 1915, and Wait until the work comes round by Gus Elen in 1906, for example). Further, a comic and jaunty tone are expected in the music-hall, an individual, not collective, responses to hardship are the only ones treated. In the later period, the 1930s and 1940s, David Bret in his biography of the entertainer George Formby, has pointed out that certain genres such as blues have been frequently claimed as voices of dominated classes or ethnic groups, and even the less prestigious genres, such as variety today, may reflect ordinary people’s priorities.

In addition to popular and commercial voices in wartime song, there is, naturally, an instrumentalization of song for the war effort. Just as writers like G. K. Chesterton, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Anthony Hope and John Buchan whose writing during the First World War aided the Ministry of Information, other cultural products, music too, was mobilized for war. This instrumentalization was mediated by negotiation with genre constraints and with the priorities of mass audiences as well.

Soldiers’ songs

The case of soldiers’ songs was particular. These songs were written and sung, generally without attribution to an author or particular artist, during the two wars by the soldiers themselves. They have been the object of much attention by collectors and war veterans, but of relatively little analysis. Some critics have called the genre a modern folk music corpus, expressing forgotten voices of the soldiers on the ground. Already, during the First World War, The Times of London debated the importance, authenticity and concerns expressed in “the songs the Tommies really sing”( 20, 21 January 1915). Many of the soldier songs below are parodies or rewritings of commercial songs. Though they are certainly less subject to censorship than music-hall, variety or big band songs, and do not need to find a thematic consensus among different social groups in order to be distributed by major music-hall or record companies, it is hard to distinguish a veritable rift between these songs and the commercially successful songs produced for profit. The coming and going between the two genres was continual. Soldiers sang the latest music-hall or variety songs at concert parties on the Eastern or Western fronts; music-hall or variety artistes adapted soldiers’ songs for commercial production; record companies rushed to record soldiers singing “trench songs”. The musical legacy from the two wars was thus neither the pure folk product imagined by a scholar searching in the isolation of Appalachia, nor was it Adorno’s cultural product entirely dictated by a profit motive.

Developments between the two wars

Before moving on to the themes of popular song, I would like to look at the tremendous transformations in commercial music between the two wars. Firstly, live music-hall declined. Many histories of music-hall end in 1914; this cut off is certainly premature, but after that date, music-hall never again played the central role it did. In 1914-1918, the gramophone was still a luxury. The price of a gramophone record with two songs front and back could buy six tickets for the music-hall; the price of the cheapest gramophone would purchase two hundred and twenty tickets. The only way to hear a hit sung by a star was to go to the live performance. Sheet music was also extremely popular and profitable and readily available.

By the Second World War, the gramophone had gained tremendous ground.  After 1927, the electrically amplified jukebox came into being. Music-hall was also menaced by the radio. The BBC, a public corporation after 1927, poured musical production onto the airwaves under the supervision of its formidable captain John Reith.

The domination of song distribution by the BBC altered the type of music which was easily available. In contrast with the variety theatre chiefs who were market-oriented, the BBC held close to an elitist and even moralist view of music. “Variety music” or “Light music” for the BBC under Reith, was simply “not music”. Nor should music be avant garde: the BBC refused to broadcast a particular style of jazz improvisation, Scat. By the early forties, though, one genre, dance music, had carved itself a place on the airwaves. The programme “Dancing Club” which starred Victor Sylvester was extremely popular (Baade). Each programme included spoken dance instruction, accompanied by drawings published in the BBC magazine “Radio Times”, to help listeners practice their dancing.

Indeed, dance came to the fore in urban leisure in this period. Increased leisure time, and improved public transport, contributed to the rise of the dance halls. The contrast with music-halls was enormous: the music-hall tradition of a mix of singers, acrobats, ventriloquists and magicians transformed into popular settings where music was at the centre. The audience no longer sat watching but danced. Dance halls took a central role in men’s and women’s the search for partners while allowing women a new freedom of public movement which had been impossible in Edwardian times. Finally the instruments, the band, had come to the fore and the band leader became one of the most important stars of the time. Only very slowly was the band leader overtaken by the singing star.

The last development which marginalized the music-hall was talking cinema. While films were silent, the music-hall was able to resist the competition, and indeed often integrated a short film into the evening’s show. But talking and singing films were a severe blow. Hundreds of halls were closed down and reopened as picture palaces; furthermore, music and cinema were to join forces in the musical comedy film. Indeed, a large number of British films of the 1930s and early 1940s aimed, above all, at benefitting from the tremendous popularity of a small number of singing stars, notably George Formby and Gracie Fields.

Gracie Fields sang her way through  We’re going to be rich, and Keep Smiling in 1938, and Shipyard Sally in 1939, before moving to the US to star in Stage door Canteen and Holy Matrimony (1943) and Molly and Me and Paris Underground (1945). George Formby starred in 14 films from 1938-1946, all of which featured him singing his hit songs accompanying himself on the Ukulele. The songs often dealt with aspects of mass experience of the war.

Since music was more and more dominated by electronic recording, local autonomy in a capital-intensive industry became more problematic, and, as previously with film, US domination increased sharply from the already significant pre-World War One US presence in the sheet music and song writing industries. Bessie Smith, Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Jack Hylton were the artists that led this “American invasion”. In 1930, according to James Nott, 84% of the most popular pieces in Britain were of US origin (Nott, 209). This proportion fell to 64% in 1935.

More accessible phonographs, radio, amplifiers, musical movies, dance halls and transportation, the importance of band leaders all contributed to the changes in popular music between the wars. It is also interesting to note, however, what had not yet happened in the history of popular music. Firstly, songs of the two war periods, unlike many later productions, were not complex from the point of view of the narrative structure. Though they may have been highly ironic, and the position of the narrator may have been ambiguous, they made little use of metaphor or of imagist-type poetry, which became common after the 1960s. Other techniques of modernist poetry such as collage were not used, and the limits of early electronic amplification meant that there could be no aesthetic of sound volume as there was from the 1970s on. The popular singers did not communicate an ethic of revolt. They were not expected to be voices of protest. They were not particularly the voices of the younger generation.  Teenagers had not been invented – in 1914, girls went into domestic service or into factories at twelve years old, boys started an apprenticeship if they could. By 1939 this changed somewhat, but the leisure and independence of teenagers was not yet sufficient to have created a “youth culture”.

Common themes in Songs of the two wars

The themes of wartime songs could show an evident base in wartime experience, and particularly mass wartime experience. But some themes, such as courtship and love, remained frequent in songs both of wartime and of peacetime, and made up a large part of the production.

The most obvious wartime theme was the “morale song”. The government as well as the music-hall milieu was conscious of the necessity of adding to the great speeches of Lloyd George or Winston Churchill or to propaganda posters and pamphlets, for morale messages carried through the idiom of cheerful song. Music-hall stars and variety stars such as Harry Lauder and Vera Lynn eventually received knighthoods and other honours as a reward. During World War One, the music industry sent portable gramophones and sheet music free of charge to soldiers at the front. In both wars travelling concert parties sang the hits of the year, while in France, Turkey, Egypt or England innumerable free concerts were given for wounded soldiers in hospital.

In both wars, the dream of home was a central subject in morale songs.  Keep the home fires burning by Ivor Novello with words by Lena Guilbert Ford in 1914 is the classic example from World War One:

Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
‘Til the boys come home.

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag and smile, smile, smile, by George Henry Powell with music by his brother Felix Powell in 1915, was one of the most popular songs of the World War One. As the long title and first line suggested, exhorted people to put a brave face on.

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.
While you’ve a Lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying? It never was worth while…

Many others, in the style of  Here we are again or Are we downhearted, No! No! No! (Robert Harkness, 1914) added to the chorus of encouragement, though sometimes reflecting the difficulties of keeping up courage:

Are we downhearted? No!
Then let your voices ring
And altogether sing.
Are we downhearted ? No!
Not while Britannia rules the waves. Not likely!
While we have Jack upon the sea,
And Tommy on the land we need not fret.
It’s a long, long way to Tipperary
But were not downhearted yet.

Songs specifically aimed at recruitment were very popular in 1914-1916, sometimes sung in music-halls where the young men were encouraged to sign up for the army at once, on stage (see Quigley). The songs claimed that joining the army would help the young man attract the ladies as in It’s the boys in khaki get the nice girls, recorded in 1915, or make his parents proud, the message of I’m glad my boy grew up to be a soldier also of 1915. Female artistes did not hesitate to use their seductive powers for recruiting. Marie Lloyd’s song of 1915, Now you’ve got your khaki on explained:

I didn’t like you much before you joined the army, John,
but I do like you, cockie, now you’ve  got your khaki on […]
I do feel so proud of you, I do, honour bright
I’m going to give you an extra cuddle tonight.

The narrator was a respectable girl, difficult to seduce, but the uniform was the right tactic. A number of songs in the same vein were produced.

In the song  We’re glad you’ve got a gun, the womenfolk exclaim “There’s time enough for other games, time enough to court” and suggest that traditional youth interests in romance and courting would offer little future “if the clank of German sabres down your village street should ring” (Murdoch, 67).  Even more famous was the 1914 song by Paul A. Rubens, Your King and Country want you, recorded by as many as 6 artists in 1914 alone:

Oh, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.
For your King and your country both need you so.
We shall want you and miss you
But with all our might and main
We shall cheer you, thank you, kiss you
When you come home again.

The Second World War also produced its share of morale songs. Gracie Fields recycled  a slightly earlier song by Harry Parr-Davies, Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye in the 1939 movie, “Shipyard Sallie”.  Sing as we go an important song, also by Parr-Davies from the 1934 depression themed Gracie Fields movie of that name came back in a war context:

Sing as we go, although the skies are grey
Beggar or king, you’ve got to sing a gay tune
A song and a smile make it right worthwhile
So sing… as we go along
Blues – where are you now
You ought to know that I’ve no use for you
Frown – get off my brow
It’s plain to see that from now on we’re through

There are no specific recruiting songs in World War Two, in part because conscription was introduced from the beginning of the war. Nor are women used in song as seductive recruiting sergeants – at least not in the words of the song, though “Vera Lynn, the soldiers’ sweetheart” was recognized by the government as an important asset to morale.

An important category of morale songs from both wars are the “Better times are coming” songs. In the 1914-18 war When the boys come marching back to Blighty and When we’ve wound up the watch on the Rhine by Stanley Kirkby, 1915, are the most notable. World War Two songs also looked forward to victory and a new world, in When they sound the last all clear (Hugh Charles and Lewis Elton and recorded by Vera Lynn in 1941),  When we dance at the victory ball (Jack Denby, Muriel Watson and Horatio Nicholls, 1944) or When the great new world is dawning. Al Bowlly sang of When that man is dead and gone in 1941. The most famous of the “better-times coming” songs was of course The White cliffs of Dover by Walter Kent and Nat Burton, sung in the well-known recording by Vera Lynn in 1942:

There’ll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Tomorrow, Just you wait and see

There’ll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow When the world is free

The song goes on to describe rural England restored, and the return of the children evacuated from bombed zones;

The shepherd will tend his sheep
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again

Rural England was often presented in songs as elsewhere as typical of England, part of an imagined nostalgic utopia, and it is often “the lads of the village” who are out there fighting the Germans, as in for example the 1942 George Formby song When the lads of the village get cracking.

“I want to go home” songs were often sung by soldiers, but could also appear in music-hall and variety. In World War One, Take me back to dear old Blighty (Arthury J. Mills, Fred Godfrey and Bennett Scott, 1916) is a key example:

Jack Lee, having his tea, says to his pal MacFayne,
“Look, chum, apple and plum! it’s apple and plum again!
Same stuff, isn’t it rough? fed up with it I am!
Oh! for a pot of Aunt Eliza’s raspb’ry jam!”

Take me back to dear old Blighty!
Put me on the train for London town!
Take me over there,
Liverpool, Leeds, or Birmingham, well, I don’t care!

I should love to see my best girl,
Cuddling up again we soon should be,

Tiddley iddley ighty,
Hurry me home to Blighty,
Blighty is the place for me!

In 1918, the songs I wish I was in Blighty (Herman Darewski and W. R. Titterton, 1917) and I’m sick of this ere blooming war, both taken from a musical comedy, were popular. Several of these songs were recycled in the Second World War, but new songs on this theme were not produced.

Patriotic songs

During the First World War overt glorification of King and Empire was possible in songs. Send me a photo of the King was a successful song, as were Britannia’s prayer  and I love my motherland (A. J. Mills, Bennett Scott and Fred Godfrey, 1916). In the Second World War, the King and the empire are hardly mentioned in the songs and the patriotism is less tinged with words of glory. Other forms of propaganda had also changed. According to Frank Huggett there was an important difference between Lloyd George’s rousing parables about “the pinnacle of sacrifice” in a speech which practically celebrated the war as an uplifting experience for the race, and Winston Churchill’s down-to-earth promise of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” (Huggett, 52): “Nor was there any emotional need for old-style patriotic songs : there was a more maturer sense of obligation than there had been in World War One”.  There was also certainly more of a democratic spirit – since 1914, universal male suffrage had been won.  Patriotism was perhaps more homely as in Rose Parker and Hughie Charles’s There will always be an England written in the Summer of 1939 and recorded by Vera Lynn. The song’s lyrics bore some resemblance to the pre-industrial imagery of The White Cliffs of Dover as if nostalgia had taken the place King and empire as the stuff of patriotism. The song sold 200,000 copies of sheet music in the first two months of the war.

There’ll always be an England,
While there’s a country lane,
Wherever there’s a cottage small
Beside a field of grain.

There’ll always be an England,
While there’s a busy street,
Wherever there’s a turning wheel
A million marching feet.

For the music-hall songs of the end of the nineteenth century, Penny Summerfield hypothesized a difference between the extravagant jingoism present in the halls that attracted middle class audiences, and a patriotism of more working class halls which she says concentrated on celebrating the qualities of ordinary soldiers (Summerfield, “Patriotism and empire”). Certainly this second type of patriotic song is very much present, and even more dominant in The Second World War. These are songs which praised or blessed “our boys”, as in Harry Lauder’s The laddies who fought and won of 1916:

When the fighting is over, and the war is won,
And the flags are waving free,
When the bells are ringing, and the boys are singing
songs in every key,
When we all gather ’round the old fireside,
And the old mother kisses her son,
A’ the lassies will be loving all the laddies,
The laddies who fought and won.

Other First World War songs of this type included Kitcheners men and Songs the soldiers sing, and among Second World War songs are When the lads of the village get cracking, The Daring Young Man, There’s a boy coming home on leave (Jimmy Kennedy, 1940).

First World War songs may also denigrate the “slacker” who refuses to join the army:

The conscientious slacker,
Is nowhere in this day;
God bless the boys of England,
Who’re ready for the fray.

With heart alert and watchful,
They go to face the foe;
God bless the boys of England,
Wherever, they may go.

In A conscientious objector from 1915, the conscientious objector is presented as an effeminate, homosexual coward. In the Second World War, this theme is simply avoided.

Unity and division

If the pacifists were to be excluded from the national community in song in World War One and by being ignored in World War Two, other groups must be brought together. The theme of national unity was understandably a priority for patriotic propagandists and songwriters. A series of songs underlined that past divisions between British people were to be abandoned “for the duration”. In the First World War, the song Follow the Drum declared in so many words: “No longer are we socialists, conservative or red”. While Then they all sang God save the King recounted the meeting of an Irishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman. Each sang a patriotic song from his homeland, then together they sang the British national anthem.

A very similar example, The Smiths and the Jones from the variety artistes Flanagan and Allen was successful during the Second World War. In this case it is the Irish and the Jews (“the Kellys and Cohens”) who are to join the national community, despite being previously rejected by fairly large sections of the population:

Who’s building the planes? Who’s building the tanks?
Who’s launching the ships by the ton?
It’s the Smiths and the Jones
And the Kellys and Cohens
They’re all democracy’s sons.
Their aim is the same so what’s in a name
There’s just one desire to win…

In We must All stick together (recorded by Billy Cotton, 1939) it is social elitism (“the old school tie”) which is the enemy of the war effort :

We must all stick together, all stick together
And the clouds will soon roll by
We must all stick together, all stick together
Never mind the old school tie

United we shall stand whatever may befall
The richest in the land, the poorest of us all
We must all stick together, birds of a feather,
And the clouds will soon roll by.

The importance of such calls to unity of all classes and social groups should not be underestimated in a situation where social inequality remained extreme. In the First World War one need hardly underline the social inequalities that in many cultural representations occupied so important a part of Edwardian England.  In the Second World War too, the poor and the well-off were by no means equally exposed to the miseries of war, despite the (initially very popular) rationing laws. People with money moved out of towns which were bombed, and rents in safe towns rose sharply. Richer parts of London were better endowed with shelters than were poorer neighbourhoods (indeed persuading the government to open underground stations to ordinary Londoners at night seemed radical). For the very rich, the menus of luxury hotels were unaffected by rationing (Huggett, 108).

Mocking the enemy was another popular theme. In recordings of 1914 and 1915 during the First World War, Harry Champion mocked the German medals which he said were given out for no reason:

Oh my old Iron Cross, my old Iron Cross,
What a waste I do declare,
Over there in Germany they’re giving them away,
You can have a dozen if you shout “Hooray”
The Kaiser said to me “Old Cock”,
“My Kingdom for a horse”
I gave him the one missus dried the clothes on
And he gave me the old Iron Cross. (00:25)

A soldiers’ song, for which several versions exist and attributed to more than one author, including Toby O’Brien of the British Council in 1919 demonstrates in its evolution the Second World War soldier dream of emasculating enemy leaders wholly or partially:

Hitler has only got one ball,
Göring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim’lar,
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

And Michael Carr’s We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried line of 1939, mocks the enemy’s most trusted defences.

Mocking and attacking one’s own military hierarchies was a recurrent theme not confined to the actual years of fighting of either war. The military objectives were not questioned, but the capacities of the hierarchy to organize the war were. “Lions led by donkeys,” was a phrase expressing British World War One soldiers’ dissatisfaction with their commanders and was a view frequently expressed in soldiers’ songs and, usually in milder versions, in variety and music-hall songs. It is so prevalent, that when George Formby sang in Our Sergeant Major, a 1938 song, “We’d rather shoot him than salute him”, it should not be taken as a meaningless joke. A 1920 song, Pop goes the Major by Stanley Kirkby, sufficiently popular to be republished in the annual “Most popular songs” collection which Francis and Day, the music publishers, brought out every year at the time, recounts the wishes of a group of soldiers, after the war, to find and kill their sergeant major:

We’ve heard it said that he
Has got the OBE
But his next decoration looks like being the RIP
And him I’m going around to see
I’m taking a hand grenade with me.

The popular song, Bless ’em all –singing goodbye and maybe good riddance, to soldiers and sergeants and “corporals and their blinkin’ bleedin’ sons” including famously, “The Long and the Short and the Tall,” was claimed by Fred Godfrey as a 1916 or 1917 creation of his, Fuck ‘em all, but may be a protest song of airmen in India in the 1920s, and the version with expletive may be the soldier version of the Second World War recording sung, transformed, by Gracie Fields and Vera Lynn. “Bless ‘em all” as it was first recorded by George Formby in 1940 gives the impression of redirecting soldier hostility. Second World War soldiers’ songs could retrieve the animosity to undeserved authority as well in songs such as We’re frightfully GHQ that mocked the supposedly posh and effeminate general staff (Page, 132). Sometimes the expletives did not go away in World War Two, certainly not in soldier versions of songs such as The toffs in the ops room:

What we do object to is those fucking Ops room toffs
Who sit there sewing stripes on at a rate of fucing knots. (Page, 137)

Social comment

Songs commented publicly and openly on ordinary people’s experiences in wartime, in a way that “official” sources could not. In the First World War, Vesta Tilley’s hit A bit of a Blighty one, the soldier-narrator explained how pleased he is to have been wounded, not enough to threaten life and limb, but badly enough to go back home to “Blighty” (England):

When I think about my dugout,
where I dare not stick my mug out,
I’m glad I’ve got a bit of a Blighty one […]
When they wipe my brow with sponges,
and they feed me on blancmanges,
I’m glad I’ve got a bit of a Blighty one!

In a context where self-inflicted wounds were not rare, the song was daring. Vesta Tilley, a women dressed up as a male soldier, was perhaps allowed more leeway for expressing this reality and making it palatable and acceptable in a popular song. A male singer without the camp disguise, and the implied excuse of female frailty, might have attracted criticism or even censor.

Life on the home front received its musical comments in both wars. Tom Clare’s What did you do in the war Daddy, inspired by the Savile Lumley poster of 1915, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War”, gave directed late and post war criticism those whose real contribution to the war had been profiteering and activity on the black market. Exemptions and otherwise and The military representative were songs that criticized the committees which could exempted people from military service. In the second of these, the military representative on the committee insisted that men return to the front, even if 91 years old, with a wooden leg, or already dead. Coupons, a song from 1918 spoke of the difficulties of living under rationing.

For the Second World War, different stresses and dangers of war, brought closer to British populations by heavy bombing got a lighter treatment. George Formby transformed the stress of fire watching, that of course implied the horror of mass raids on British towns, into a hilarious romp in his song Spotting on the top of Blackpool Tower(1943). The very real worries of English men about sexual competition from US soldiers (“overpaid, oversexed and over here” as the saying went) are expressed in another George Formby song, Our Fanny’s gone all Yankee. The narrator’s sister, a traditional Lancashire lass, has taken on US habits, impressed by the GIs:

Woodbines she used to smoke, now she thinks that they’re a joke,
With a Camel in her mouth she’s very swanky.
She drinks whisky, gin and rum and she’s always chewing gum, ‘cause
Our Fanny’s gone all Yankee.

Exchanging a Woodbine for a “Camel in her mouth,” may be over suggestive. But several soldiers’ songs take up a similar “anti-American” theme with less humour or circumspection. These songs speak of the soldiers’ wives sleeping with US army personnel, and even of organizing brothels for this practice. One melodramatic song tells of the return home of a British soldier to find that his wife, made pregnant by a GI, has committed suicide. Another recounts the return home thus :

I let myself in quietly
and tiptoed up the stairs
The thought of being home again
had banished all my cares
In the bedroom then I murmurs
‘Nell, your soldier boy has come’
When a voice replied in sharp surprise
‘Say, Nell, who is this bum?’. (Page, 145)

The vocabulary of the last sentence identifies the man as an American.

Other war experiences of distress had songs dedicated to them as well. At the outbreak of war in Britain, 38 million gas masks were distributed to the population as a preventive measure for the gas bombardment which never came. The George Formby song I did what I could with my gas mask relieved the very real tension and fear provoked by the masks by suggesting absurd uses for gas masks. The indecency of the suggestion may have corresponded to the intensity of the gas anxiety:

For years I courted Annabella Price
And always found her just as cold as ice
Until one night the lass forgot her Ma’s advice
And I did what I could with my gas mask.

The 1939 song Goodnight children everywhere, recorded by Vera Lynn, referred to the traumatic experience of children being evacuated from cities at risk of bombing; the blackout gave rise to songs such as The blackout stroll (recorded by Joe Loss and his band, 1940), which turns navigation in the dark city, where even the moon is gone, into a jaunty dance while They can’t black out the moon (1941) transforms the potentially frightening experience of unlighted streets into romantic possibilities: “But when you stumble, you stumble right into my arms,” said the song. Then the song put the moon back into the sky and allowed light to shine in a companions eyes.

Black humour

It is a commonplace to say that humour helps to survive traumatic experiences, and of course humour, including black humour, plays a major role in popular song of these periods. Innumerable memoirs of people who lived through the wars underline the usefulness of cheerful and humorous songs in helping people get through.  James Nott (Nott, 213) calculated that 20% of the “most popular tunes” in 1919 were comic in nature, and a similar percentage were in 1945.

The black humour of soldiers’ songs is legendary. From the First World War, there were, for example, Oh! It’s a lovely war! (by J. P. Long and Maurice Scott, 1918) with its heavy ironies and the famous and even balder irony in the lyrics sung in the front line The bells of hell are ringing (ting a ling) for you but not for me, a song that includes the line that dissolves the horror of war along with the King James Bible’s prose, “Oh death where is thy sting (a ling a ling).” The soldier song Hanging on the old barbed wire impressed J B Priestley by its combination of grisly image and homely idiom:

If you want to see the private, I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.
He’s hanging on the old barbed wire.
I saw him, I saw him, hanging on the old barbed wire, I saw him…

Priestley wrote:

There is a flash of pure genius, entirely English, in that ‘old’, for it means that even that devilish enemy, that death-trap, the wire, has somehow been accepted, recognized, and acknowledged almost with affection by the deep rueful charity of this verse. I have looked through whole anthologies that said less to me (Priestley, 111).

The irreverence of hanging the missing private on the barbed wire may be a kind of insubordination too, or at least an assertion of democracy in death. In the same song the missing sergeant and even the missing Colonel was found “hanging on the old barbed wire”.

Soldiers’ songs from the Second World War also joke about death, as in the famous Glory, Glory, what a hell of a way to die, which, sung to the tune of John Brown’s Body was later to become a boy scout campfire classic:

He jumped without a parachute from forty thousand feet.
We scraped him off the tarmac like a pot of strawberry jam.
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.

Or song with a similar grisly message as sung to the tune of  Red River Valley :

So stand by your class and be ready
And remember the men of the sky
Here’s a toast to the men dead already
And a toast for the next man to die. (Page, 170)

But this black humour is not purely reserved to soldiers’ songs and songs further darkened by scouts. Popular singers could express anti-authoritarian hostility in grotesque imagery too as in George Formby’s Imagine me on the Maginot line:

Now imagine me in the Maginot Line
Sitting on a mine in the Maginot Line
Now it’s turned out nice again
The Army life is fine
The enemy we had to chase
But my gun got out of place
I went and shot the Colonel in the base
Down on the Maginot Line

Current affairs

Some songs, particularly during the First World War, comment upon particular events in the war, usually in a jaunty fashion. In 1914, Bravo little Belgium (Gilbert Wells, Percy Edgar and Fred Elton, 1914) and Belgium put the Kibosh up the Kaiser(recorded by Mark Sheridan in October 1914) the earliest days of the German advance west are recounted. In 1916  the song The tanks that broke the ranks out in Picardy that put new words by Harry Castling and Harry Carlton to the upbeat tune of The man who broke the bank at Monte-Carlo, commented upon the first use of tanks in battle. Why is the red blood flowing in 1916 even goes into a pedagogical explanation of Britain’s war aims.

The Second World War song God Bless you Mr Chamberlain expresses support for the beleaguered statesman. Written in 1938 its lyrics are ambiguous. Rhyming “looking swell” with his “umbrella” might be a critical reference to an old man who had made a mistake at Munich or given the date, the song could express genuine affection for the man and hope that war will not come.

God bless you, Mr Chamberlain,
we’re all mighty proud of you.
You look swell holding your umbrella,
all the world loves a wonderful fellow.
So carry on, Mr Chamberlain,
you know we’re all with you,
and when we shout ‘God bless you Mr Chamberlain’,
our hats go off to you!

George Formby’s Thank you Mr Roosevelt of 1940 reacts positively to US government support with less ambiguity, though the lyrics and tune are decidedly light and the line about the “British empire smiling through” might be a misunderstanding of Roosevelt’s motivations. The decision of the Russian government to join the war against Germany gave rise to songs (and propaganda posters and events) giving a positive image of Russia. Most notably, Russian Rose and ‘Ya Vass Loublou’ means I love you. Russian Rose has a Slavic minor key lilt to the tune and an operatic delivery, at least in the recording by Anne Shelton who often sang for British soldiers. The songs touching on Russia seem to have displaced admiration into sentimental possibilities while appreciation for home politicians or Americans seem to wait and see how things will turn out.

Changes between the two wars

The world of popular songs in World War Two seems less provincial and less prone to express local prejudice than the songs of two decades earlier. Xenophobia and racism in commercial popular songs tend to disappear between the two wars. In the First World War, such songs as Sergeant Solomon Isaacstein (recorded by Gus Harris in 1916) voiced standard prejudices against Jews in a violent tone. The song had a cruel punch line in which a bomb exploded in the Jewish soldier’s hand when he was trying to sell it for profit. Meanwhile the chorus of It’s a long way to Tipperary (Jack Judge and Harry Williams, 1912) has remained in popular memory while the not very well-known verses portray a standard “stupid Irishman” stereotype. It seems that xenophobia was not as automatic and consensual in the Second World War as in the First. The ambiguous character, Mr Wu, in a number of George Formby’s songs, before and during the war, including Mr Wu’s an air-raid warden now, show the “chink” character with all the characteristics of a stage Chinaman, but it would be hard to find a song that integrated any non-white person in home front activities during World War One.  At the same time, soldiers’ songs could be anti-Semitic or racist in other ways. A particular a song mocked Leslie Hore-Belisha, secretary of state for war in 1939-40, and accused him of putting Jewish interests before those of Britain. More clearly read as an indicator away from provincialism was the massive reduction in the number of songs celebrating regional identity. In the First World War dozens of songs celebrated in one way or another the fact of coming from a particular place. From Ireland, there were such songs as For Killarney and you and You can have an Irish name; from England We’re the boys of good old London, My little Surrey Home, We’re all North Country lads and lasses, I want to go to Lancasheer, My Devon girl and In Somerset in summertime are just some examples. The expression of someone longing for a particular home was more important than the listener’s coming from that place, in spite of the titles. The Jack Yellen and George Cobb song of 1915, Are you from Dixie? was very popular in Britain. The Dixie song’s second line is “cause I’m from Dixie too,” which of course limits a British person’s identity with the geography of the song but not with the sentiment of longing. The rise of national popular culture with the advent of the radio and the gramophone seems to have put paid to the entire category. The exception might be Noël Coward’s song of 1941, London Pride which celebrates what he sees as stoic bravery in the London blitz:

Every Blitz
Your resistance
From the Ritz
To the Anchor and Crown

Rhyming blitz with Ritz, however, might suggest a civilized cosmopolitan quality to the City rather than localism. “From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown shows a democratic “resistance” at work.

Songs (and sketches) showing very traditional attitudes towards working women also disappeared. The First World War saw a series of songs where women – “taking the place of men” in public service, were the object of surprise, and either paternalistic praise or gentle mockery.  Such songs as Kitty the telephone girl (Harry Gifford, Huntley Trevor, Tom Mellor and F. J. Lawrence, 1912), The Hyde Park girl, The lady bus conductor or You’re some tram conductor girl show the unease with which certain types of women’s work (dealing with the general public) were seen. The lines Kitty the telephone girl, “Kitty, Kitty, isn’t it a pity, that you work in the city so hard…and waste your time…” would not have meant anything by 1940. The song, popular during World War One may have expressed nostalgia for pre-war attitudes.

Missing themes

A few key themes are absent in the songs of both wars. It is very noticeable that death is almost totally absent, though there is a little more in The First World War than in the Second. Also absent is the sentiment of revenge. As Brian Murdoch points out “Genuinely belligerent material in popular song is relatively rare” (Murdoch, 192). Songs from the United States from the First World War could be belligerent but in a comic song idiom. In the Tim Pan Alley song of 1918, Hunting the Hun, Archie Gottler’s light march music fit Howard E. Rogers words that do not get more violent than:

“When they start to advance
Shoot ’em in the pants”.

If belligerent songs are rare, anti-war songs are almost impossible to find. The consensual power of music-hall and of radio airing made it difficult for such songs to become popular once either war had begun. Nevertheless, in the few months before the First World War, an anti-war music-hall song was a great hit. Socialist activist Harry McShane recounts in his memoirs his experience of the outbreak of war :

We felt that we were speaking for the masses in our opposition to the war. Just prior to the outbreak there was a music-hall song which really caught on – you could hear it sung everywhere, in the workshops and on the streets. it went:

“Little man, little man
You want to be a soldier, little man;
You are mother’s only son –
Never mind about the gun,
Stay at home
Fight for her all you can.”

In the socialist movement we were surprised and delighted by the song’s popularity. But the day war was declared that song just died; it was amazing the way nobody was whistling it. Instead, another music-hall song “It’s a long way to Tipperary” was being whistled and sung everywhere (McShane , 61).

Unfortunately no witness left such a record of the fate of the song God bless you Mr. Chamberlain, which among its possibilities, may also have conveyed a pacifist message.


It is not of course only the themes of hit songs which changed between the two wars. The tone of the songs changed, and musically they evolved. The hits of the First World War were musically less sophisticated. Military marches were very popular; voice technique was limited by the need for singers to project without microphones. The lyrics too were less sophisticated. They were often stories about particular characters, frequently in the third person, allowing more hesitance and distance in expressing personal emotion. The classic tone of a First World War song is jaunty, the romantic tone rare; the tragic is absent.

This changed during the inter-war period. The romantic song of the “crooner” rose unstoppably. The number of songs devoted to the theme of love rose from 42% in 1919 to 55% in 1935 (Nott, 212), reflecting this shift. More and more of the love songs were written in the first person. The words addressed the loved one directly.

Such changes are difficult to analyse, but the titles from the First World War concerning love, such as Every Jack must leave a girl somewhere, He misses his missus’s kisses, I think I’ll get wed this Summer, I never heard of anybody dying from a kiss, or There’s a little bit of bad in every good little girl, compared to song titles from the second war such as You’d be so nice to come home to,  I’ll be with you in apple blossom time, We mustn’t say Goodbye, I wish I could hide inside this letter or I try to say “I love you”, reveals a more direct approach to the subject of love along with a heightened chance for love’s disappointments. According to Nott, a more optimistic and positive tone of First World War love songs was largely replaced by a more melancholic and negative tone by the nineteen thirties. Generalizations are tempting but the thousands of songs involved do not easily fall into clear-cut categories. Nevertheless, there seems to be some truth in the existence of a heightened sense of vulnerability to love’s travails. Nott quoted classically trained composer and music commentator Constant Lambert offering an opinion that, though clouded with class judgment, addressed a new intimacy without conventional endings of marriage and family and without sustained joy.

In modern songs it is taken for granted that one is poor, unsuccessful, and either sex-starved or unable to hold the affections of such a partner as one may have had the luck to pick up (Nott, 213).

Changes in tone were addressed by the broadcasting authorities. The BBC, under the uplifting influence of John Reith till 1938,  having been opposed to the broadcasting of most popular music before the mid-1930s seemed to feel, with the war, that the old, First World War tone of jaunty stoicism would be best for morale. There was strong opposition within its hierarchy to the new melancholic songs. In 1944, the BBC even refused to broadcast the song I heard you cried last night (by Ted Gouya and Gerrie Kruger, recorded by Helen Forrest and Harry James in 1943) since it suggested that a soldier might be moved to tears by homesickness (Huggett, 150). It was thought that such songs might even encourage desertion. Meanwhile, the Dance Music Policy Committee of the BBC opposed the broadcasting of sentimental “crooner” songs, seen as “anaemic”, “debilitated” and “slushy in sentiment”. The radio programme Sincerely Yours presented by Vera Lynn from Autumn 1941 throught the Spring of 1942, was criticized in parliament as “a potential threat to the national fibre” (Nicholas, 82).

Of course, one of the most important differences between the hits of the First World War and those of the second was in the method of consumption. First World War hits tended to make listeners wish to sing along. They were often referred to as “chorus songs”. A Second World War hit made listeners want to dance. The rise of dance halls had transformed middle and working class leisure in the late twenties, in particular allowing women a physical freedom they had not had before. During the Second World War a loosening of dancing rules, symbolized towards the end of the war by the jitterbug, gave more space to “exuberant self-expression”(Huggett, 132).

During World War One, music-hall, a musical genre generally looked down on by the elite, became much more respectable because of its leading role in supporting morale and raising money for wounded soldiers. In the Second World War, cultural elites like members of the BBC management, were obliged to take into account popular taste. Very strong resistance was felt within the BBC to the broadcasting of dance music and of variety. But when military leaders and others pointed out the increasing popularity of German radio stations among British troops, the BBC was obliged to change. Classical music, accounting for 17% of air time in 1938, was down to 9% in 1942. Dance music went from 5% to 10%, while variety went from 6% to 15% of airtime.  This did not mean that traditional attitudes were dead. The hit song Coming in on a wing and a prayer was taken off the air because of the mild mix of religion in the lyrics with a foxtrot melody. Meanwhile the BBC Head of Variety did not seem to approve of his own job. He declared “the variety department of the BBC is the only department which has no moral values whatsoever… its sole desire is to give the public what it likes”(Nicholas, 80).


This exploration of popular song during the two world wars aimed at situating this complex phenomenon within the history of popular music in Britain exposing the underlining the importance of popular song both as a part of the war drive, and as a source of neglected cultural texts which often reflect mass priorities of the time. During times of total war, it may be more difficult for popular song to reflect the problems and demands of dominated classes, especially where these demands conflict with the national consensus. Nevertheless, songs can express some aspects of mass experience. They can even complain and resist. The sheer numbers of songs, and the difficulty of defining tones and attitude precisely make providing a full characterization of the role and content of popular songs a delicate undertaking. But the slight separation, much less pronounced than many have claimed, and the considerable communication of tunes lyrics and themes between “authentic” soldiers’ songs and “commercial” music-hall and variety, points to the existence of a shared set of cultural possibilities and attitudes among the different levels of culture and between soldiers and the cultural institutions at home.

The main thrust of popular songs, it turns out, both those collected from among soldiers and those sung in music halls of between 1914 and 1918 or sung by soldiers and broadcast during the Second World War, was their contribution to the war effort. War propaganda needed to be produced in multiple forms, including those more acceptable to working class people than the official politicians’ speeches may have been. Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd during the First World War, Gracie Fields and George Formby during the Second were undoubtedly, for the poorer classes, more idolized than were Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. The result of this need of popular music producers to assist in the war effort led to an increased legitimacy of some genres (music-hall and dance music in particular), and this new acceptance continued in peacetime.


ADORNO Theodor “Culture industry reconsidered”, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture , Lodon, Routledge, 1991.

ARTHUR Max, Forgotten Voices of the Great War, London: Ebury Press, 2002.

ARTHUR Max, When this bloody war is over: soldiers’ songs of the First World War, London: Piatkus, 2001.

BBC Listener Research Department BBC Audience Research Reports Part 1:1937-c.1950, Wakefield: Microform Academic Publishers, 2006.

Baade Christina, “The ‘dancing front’: dance music, dancing, and the BBC in World War II” in Popular Music Volume 25/3, 2006.

BRET David, George Formby: A Troubled Genius. London : 2001.

Brophy, J. and Partridge, E., The Long Trail – What the British Soldier Sang and Said in the Great War of 1914 -1918. London: André Deutsch, 1965.

BURGESS Muriel and KEEN Tommy, Gracie Fields. London: W H Allen, 1980

ELIOT T.S.,  “London Letter.”  The Dial,  vol. 73.6,  December 1922.

GOLD John R. and REVILL George “Gathering the voice of the people? Cecil Sharp, Cultural hybridity, and the folk music of Appalachia” in Geojournal N° 65 2006.

HARKER David, Fakesong : the Manufacture of British “Folksong », 1700 to the Present Day, Milton Keynes : Open University Press, 1985.

HUGGETT Frank E., Goodnight Sweetheart – Songs and Memories of the Second World War, London : W. H. Allen, Allen, 1979.

MACINNES Colin, Sweet Saturday night – Pop song 1840 to 1920,  London : Macgibbon and Kee, 1967.

Macqueen Pope, W., Marie Lloyd, Queen of the Music-halls. Norwich: Oldbourne, 1957.

Maitland, S., Vesta Tilley. London: Virago, 1986.

McSHANE  Harry, No Mean Fighter, London : Pluto Press, 1978.

MIDDLETON Richard (Ed.), Studying Popular Music, Milton Keynes : Open University Press, 1990.

———, Voicing the popular Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.

MULLEN John, ‘“Hope I die before I get old” — Légitimité, identité et authenticité dans la musique populaire britannique’ in Culture savante, culture populaire, RANAM N° 39, edited by Yann Tholoniat, 2006.

MULLEN John, ‘“Si vous étiez la seule fille au monde” – la musique populaire en Grande-Bretagne en 1916’, in DANIELS Henry and COLLE-BAK Nathalie (Eds) 1916 La Grande-Bretagne en guerre, Nancy: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 2007.

Murdoch Brian, Fighting Songs and Warring Words – Popular Lyrics of Two World Wars, London : Routledge, 1990.

NICHOLAS Siân “The people’s radio : the BBC and its audience 1939-1945” in Hayes Nick and Hill Jeff (Eds.), ‘Millions like us ?’ British Culture in the Second World War, Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 1999.

NOTT James, Music for the People: Popular Music and Dance in Interwar Britain, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002, 209.

PAGE Martin, The Bawdy Songs and Ballads of World War Two, London: Granada, 1973.

Pallet Ray, Goodnight Sweetheart – Life and Times of Al Bowlly, Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1986.

PRIESTLEY J. B., Margin Released : Reminiscences and Reflections, London: Heinemann, 1962.

Quigley Private J., The Slogan – Sidelights on recruiting with Harry Lauder’s Band,  Londres: Simpkin, 1916.

STEDMAN JONES G, “Working Class culture and working class politics in London 1870-1900 : Notes on the remaking of a working class” in Journal of Social History N° 7, 1974.

Summerfield Penny, “Patriotism and empire – music hall entertainment 1870-1914” in Mackenzie John M (Ed.), Imperialism and Popular Culture, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 1986.


The Performer, official magazine of the Variety Artists Federation.

The Encore, A Music-hall and Theatrical Review

Francis and Day annuals (1914-1922), Collections of popular songs published each year. London: Francis and Day.

A note about the Songs

A great many of these songs have been mentioned in the important studies of popular music in the bibliography above. Even more exist on a great variety of internet sites where their sheet music or original record jackets can be examined. This study has made use of all these, sometimes ephemeral, sources.

John Mullen is Professor of English at Université de Rouen Normandie. His recent works include: Britain in the 1970s, an Annotated Timeline (2016), ‘The Show Must Go On’: Popular Song in Britain during the First World War (2015), and « The Show Must Go On »: La Chanson popular en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Grande Guerre 1914-1918 (2012). He has also edited Popular Song in the First World War: an International Perspective (2018) and Forms of Activism in the United Kingdom (Grassroots Activism, Culture, Media), Revue française de civilisation britannique 22.3 (2017).

Bliss, Vaughan Williams, Britten: Three Great War Poets


The First Hundred Thousand, the Somme, the American Civil War poetry, English choral tradition, narration combined with music, mythical method, implicit narrative, War poets

Parmi les œuvres que la Grande Guerre a inspiré aux compositeurs anglais, trois ont subi l’épreuve du temps avec succès, la symphonie Morning Heroes de Sir Arthur Bliss (1930) la cantate Dona Nobis Pacem de Ralph Vaughan Williams (1936) et le War Requiem de Benjamin Britten (1962) qui met en musique des poèmes de Wilfred Owen, mort en 1918. Se présentant comme une anthologie de textes parfois disparates, ces œuvres constituent un triptyque dont le but partagé est de dire la guerre et de porter témoignage en incluant plusieurs niveaux de récit dans un cadre dramatique commun, et portent trois regards très différents sur le conflit.


Three musical works which the Great War inspired in Britain have successfully and consistently survived the test of time: Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes, a symphony of 1930 for orator, chorus and orchestra; Dona Nobis Pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra by Ralph Vaughan Williams, first performed in 1936; and most famously Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem of 1962.  Others have fallen out of favour for different reasons. By dramatizing war poetry with music, these three attach themselves to the lived experience of the destructive power of modern industrial war from World War One’s early moments when enthusiasm and heroic concepts borrowed from the past could still disguise the gathering awareness of war’s horrifying waste through to its dismal end.

First among those that no longer command the interest they once did is Sir Edgar Elgar’s 1917 The Spirit of England, a cantata for soprano, chorus and orchestra setting poems from Laurence Binyon’s 1915 collection, The Winnowing Fan: Poems on the Great War. The work was inspired by the invasion of Belgium and the carnage of the early stages of the war. Intended as a Requiem for the slain, it was dedicated “to the memory of our glorious men” (quoted in McVeagh, 165). Its second and third parts, To Women and For the Fallen, were first performed in May 1916. The remaining movement, The Fourth of August was finished in 1917 and the composer conducted the whole work in Leeds in October 1917. Performed every year at the Albert Hall around Armistice Day from 1921 until after WWII, the cantata’s patriotism, nationalism and idealism, much appreciated in time of war, were gradually felt to be out of place and identified with Edwardian smugness and imperial jingoism. When the work was revived during the Cambridge Elgar Festival of 1994, it sadly suffered from the comparison with other works by Elgar. Meanwhile, Binyon’s For the Fallen, probably the most popular of all British wartime poems, survives in the limited context as it is quoted on many war memorials and on Armistice Day (see Hibberd and Onions, 31).

John Fould’s 1921 World Requiem, first performed in a festival of remembrance on November 11, 1923, a setting of liturgical texts as well as words from John Bunyan and Hindu religious poetry in a long plea for peace after the horrors of WWI, was only recently revived[1]. Similarly, the uncompleted 1923 Requiem da Camera for chorus, chamber orchestra and baritone by the British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), dealt with the futility of war. It set poems by John Masefield, Thomas Hardy and Wilfred Wilson Gibson and received its full première only in 1990.

Associating the three works whose reputations have best survived as a Great War triptych may seem arbitrary and contrived since Britten’s War Requiem was written thirty years after the first two pieces. It was commissioned by the Coventry Arts Festival Committee to celebrate the spirit of reconciliation and unity associated with the consecration of their new cathedral in 1962, after the Blitz destructions of November 1940. As a lifelong pacifist, Britten could only approve of the project. The three soloists chosen for the first performance represented the principle nations engaged in WWII in late 1940. Peter Pears stood for Britain, baritone Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau stood for Hitler’s Germany and soprano Galina Vishnesvskaya stood for Stalin’s USSR. In the Cold War context of 1962, so far from any World War One context, Soviet authorities found this proximity between different singers representing different sides and different struggles, so contrary to their understanding of history that they barred Galina Vishnevskaya from singing in the first performance.

In spite of the chronological and historic gaps separating the first full performance of Britten’s War Requiem from the debuts of the Bliss and Vaughan works, however, the three composers were contemporaries, very much aware of each other, and with interconnected careers.  Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) died as Britten’s career was reaching its peak. Bliss (1891-1975), a friend and student of Vaughan Williams, died only one year before Britten (1913-1976). Morning Heroes by Bliss and Vaughan Williams’s Job, a masque for dancing, were first performed on the same program at the 1930 Norwich Festival. Furthermore, The Great War was really on Britten’s mind when he composed the War Requiem. Born in 1913, Britten was a “War baby”. What he remembered as a child was reactivated by his teacher Frank Bridge (1879-1941), who had lost many pupils and friends during the war, like the dedicatee of his 1924 Piano Sonata, fellow composer Ernest Farrar, who had been killed in 1918 at the age of 33. Bridge impressed his utter horror and revulsion of war on Britten, who often argued his own pacifist case with his master (Carpenter, 41).

Britten’s anti-war feelings and pacifism translated into musical projects often. Some projects were completed: In 1936 he composed music for Peace of Britain a 3-minute documentary film by Paul Rotha for Strand Film commissioned by the Trades Union Congress and the League of Nations Union. In 1938 he wrote a Pacifist March for the Peace Pledge Union concert and the cantata Advance Democracy. There followed Ballad of Heroes, op. 14, to honour the dead of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and then his “anti-war” Sinfonia da Requiem, op. 20 in 1940. But some were left unfinished. In 1945, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings spurred him to attempt a full-scale oratorio for soloist, chorus and orchestra “almost like the 1837 Messe des Morts,” of Hector Berlioz known for its huge orchestra and ambition. Britten’s title was to have been Mea Culpa (Carpenter, 405). The shock of Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948, prompted Britten to compose in his memory. Neither of these attempts reached completion. The Coventry Commission was an opportunity for Britten to take up the pacifism of his pre-World War Two years, combine it with more recent impulses and make something of it. First conceived as a traditional requiem mass, the work for the Commission soon evolved into a work where the Latin text would alternate with poems by Wilfred Owen[2], whom Britten had long admired. Their prominence resulted in his calling the piece “Owen Mass”, before choosing the final title late in 1961 (Cooke, 24).

Poetry, especially that of Wilfred Owen and Walt Whitman, links all three composers. Owen’s poetry provides a link between Britten’s Requiem and Bliss’s Morning Heroes. The final movement of Bliss’s work incorporates the recitation of Owen’s Spring Offensive by the Orator and is the first known setting of Owen’s poetry. The famous words of Owen’s preface, “My subject is war and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity,” might be said of either work. Walt Whitman, very much to the fore in Morning Heroes, links Bliss’s piece with the centrepiece, Dona Nobis Pacem, Vaughan Williams’s own vibrant call for peace inspired by Whitman’s Drum Taps collection of 1865 after the American Civil War. Britten, in his War Requiem, interpolates a Dona Nobis Pacem in the tenor part, clearly out of place in the Requiem liturgy, at the conclusion of his Agnus Dei, the movement which opens and structures Vaughan Williams’s cantata making another connection among these three[3].

The fact that the three pieces belong to the great English choral tradition and that each presents an anthology of texts, unites the work in other ways as well. Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony of 1910, setting Whitman’s poems to music in its four movements, thus emulating Frederick Delius’ Sea Drift of 1904[4], provided a home-grown model. The device was used later by Bliss in his Pastoral: “Lie strewn the white flocks” of 1929, and by Britten in Our Hunting Fathers of 1936, his 1943 Serenade and his 1949 Spring Symphony[5].

Morning Heroes unfolds like a traditional four-movement symphony (for a global view of the layout of Morning Heroes, Dona Nobis Pacem and War Requiem, see the Appendix ). It opens with a recitation of ‘Hector’s Farewell to Andromache’ from Book VI of the Iliad. The second movement sets for the chorus ‘First O Songs for a Prelude’, the opening poem from Whitman’s Drum Taps. Bliss called this, ‘The City Arming’. The third movement combines ‘Vigil’, a translation of the Chinese poet Li-Tai-Po[6] and ‘The Bivouac’s Flame’, another Drum Taps setting paraphrasing Whitman’s “By the bivouac’s fitful flame”. The scherzo sets the Iliad’s Book XIX translated by Chapman, ‘Achilles Goes Forth to Battle’, and is followed by ‘The Heroes’, a roll call of the warriors involved in the Trojan Wars, as its coda. The final movement is also in two parts. The Orator first recites Owen’s Spring Offensive and the final chorus is a setting of Dawn on the Somme, a poem written in the summer of 1918 by Bliss’s friend, fellow-poet and soldier, Robert Nichols (Bliss, 45-6)[7].

The Dona Nobis Pacem cantata opens with the Agnus Dei borrowed from the Catholic Mass, prompted by Vaughan Williams’s love for Bach’s monumental B minor Mass which he often conducted (Ursula Vaughan Williams, 253). It acts as the motto and structural refrain for the whole piece. The second, third and fourth movements are three Whitman Drum Taps settings Beat! Beat! Drums! Reconciliation and Dirge for Two Veterans. The fifth movement is a double number, with a setting of John Bright’s 1855 famous “Angel of Death” speech against the Crimean War in the House of Commons, the only topical allusion to the dangers of 1936, followed by a long quote from Jeremiah. The final movement, “O Man greatly beloved”, sets a collage of texts culled from the Bible, like those in Vaughan Williams’s Sancta Civitas, his oratorio of 1926. Britten’s War Requiem, clearly modelled after Verdi’s Requiem, incorporates nine of Owen’s war poems in a very close and ironic textual and musical counterpoint with his setting of the Mass for the dead.

The three works offer three personal representations of the Great War within the large context of war and resistance to it in the first half of the 20th Century. Bliss indicated in his autobiography (Bliss, 96-7) that he wrote his piece in memory of his comrade soldiers and his brother Kennard, who died in the Somme offensive in 1916 at age 24, while Bliss was home after receiving a wound in the same battle. In the late 1920’s, Bliss, who had served with gallantry, was still troubled by nightmares caused by his being gassed at Cambrai in 1918 and by survivor’s guilt, which he had tried to assuage by converting to Catholicism before going back to France in June 1918. Writing the symphony acted as therapy. Vaughan Williams, at 41 when World War One started, was too old for combat service. He volunteered as a private, so as not to benefit from his professional status, and first served as an ambulance driver like his teacher and friend Maurice Ravel. Vaughan Williams witnessed the carnage on the Somme in 1916. He was very affected by the death of a young promising musician, George Butterworth, and made notes towards his Pastoral Symphony of 1922 while on the Somme battlefield. His musical biographer, Michael Kennedy wrote, “if on his demobilisation, early in 1919, his heart was heavy, he knew that life had to be lived in the future, not in the past” (Kennedy, 144). Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem was composed in 1936 for the centenary of the Huddersfield Choral Society. It tried to ward off contemporary threats of war: the Spanish Civil War, Hitler’s persecution of the Jews and his march into Rhineland, and Mussolini’s aggression in Abyssinia. Meanwhile, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia led Britten to write Our Hunting Fathers, an orchestral song cycle comparing the cruelty men inflict on animals with the cruelty they inflict on one another, the same year. As a conscientious objector or “conchie”, Britten had little experience with any battle front but had a direct experience of the evils of war he had denounced in 1936. He saw the Nazi concentration camps in July 1945 when he gave concerts to the survivors with violinist Yehudi Menuhin as a way to carry on with his pacifist war effort. His War Requiem looks back on both World Wars, as it is dedicated to four friends of his who died in World War Two, but its main protagonists are two World War One soldiers, personas of Wilfred Owen. Poetry and representations personal contact with war reveal anti-war sentiment in all three works here.

Three War narratives  

The three works aim at a physical representation of war through drama—Bliss’s symphony clearly hints at the theatre—following a nineteenth Century trend. Since Beethoven’s Eroica, dedicated with Promethean overtones to the memory of a great man, and since his Ninth Symphony, whose final chorus, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, put drama on the concert platform, and since Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette—described as a “dramatic symphony for chorus, soli and a choral recitative as prologue”—the symphony had become invested with dramatic functions akin to those of the cantata or of the oratorio. In the symphonic poems of the late Romantic era, music took charge of drama, leading to the split between supporters of “pure music” championed by Johannes Brahms and “programme music” championed by Franz Liszt. Bliss certainly followed Liszt. As he recounted in his autobiography, he “always found it easier to write ‘dramatic’ music than ‘pure’ music. I like the stimulus of words, or a theatrical setting, a colourful occasion or the collaboration of a great player” (Bliss, 71). His orchestra played a dynamic role in the symphonic drama of Morning Heroes with the extended preludes for the first, third and fifth movement. The Orator’s interventions for two very dramatic incidents, “the Homeric scene” (Bliss 97), of Hector’s Farewell and the Great War scene of Owen’s Spring Offensive, frame the work with the symmetry of a palindrome and provide the symphony with a dramatic frame (see Burns, 666). The use of the Orator and chorus combination derived from Greek tragedy which Bliss, raised on the Classics by his father, adapted for his own use. The part of the Speaker in Oedipus Rex, Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio of 1927 may be another example of the same musical historical development. Stravinsky, who Bliss admired, may have had a direct influence.

As Bliss pointed out, the melodrama technique, which musicalizes the text thanks to orchestral textures without resorting to song, was adopted as an alternative to an operatic duet which would have softened the impact of the farewell. The Homeric scene is introduced by an elegiac orchestra prelude in compound time, where the English horn, the oboe, the clarinet and strings feature prominently in a short four-bar arching phrase. The orchestra then provides a varied, attentive commentary underpinning the Orator’s recitation, making up for the absence of a singer. The Owen poem, coming after the violent choral Achilles scherzo, is recited over F minor timpani chords, providing stark dramatic contrast: an aural image of the battlefield as well as mystery and solemnity, in tune with Owen’s poem. To The Musical Times in October 1930, the technique recalled Arthur Honegger’s experiments in his 1921 Le Roi David, described as “a dramatic psalm for soli, chorus and orchestra” (The Musical Times, Vol. 71, n°1052, October 1930, 881-886 and Bliss, 56 and 89)[8], rather than Edith Sitwell’s and William Walton’s 1923-1926 Façade, another experiment with narration combined with music. Bliss was not the only composer adding the drama of text to his orchestral work.

Vaughan Williams’s cantata also added dramatic functions without the trappings of the theatre. The use of extensive Bible quotations derived from Handel’s Messiah and a long tradition of English oratorio in tune with Vaughan Williams’s own love for the cadences of the King James Bible. One of the inspirations for the cantata was Verdi’s Requiem, the most theatrical of all requiems, which Vaughan Williams first found sentimental and sensational but finally impressed him durably (Ralph Vaughan Williams, 183). He incorporated the semitone drop on the word “Dona” from Verdi’s final Requiem sequence, in his Agnus Dei, while an echo of Verdi’s Dies Irae can be heard in the Beat! Beat Drums! setting, with its brass, its bass drum and full percussion battery.

Britten’s War Requiem echoes Berlioz’s and Verdi’s Requiems, but with Britten the dramatic purpose is more direct. He was aware of the analogies between liturgy on the one hand, and drama and tragedy on the other. The Dies Irae and Libera Me sequences of the Requiem Mass introduced the essentials of Aristotelian tragedy, catharsis, terror and pity. The Sybil provides the dramatic spring of prophecy in the Dies Irae, while the Inter oves introduces the scapegoats, linked to the word tragedy itself[9]. Two of Owen’s poems, strategically placed at significant moments of the Requiem Mass, The Parable of the Old man and the Young in the Offertorium and At a Calvary near the Ancre for the Agnus Dei, clearly identify satanic Pride both as hamartia (tragic error) and Original Sin, the primary cause of the evils of war.

Britten explored the implicit drama of the Requiem Mass. Like his 1960 opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which provides the fairies, the rustics and the courtiers of Theseus’ court each with their own musical idiom, the Requiem opposes three separate musical groups. The composer was very explicit about the staging of his work (Cooke, 24). The organ and the boys’ choir are removed from human contingencies, the two soldiers and the chamber orchestra take us to the battlefield and voice their private grief, while the soprano, chorus and orchestra provide an image of the home front and convey the conventional pieties of public grief, affected by the echoes of Verdi’s music. The laying out in space of the different groups dramatized a major theme in Britten’s work, the opposition between the individual and the crowd and the tragic trope of public drama and private predicament. It also dramatized the title’s oxymoron, realised musically with the recurrent use of the disquieting tritone, the “diabolus in musica” that divides the octave in two equal parts and generates great tension, hence its prohibition by the Church. Such staginess caused Galina Vishnevskaya to throw a fit during the first recording session when she could not understand why she was separated from the other soloists.

Very little action can actually be shown in a symphony or a cantata but here enough was suggested to create a plot through narrative. These three pieces resort to dramatic monologues, or derived forms, and the use of “I” and “We” create the illusion of protagonists acting out their parts. The fact that all three composers wrote operas is no coincidence. Morning Heroes provides a number of scenes that indicate a dramatic progression. They are linked together by dramatic, musical and textual cross-references while the Orator-chorus interaction provides movement. The historical and geographical references they convey, moving from the far away past of Homer’s Greece and Li-Tai-Po’s China or from the American Civil War of Walt Whitman, and then transporting the listener from Walt Whitman’s wartime to Bliss’s own war, propel the symphony forward in one single movement. Space and time are fused. Homer’s epic provides a narrative link and recalls James Joyce’s use of Homer in Ulysses.  T. S. Eliot called this “mythical method” and used it in his epic poem The Waste Land, another important influence on Bliss. As in The Waste Land’s narrative patterns the symphony mingles fragments of history and personal recollections. Over the Trojan wars, which his American born father was fond of retelling his sons and illustrating with ink sketches (Bliss, 17), Bliss superimposed the bloodiest episode of America’s history seen through the eyes of Walt Whitman. Bliss’s personal American allegiance through his father (Bliss, 17) as well as his English allegiance and personal war experience—he had enlisted early at the outbreak of World War I—found expression in his choice of poetry for his great work.

Bliss’s musical epic unfolds in four parts. Part I and II make up a first act whose title could be “Departures”. Hector’s parting from his wife and son is recalled in “The City Arming”, which provides a background for such a parting and its sharp-cut phrases and rhythm paint the general enthusiasm, if not the collective hysteria that overwhelms the city preparing for battle, witnessed and transcribed by the Poet as a singer of songs, here Bliss’s persona: “How elate I stood and watch’d you, where starting off you march’d off!” In the last third of the movement a four-beat march links the poignant farewells of the mothers, the climax of the war-drunk recruits and the poet’s pensive goodbyes.  Part III, “Vigil”, suggests “The Wait” as a title for a second act. It first shows the thoughts and emotions of the young wife left at home, voiced by the women’s chorus. She foresees the death of her husband who, meanwhile, dreams of home by the bivouac’s fire on the eve of battle. To his meditation, set for men’s voices, the women join when he remembers home and those far away. Part IV, “The Fight”, takes us back to Homer’s epic. It springs from Part I, with Achilles setting off to fight Hector, and its bustle echoes “The City Arming”. The roll call of Trojan chiefs and paean to Hector provides a conclusion to that third act.

Part V opens with an epigraph “Now, Trumpeter for thy close”, from the concluding section of Whitman’s Mystic Trumpeter, which clearly sets it apart and rings a new tone (Bliss, 65-6).

Now trumpeter for thy close,
Vouchsafe a higher strain than any yet,
Sing to my soul—renew it languishing faith and hope;
Rouse up my slow belief —give me some vision of the future,
Give me for once, its prophecy and joy[10].

Besides being a call for battle, Whitman’s poem also suggests strong associations with the many Trumpeters, nine in total, that appear at different times in Revelations and contribute to its narration. This is Bliss’s own Dies Irae, Tuba Mirum and Second Coming rolled into one. This part moves from the general to the personal as it is explicitly devoted to the dedicatees of the symphony, Bliss’s brother and comrades. Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Spring Offensive”, revised in September 1918 while Owen and Bliss both were back in the trenches, takes us to the battlefield, with a group of soldiers bracing themselves before going over a hill into no man’s land to meet their fate. Its Keatsian vision of summer, sun and buttercups, that of July 1916 on the Somme, and its wealth in nature imagery recalls what Bliss described as the acute awareness of natural beauties soldiers developed with the proximity of war and death (Burn, 667). The poem then describes the blast and fury of battle, the dead whom “God caught […] even before they fell” and the amazed survivors unable to speak of their comrades (see introductory comments to “Spring Offensive” in Stalworthy, 79). Woodwind music from the first movement underlines the poem’s final question and leads to the choral Dawn on the Somme which concludes the symphony in an apotheosis, heralded by Whitman’s own version of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, “War, sorrow, suffering gone—The rank earth purged—nothing but joy left !”. Owen’s friendly sun, now personified as Apollo, draws to Olympus the dead soldiers as so many companies of “morning heroes”. A brief coda which associates the symphony’s essential themes provides a subdued conclusion.

There is much less action shown in Dona Nobis Pacem, a much shorter composition of a much different character. Its five parts are played without a break, but the four different settings of the Dona nobis pacem, with its characteristic musical motive, provide an overall frame within which Vaughan Williams tells his parable of peace. Although a political radical and an agnostic, his lifelong project was to turn John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, into an opera, which he finally achieved in 1951. But in the 1930’s he had only composed a one-act pastoral episode, The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains of 1922, based on Bunyan’s final episode where Christian eventually reaches the gates of the Celestial City. Vaughan Williams depicted this same moment in his Sancta Civitas of 1926. In the leadup to World War II, the composer despaired of ever completing his Bunyan opera. The spirit of Bunyan’s work, which moves from darkness to light, infuses the 1936 cantata which, like Bliss’s symphony, relies on the drama of soloist-chorus interactions and on implied narratives, that of the Mass and of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems in the Drum Taps section, Book XXI, of Leaves of Grass. The Agnus Dei of the Catholic mass acts as the incipit and is Vaughan Williams’s way of recalling, through Johann Sebastian Bach’s ecumenical example[11], that despite the different denominations, all pray to the same God. Vaughan Williams chose not to call the protagonist of his Pilgrim’s Progress by the name Christian, but rather “Pilgrim”,  “because I want the idea to be universal and apply to anybody who aims at the spiritual life whether he is Xtian, Jew, Buddhist, Shintoist, or Seventh-day Adventist”, (Kennedy, 313).

If the text lacks drama, the music makes up for it with the “almost frantic choral supplication” (Kennedy, 271-272) contrasting with the soprano’s poignant lines. The first two settings from Whitman’s Drum Taps, Part II, Beat! beat! drums!, and Part III, Reconciliation, provide a musical illustration of Whitman’s epic purpose, to show, as a war singer, the contrary states of war: the inspiring drumbeats  rousing the soldiers to march and fight and the sombre bugle music of mourning. Beat! Beat! drums! emulates Bliss’s ‘City Arming’ in its depiction of the all-destroying war frenzy, which the baritone interrupts with Reconciliation. Its first part, a long caressing phrase that models itself on Whitman’s sentence-long poem, is sung by the baritone, then by the women and the tenors, and then again by the chorus a capella, making that number as long as the preceding chorus that insisted on the washing away of sins. The central part, “For my enemy is dead”, and the kiss that seals the recognition that the enemies too are divine creatures, is left to the baritone. The second Dona nobis recalls briefly the “peccata mundi” which echoes Whitman’s “soiled world” from Reconciliation. It is sung by the chorus a capella, and ushers in the next scene. It consists of Part IV, Dirge for Two Veterans, the music for the Whitman text written as early as 1911, sung by the chorus where women’s voices dominate to express tenderness and compassion. The declaration of love for the dead is underlined by the chorus a capella, in answer to the preceding phrase “soiled world”. The Dirge is musically linked to Part V, the baritone’s Angel of Death recitative, which refers to the last plague of Egypt which here spares neither fathers nor sons. The third Dona nobis introduces the last two-part scene. The chorus’s canonic imitations first paint the picture of a people in sore despair to whom the baritone brings succour before the chorus launches into its dance-like rejoicing and final Gloria. Complete with peals of bells and organ, its upbeat motive is derived from the soprano’s Dona nobis (and Stravinsky’s Firebird finale). The final a capella Dona nobis brings the work to a hushed close.

As for Britten, he shaped his Requiem text like a libretto with a complex and strong architecture. It is no wonder it has inspired a novel and a film[12]. The Requiem mass mingles two narratives, that of the Second Coming, as depicted in the Dies Irae sequence and in the final Libera Me, and that of Christ’s Passion, as recalled in the Agnus Dei. The six parts of the liturgy provide a general framework of six scenes which include the Wilfred Owen poems to which they are linked by ironical cross-references and foreshadowing, the equivalent of prophecy in tragedy, so that the impression is of a succession of scenes leading to a climax, in a way that also recalls Eliot’s “mythical method” in The Waste Land[13]. The opening Introit & Requiem sequence takes the mourners inside in a procession, duly indicated by a faltering funeral march. It is followed by the four sequences of the Dies Irae, Offertorium, Sanctus and Agnus Dei which lead to the Eucharist. The Libera Me implies a recessional, indicated by another march, the burial of the dead and their final transition to everlasting peace with the In Paradisum. To this, Britten superimposes, through some of Owen’s most controversial poems, the narrative of two soldiers on the front, gradually driven to despair before their own death, burial and reconciliation. Seven of the poems show scenes from the war front, while the Parable of the Old Man and the Young in the Offertorium and The End after the Sanctus give Scriptures a bitter twist. As in an opera, Britten makes sure the soldiers sing in equal shares, three solo arias each and three duets to emphasize their kinship: though enemies, they share the same thoughts, from which spring their reconciliation in the final duet.

The first scene, Introit and Kyrie (I), set out as a grand da capo scene, stages the impossibility for the crowd to find the rest it prays for. Its opening Requiem incorporates the disquieting tritone emphasizing the contradiction in the work’s title, while its final a capella chorus, which regularly punctuates the work the way the a capella sections punctuate Vaughan Williams’s Dona nobis, tortuously progresses from tritone to a perfect major chord. The tenor rises as if from the grave for Anthem for Doomed Youth. He ironically responds to the boy’s “Te decet Hymnus” by providing a sound picture of war and by denouncing the rites performed here as a mockery of sanctity and to point out the lack of sanctifying rites at the front.

The great Dies Irae scene (II) offers four such confrontations, with the Baritone dominating. The Tuba Mirum stanzas introduce “Bugles sang,” one of Owen’s sketches for Anthem for Doomed Youth, thus establishing the kinship between tenor and baritone. Expanded to operatic proportion, it shows soldiers on the eve of battle. The Soprano then enters for the Liber Scriptus and the prophecies of the Sybil, leading to the Tenor-Baritone duet of The Next War, which echoes the prophecies. A parodic scherzo in three parts, in the style of music hall entertainment for the troops, it provides music within the music, the equivalent of the play within the play, and depicts Death as a malicious comrade, in ironic answer to the preceding Mors Stupebit. Denouncing patriotism as the worst of enemies, the soldiers’ voices unite in the central section “We chorused when he sang aloft” to show their amity. In “Be slowly lifted up”, a scene evoking the war’s great guns, the anguish-inducing tritone punctuates the Baritone’s quasi Wagnerian condemnation of Pride, the ferment of all tragedies, as the cause of all wars and is followed by the return of the violent Dies Irae, as if the prophecies were then fulfilled.

The concluding Lacrymosa scene is particularly dramatic. The voice of the soprano soaring over the faltering chorus and orchestra is interrupted by the Tenor’s Futility poem, which begins with short, almost sprechgesang lines. His initial tenderness for a dead comrade turns to blasphemy as he questions Genesis and the existence of God when he depicts Creation as a geological accident and human life as a purely biological process: “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” The repeated question denies Resurrection and Eternal Life posited with “qua resurget in favilla” and looks forward to The End in the Sanctus. A repeat of the a capella chorus rounds off the scene and the first two scenes in one single act.

The second act opens with the Offertorium (III) where Britten displays savage irony in his parody of the liturgy of sacrifice. His Canticle II, Abraham and Isaac of 1952, a cantata for three voices, showed the patriarch about to sacrifice his son in allegiance to the God of Israel who promised him a long line of descent, as is recalled in the Requiem’s “Quam olim Abrahae”. Owen’s own Parable of the Old Man and the Young parodies the story in a mock-archaic style in the context of the trenches. Reverting to his original Chaldean name predating his alliance with Jehovah, Abram sacrifices his son instead of the Ram of Pride. The boys’ Domine Jesu Christe melody gives way to a spectacular fugue, whose theme directly derives from Canticle II, which leads to the Parable, narrated by the baritone as Abram, and the Tenor as Isaac, before their voices unite for the part of the Angel, as in Canticle II.  This pure C major passage is soon polluted by the tritone of Pride. The transgression of the divine order, Owen’s line where after the prideful old man refuses to kill the ram but “kills his son”, “And half the seed of Europe one by one” interrupts the boys’ Hostias et Preces whose melody is now disrupted by the organ’s dissonances, as if now tainted by sin.

The Sanctus (IV) opens with the jubilation of the Soprano and her praise of the Lord of Hosts with an oriental gamelan, which also illustrates “the blast of lighting from the East” in The End, Owen’s reworking of the Second Coming. The tritone and timpani accompany the Baritone’s questioning of Resurrection and his turning Doomsday into some geological accident, thus recalling the Tenor’s Futility, while the orchestral postlude suggests the end of the world in an Eliot-like whimper. The Tenor initiates the Agnus Dei (V), imposing for once his voice and choice to the chorus in “At a Calvary near the Ancre”, another Great War iconographic motive, and pointing thus to the real sacrifice, based on love. For once Owen’s poem and the liturgy agree, and so do the symphony and the chamber orchestra which play a regularly ascending and descending scale incorporating a tritone, over which floats the Tenor’s quietly descending voice, meaning that what separates can also unite. Recalling Christ’s sacrifice before the Eucharist, this section shows the scribes and priests, standing for the war-mongering politicians and clergy, attending the Crucifixion, reminding the crowd of their direct responsibility along with the soldiers for His death. The suffering of the soldiers is put on a par with that of Christ, as in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia or in his Billy Budd where Lucretia’s and Billy’s tribulations are explicitly equated with Christ’s Passion. Owen’s gospel of love, “But they who love the greater love/Lay down their life. They do not hate,” is isolated for full emphasis, and the Tenor’s final “Dona nobis pacem” claims peace for the soldiers only.

The Libera Me (VI) recapitulates the former movements and builds up a climax with the entry of the full organ in a musical picture of the final cataclysm before it dies away in a long diminuendo, setting the scene for Strange Meeting, the longest of the Owen settings. It takes place in some tunnel dating from the world of Chthonian divinities evoked in Owen’s Futility and The End, before the appearance of the Christian God. The hushed chamber orchestra incorporates a tritone when the tenor rouses one of the sleepers, recalling the lesson of the Agnus Dei: what separates can also unite; the foe can become a friend. A pentatonic lullaby in the form of a duet, “Let us sleep now”, indicates the soldiers’ reconciliation while the boys, the soprano and chorus unite for In Paradisum, the only time they all agree. The moment is soon cut short by the passing bell’s tritone and the boy’s Requiem. The chorus then repeats its a capella motive in a stark ending suggesting the crowd is still far from obtaining the prayed-for rest and remains mired in remorse and in the bitterness of loss, like Britten’s Captain Vere in the opera Billy Budd.

Three visions of war

If the three works use the same musical and dramatic devices to bring war to the eyes through the ears of their audiences, to make them remember what they had forgotten or tried to ignore, or to make them understand through art what they had been unable to grasp, they also evince great unity of thought. They emphasize war as madness or a disease and preach for reconciliation. Bliss’s Achilles Scherzo, showing the war-drunk soldier who prefers fame and early death to obscurity and ripe old age, finds echoes in Vaughan Williams’s and Britten’s music. Bliss’s image of Apollo raising the dead to Olympus recalls the Valkyries’s raising fallen heroes to Walhalla, a musical reference which Bliss, a complete Wagnerite must have intended and used to send his musical message beyond any jingoism. Vaughan Williams’s cantata first shows reconciliation at the personal level, and then at the level of nations. Britten’s view is more pessimistic. Although the objective of his commission was reconciliation, it is only obtained, consummated and acted out at the personal level between the two soldiers in their “Let us sleep” duet. Their reconciliation with the crowd is momentary and only brought about by the innocent boys and the voice of the soprano—more that of a Mother than a Sybil at this point—but soon endangered by the return of the tritone.

At the same time the visions of the war they chose to show differ greatly and depend on the personality of the composers. Bliss wrote a synopsis of his symphony, explaining his choice of texts and what he wanted to show (Bliss, Appendix B, 256-7). It leaves no doubt that, as a soldier who enlisted, was wounded and fought the war through, his aim was to vindicate his comrades and their sacrifice. His “morning heroes” are worthy of Homeric fame and universal homage. He depicts aspects of war common to all ages and places: the pain of parting from one’s loved ones, the exaltation and the spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice of those who enlisted in 1914,  expressed as the spirit of The First Hundred Thousand (English volunteers of 1914 described in Ian Hay Beith’s book of 1915). That spirit of 1914 is important to Bliss whereas such early, even jaunty, war spirit is eclipsed in later war poetry. Common to them all is the anguish of waiting, the fury and frenzy of battle, and the need for the survivors to speak of their comrades from this “Lost generation”. In this way, and only in this way Bliss obeys the brief of Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, to make the ones they left at home understand what their life was like at the Front. Yet choosing Nichols’s Dawn on the Somme at the close of his symphony for the final apotheosis shows how greatly Bliss differs from Sassoon’s or Owen’s more desolate positions.

Nichols, literally one of the “first hundred thousand” British soldiers, shell-shocked and invalidated out in 1916, attempted to paint war on an epic scale. The poems Bliss borrowed from him for his 1929 Pastoral show Nichols’s fondness for reworking themes from Antiquity and very few of his war poems have the anguished or graphic, report-like quality of some of Owen’s or Sassoon’s. In the Preface of his 1943 Anthology of War Poetry 1914-1918 he explains that, even if his initial ardour and the will to fight had gradually given way to grief for the dead and compassion for those who endured, he “ended the war only confirmed in the faith that was mine in the beginning” (quoted by Anne and William Charlton, 54-5), a position which is borne out by the last of the 1917 war poems.

They have not gone from us, O no! they are
The inmost essence of each thing that is
Prefect for us; they flame in every star;
The trees are emerald with their presences.
They are not gone from us; they do not roam
The flaw and the turmoil of the lower deep,
But have now made the whole wide world their home
And in its loveliness themselves they steep.
They fail not ever; theirs is the diurn
Splendour of sunny hill and forest grave;
In every rainbow’s glittering drop they burn;
They dazzle in the massed clouds’s architrave;
They chant on every wind, and they return
In the long roll of any deep blue wave.

This epic vision tallies with the heroic and sacrificial type of poems that characterised the early stages of the war but also the view among most combatants and the general public, who needed such patriotism and heroism as the war dragged on, as can be seen from the July 1917 Times Literary Supplement’s review of Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances of 1917: “Nothing can prevent poetry like this from taking its place among those permanent possessions of the race which will remain to tell the great-grandchildren of our soldiers to what pure heights of the spirit Englishmen rose out of the great war horrors of waste and ugliness, noise and pain and death!”( quoted by Anne and William Charlton, 2), . Bliss’s vision of pain, sacrifice and heroism, probably reinforced by his conversion to Catholicism in 1918 before the war ended, chimes in with Whitman’s ambition in the Drum Taps poems:

to express in a poem […] the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope, the shifting, masses and the whirl & deafening din, (yet overall as if by invisible hand, a definite purport and ideal)—with the unprecedented anguish of wounded and suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony, everything sometimes as if in blood colour, & dripping blood. The book is therefore unprecedentedly sad (as these days, are they not?)—but it also has the blast of the trumpet, and the drum pounds and whirrs in it, and then an undertone of sweetest comradeship and human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos, and heard at every lull and interstice thereof—truly, it has clear notes of faith and triumph (quoted from Whitman, Correspondence, I, 246-247 in Butler).

Bliss became Whitman’s Mystic Trumpeter and his vision of the war as immensely sad but heroic he maintained to the end of his life. His wife recalled that when advice was sought for the sleeve covering the record of Morning Heroes made by EMI in 1974, he selected a Fifth Century Greek vase showing Hector and Achilles fighting  (Bliss, 287). This epic, heroic note is struck not only with the Homeric scene of Hector’s Farewell, but also with Whitman’s “First O Songs for a Prelude” through which the poet claims Virgil’s Aeneid as his lineage, as John M. Picker the cultural historian of sound indicated (Picker, 3). Bliss’s symphony depicts a man’s world, the world of the streets, of the jousting ground and the trenches, with women watching from the distance. It certainly sounded crude, offensive and dangerously close to a glorification of war in 1930 to the generations that had read Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden, Erich Maria Remarque or Henri Barbusse, as The Musical Times indicated (The Musical Times, 886). Bliss does not mention those authors, but he must have known their work. With his brother, he shared the bitter disillusion of Sassoon, as can be seen in their letters from the front, but he was impelled to go back and fight and put on a brave face also like Sassoon and Owen. He clearly identified Owen with his brother, “poet, painter and musician”: a symbol of all the young talents killed in the war among whom was Ivor Gurney, a fellow-student at the Royal College of Music. Morning Heroes was a way for him to come to terms with the trauma of his brother’s death and of his own survival. In his autobiography he asserted that the war nightmares disappeared after writing his war symphony. By raising his own tomb to known and Unknown Warriors, he attempted to get on with his life. Like Whitman he might forget the “Four Years’ War” and turn to “the peaceful, strong, exciting, fresh occasions of To-day, and of the Future” (quoted from Whitman’s introduction to “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free”, Whitman, 777).

Vaughan Williams’s vision was that of an older man whose disgust for war led him to work extensively during the 1920s and 1930s for the Federal Union, an organisation which promoted peace through the creation of a federated Europe. Yet he had served in war out of a sense of responsibility and duty. As an ambulance driver with a copy of Leaves of Grass in his pockets on the Somme, Vaughan Williams must have felt very close to Whitman, who had been a volunteer army nurse during the American Civil War. Williams was introduced to Walt Whitman’s work by pacifist Bertrand Russell at Cambridge in 1892 (the year of Whitman’s death). The American poet’s mysticism had inspired him since writing Towards the Unknown Region, his 1907 setting of “Darest Thou Now, O Soul” which is the opening poem and opening line followed by the line “Walk out with me towards the Unknown Region”, of Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death collection of 1868. Parts of his work emulates Whitman’s immensely accumulative, vocal, bardic and prophetic style. His inclusion of the pre-war Dirge dramatizes the composer’s own sense of loss felt at the death of fellow composer George Butterworth on the Somme in 1916 and at the death of all the young men around him. These feelings were renewed in 1936 by the recent death of his close friend Gustav Holst, who had also set the poem, as well as many other Whitman poems, in their pre-war days[14].

By borrowing Whitman’s Civil War poetry to comment on the Great War and on the growing conflicts of their times, instead of the British war poets whose reputation was not yet firmly established and could not yet provide a relevant tradition of war poetry, Bliss and Vaughan Williams deliberately turned to the past. They fed on the British tradition of setting to music the poetry of Whitman who, according to Michael Kennedy, played a major role in the renascence of British music in the early twentieth century. To a pre-WWI generation of British composers, Charles Villiers Stanford, Charles Wood, Frederick Delius, Gustav Holst and Vaughan Williams himself, the American poet, free from religious or political dogma, provided enough democratic idealism, symbolism and mysticism to present a valid alternative to biblical texts and Christian faith. Whitman’s belief in the soul’s ability to transcend time and death offered the prospect of a numinous future in the face of decadent or darkly introspective Victorian poetry.

Unsurprisingly, no such optimism is to be found in Britten’s War Requiem. For him, Whitman as a source of inspiration clearly belonged to the generation of “English folk song” and Vaughn Williams and Royal College of Music composers against whom he contemptuously rebelled as a young man. Britten’s vision of war is much darker. Britten’s experience must be compounded with WWII horrors and those that gathered strength after: the fear of the atomic bomb, the shadows of the Cold War and the threat of totalitarianism coupled with his left-wing mistrust of an English establishment that had compromised with Hitler. Britten had read Sassoon, Graves and Blunden who by then had become part of a recognized category of “British War Poets”. His were the times of Jean Renoir’s Grande Illusion (1938). Much of his work came after Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) which showed the absurdity of the war and the cruelty of senior officers. To people of his generation, like his friend Christopher Isherwood (Parker, 93; Chapter 11, 350-382 and 420), Wilfred Owen, the young talented poet killed in battle just before the Armistice, was a hero and embodied the generation either willingly sacrificed or driven to despair and blasphemy by their elders.

Britten’s use of Owen in his Requiem composition shows his understanding of World War One as centred and concentrated on that sacrifice and despair. Britten owned the 1955 edition of Owen’s poetry edited by Edmund Blunden in 1931 as well as Sassoon’s 1920 edition of Owen’s work. In 1958, during a BBC programme in his honour, Britten asked for Owen’s Strange Meeting and Kind Ghosts to be read. The same year, he was to set Kind Ghosts to music in his Nocturne[15], whose imagery and music prefigures the Requiem’s “Strange Meeting”.

Britten chose to set Strange Meeting in the Requiem for several reasons. The tunnel in its first lines clearly recalls Sassoon’s tunnel in the first line of Rear Guard of 1917, the year Sassoon went AWOL, wrote his letter of denunciation to The Times and threw his war medals in the sea. Sassoon is present in the Requiem through the poems that Owen showed him, Anthem for Doomed Youth and The Next War (which begins with a two-line citation from Sassoon) and implicitly through the blasphemous poems that echo Sassoon’s bitter understanding of war. Strange Meeting also articulates Owen’s ars poetica and echoes the draft of Owen’s Preface for the collection of poems he intended to have published in 1919:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
‘My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

Britten used some of these words on the first page of the Requiem score. “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity. All a poet can do today is warn”. The words defined Owen’s newly-found mission as a war poet as well as his new aesthetics (see Owen’s May 1918 Preface to his planned Disabled and Other Poems in Stallworthy, 98), a mission and aesthetics with which Britten completely identified. Owen’s words also echoed the notion of “parable art”, a concept of W. H. Auden’s expressed when he edited the anthology of 1935, The Poet’s Tongue. Parable art, “shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love” (quoted in Mitchell 25), a concept Britten applied throughout his work. By the time of writing the Requiem, Britten assumed the role of combat poet which Owen had unassumingly invented along with the stance of fighting pacifist. The hero of Britten’s 1971 pacifist opera, Owen Wingrave, would project this role into the Vietnam era.

For all the blasphemy and the bitter denunciation, which led cathedral staff to hinder the public’s entrance for the first performance (Reed & Cooke, 402, n.1), for all the cataclysms of brass and drums, what we remember from the Requiem is its sympathy with suffering, the voice of the soprano keening in the Lacrymosa and the next-to final “Let us sleep now” ensemble, which echoes the ethos of Arthur Bliss’s setting of Robert Nichols’ “Dawn on the Somme” and the

Reconciliation section of Vaughan Williams work setting Walt Whitman’s words.

What is remarkable is the overall unity and interconnectedness of these three works despite the variety of viewpoints and texts. They all look back on the past, be it Homeric times, the American Civil War or World War One, Homer or Whitman or Owen, the old forms of the symphony, the cantata or the oratorio, Berlioz or Verdi. There are times when both Bliss, the friend of Milhaud and “Les Six”, and Vaughan Williams sound like their friend Elgar, the “grand old man” of English music who died in 1934. Even Britten, in the “Let us Sleep” duet gives in to pentatonic “English” music, typical of the twentieth century tradition inaugurated by Elgar. As Michael Kennedy remarks, it is curious that none of the music written in the years immediately following WWI by English composers who had fought in the war shows the bitterness of Sassoon’s or Owen’s poetry, as if their experiences had deepened their love for Nature and spirituality (Kennedy, 150). This was the case for Bliss and Vaughan Williams whose early post-war music did not reflect their war experiences. Just after the war, Vaughan Williams wrote some of his most meditative music, for example his 1922 Pastoral Symphony, while Bliss composed a group of chamber ensembles reflecting the ebullience and experiments of Stravinsky and “Les Six”. Later, as Andrew Burn indicates,  the Interlude “Through the valley of the shadow of death”, depicted horrifying evil in Bliss’s Meditations on a Theme John Blow of 1955, a set of symphonic variations paraphrasing Psalm xxiii, “The Lord is my shepherd”, calls up images of the hell that Bliss went through (Burn, 386). Similarly, memories of war’s violence spring up in Vaughan Williams’s shrill Fourth Symphony of 1935, a curiously violent companion piece to Donas Nobis. Later still in his Sixth Symphony of 1948, written in the years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings the terrible dissonances may reflect his reaction to violence. The post-WWII bitter note of disillusionment with mankind, echoing that of the post-WWI years, was left for Britten to sound. Yet his music, like Bliss’s and Vaughan Williams’s, is an act of faith and his choice of the Owen poems, “elegies…to this generation in no sense consolatory,” hold out the possibility of consolation to another generation: “they may be to the next.”  All three share the aim not to show a heap of broken images but rather, to restore order after chaos and to exhibit the remnants of the past on which to build a future and provide a way out of war’s waste land.


Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975)

Morning Heroes (1930)

A symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra

  1. Hector’s Farewell to Andromache (Book VI, The Iliad)

Orator and Orchestra

  1. The City ArmingFirst O Songs for a Prelude” (Drum Taps, Whitman)

Chorus and orchestra

III. Vigil

The Warrior’s Wife (Li-Tai-Po). Women’s chorus

The Bivouac’s Flame (Drum Taps, Whitman). Men’s chorus then whole chorus

  1. Achilles goes forth to battle. (Book XIX, The Iliad, translated by George Chapman). Chorus

The Heroes. Chorus

  1. Now trumpeter for thy close

“Spring offensive” (Wilfred Owen). Orator and timpani.

“Dawn of the Somme” (Robert Nichols). Chorus and orchestra.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Dona Nobis Pacem (1936)

A cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra

  1. Dona nobis pacem (Agnus Dei, Latin Mass). Soprano and chorus

II “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (Drum Taps, Whitman) Chorus

III. Reconciliation (Drum Taps, Whitman). Baritone and chorus

Dona nobis pacem.  Soprano

  1. Dirge for Two Veterans (Drum Taps, Whitman). Chorus
  2. “The Angel of Death” (John Bright’s 1855 speech in the House of Commons against the Crimean War). Baritone

Dona nobis pacem. Soprano

“We looked for peace” (Jeremiah 8:15-22). Chorus

  1. “O man greatly beloved” (Daniel 10:19) Baritone

“Nations shall not lift up a sword against nation” (Micah 4:3 and Isaiah 2:4 and other biblical texts). Chorus

Dona nobis pacem.  Soprano

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

War Requiem (1962)

Wilfred Owen’s poems and texts in the War Requiem’s architecture

  1. Introït : Requiem aeternam:

Requiem aeternam. Chorus

Te decet hymnus. Boys’ choir

Requiem aeternam. Chorus

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor solo 1

Kyrie. A Capella Chorus 1

  1. Dies Irae:

Dies Irae 1, Tuba Mirum. Chorus

“Bugles Sang” from “But I was looking at the Permanent Stars” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone solo 1 

Liber scriptus, Judex ergo, Quid sum miser & Rex tremendae. Soprano and chorus

“The Next War” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor and Baritone Duet 1

Recordare, Quaerens me, etc., to Oro supplex. Chorus

“Be slowly lifted” from “Sonnet on seeing a piece of our heavy artillery brought into action” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone solo 2.

Dies Irae 2. Chorus

Lacrymosa. Chorus and soprano solo

“Futility” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor solo 2:

Pie Jesu. A Capella Chorus 2

III. Offertorium :

Domine Jesu Christe. Boys’ choir

Sed Signifer and  Quam Olim Abrahae Fugue. Chorus

“Parable of the Old Man and the Young” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor and baritone duet 2

Hostias et preces. Boys’ choir

Reprise: Quam olim Abrahae Fugue. Chorus

  1. Sanctus:

Sanctus, Benedictus & Hosanna. Soprano solo and chorus

“After the blast of Lightening” from “The End” (Wilfred Owen). Baritone Solo 3

  1. Agnus Dei:

“One ever hangs were shelled roads part” from “At a Calvary near Ancre” (Wilfred Owen) interspersed with Agnus Dei. Chorus and Tenor Solo 3

Tenor Solo: Dona nobis pacem (Requiem liturgy: Dona eis requiem)

VI.Libera me:

Libera me. Soprano solo and chorus

“It seemed from out of battle I escaped” from “Strange meeting” (Wilfred Owen). Tenor Solo then Baritone Solo

Tenor and Baritone Duet 3: Let us Sleep

In Paradisum. Organ, boys’ chorus, soprano and mixed chorus

Requiem aeternam. Boys’ chorus

Requiescant in pace. Organ, boys’ chorus and mixed chorus



Ackroyd, Peter, T.S. Eliot, London: Hamish Hamilton, Cardinal Books, 1984.

Bliss, Arthur, As I Remember, London, Thames Publishing, 1989.

Burn, Andrew, “‘Now, Trumpeter for thy Close, The Symphony ‘Morning Heroes’: Bliss’s Requiem for his brother”, The Musical Times, Vol. 126, No. 1713 (Nov. 1985).

Butler, A. V., in “Walt Whitman and the English Composer”, Music and Letters, 1947, XXVII, 154-167.

Carpenter, Humphrey, Benjamin Britten, a Biography, London: Faber, 1992.

Cooke, Mervyn, Britten, War Requiem, Cambridge Music Handbooks, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Charlton, Anne and William, Putting Poetry First, A Life of Robert Nichols, 1893-1944, Norwich: Michael Russel, 2003.

Hibberd, Dominic and John Onions, eds, Poetry of the Great War, An Anthology, London: Macmillan, 1986.

Kennedy, Michael, in The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1980.

McVeagh, Diana, Elgar, The Music Maker, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Donald, Britten and Auden in the Thirties, London: Faber, 1981.

The Musical Times,“Morning Heroes”, a New Symphony by Arthur Bliss’, Vol. 71, n°1052, October 1930, 881-886.

Parker, Peter, Isherwood, London:  Picador, 2004.

Picker, John M. ‘“Red War is My Song”, Whitman, Higginson, and Civil War Music”, in Lawrence Kramer, ed., Walt Whitman and Modern Music: War, Desire and the Trials of Nationhood, New York, Garland Publishing, 2000.

Reed, Philip & Cooke, Mervyn, eds., The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, Vol. 5, 1958-1965, The Boydell Press in association with the Britten-Pears Foundation, 2010.

Stalworthy, Jon, ed., The War Poems of Wilfred Owen, London, Chatto and Windus, 2000.

Vaughan Williams, Ralph, “A Musical Autobiography”, National Music and Other Essays, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1996.

Vaughan Williams, Ursula, Vaughan Williams: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1964.

Walt Whitman, The Complete Poems, Francis Murphy, ed., Penguin Education, Harmondsworth, 1975.


[1] John Foulds (1880-1939) wrote his piece between 1919 and 1921.The work was taken up by the British Legion and was first performed at the Albert Hall. Despite the huge success and the admiration of G.B. Shaw, it was completely overlooked by the anonymous critic of the Musical Times of October 1930 in his overview of works inspired by the Great War.  See the article ‘“Morning Heroes”, a New Symphony by Arthur Bliss’, The Musical Times, Vol. 71, No 1052, October 1930, 881. The work was revived on November 11, 2007.

[2] Originally planned to be in English, the Requiem text was changed over to Latin due to Vishnevskaya’s difficulties with English.

[3] Britten’s Agnus Dei concludes with “Grant us peace” while the Agnus Dei of a requiem mass usually concludes with “Dona eis requiem”, “Grant them peace”.

[4] Frederick Delius (1862-1934) used Whitman’s subtitle for a group of his Leaves of Grass poems as a title for his setting for baritone, chorus and orchestra.

[5] Mahler’s Klagende Lied of 1898, his Symphony n°8, a setting of the Christian hymn “Veni Creator Spiritus” and the Last Scene of Goethe’s Second Faust (1907), and Das Lied von der Erde of 1908 also provided models for Britten and John Fould, present at the first performance of Mahler’s Eighth in Vienna in 1910.

[6] Li Bai or Li Po (701-762), regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Tang Dynasty, is mostly known by Hans Bethge’s translations in his anthology Die chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute) in 1907, which inspired Mahler for his Das Lied von der Erde. 

[7] Bliss met Nichols (1893-1944) in 1917 when Nichols had already published two volumes of poetry, Invocation (1915), Ardours and Endurances (1917). ‘Dawn on the Somme’ is extracted from Aurelia and Other Poems of 1920. Nichols served in the Royal Artillery from 1914 to 1916 when he was invalided out.

[8]   Bliss was a friend of Darius Milhaud of the “Groupe des Six”, French composers who met and influenced each other between 1916 and 1923. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was among them.

[9] In the Jewish tradition of Yom Kippur, the scapegoat is a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which it is sent into the wilderness, hence the separation between sheep and goats in the Latin text. The most generally accepted source for the word tragedy is the Greek tragōidia, or “goat-song,” from tragos (“goat”) and aeidein (“to sing”). The word could have referred to the goat that was sacrificed in the rituals from which tragedy developed.

[10]The poem was set to music by Gustav Holst, among others, also involved in the war and a very close friend of Vaughan Williams’s. Holst’s The Mystic Trumpeter, for soprano and orchestra op. 18 was first performed in 1905. Bliss knew him and took his music to Holst but does not mention that work in his autobiography.

[11] Bach a Lutheran set the Latin text of the Catholic Mass in 1733 for the Elector of Saxony who converted to Catholicism in order to become king of Poland under the name of Augustus III.

[12] The novel is Susan Hill’s 1971 Strange Meeting. The film is director Derek Jarman’s 1989 War Requiem. Loosely based on Wilfred Owen’s life, Jarman’s film dramatizes Britten’s Requiem and gives it an openly gay activist and pacifist slant as it underlines the homoerotic elements of military camaraderie in Owen’s poetry and his aestheticized version of trench warfare. It includes footage from documentaries, films and newsreels about both World Wars and the Vietnam War.

[13] Britten personally knew Eliot and his poetry. They attempted to work together in 1948 but Brittenset two Eliot poems to music after the poet’s death in 1965.

[14] Early in his career Gustav Holst (1874-1934) composed a Whitman Overture for orchestra (1890) before The Mystic Trumpeter for soprano and orchestra, op 18 (1904), A Dirge for Two Veterans, for male chorus, brass and percussion (1914) and the Ode to Death, for chorus and orchestra, op. 38 in 1919.

[15] It is the sixth piece in the Nocturne for tenor, 7 obbligato instruments and strings op. 60, with the English horn as the solo instrument.

Gilles Couderc,  senior lecturer at Université Caen Normandie, has published numerous articles on Benjamin Britten and other English composers. He has directed several numbers of periodicals including LISA e-journal and Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique. He has also spoken about music on  France Culture radio.