Archives par mot-clé : World War I

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.

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.

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.


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———, 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).

The Fallen & the Unfallen

The title of this inaugural issue, The Fallen & the Unfallen, is drawn, by way of homage, from Geoffrey Hill’s first collection of poems, For The Unfallen (1959).  The cover illustration is a photograph of the memorial stone for poets of World War I found in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey (unveiled November 11, 1985). The list of names is framed by a quotation from Wilfred Owen, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Some of the papers presented in this issue result from workshops held at the University of Caen that examined poetry from First World War poets, and works inspired by them.  While the shift from the poetry of World War I to poetry about the Vietnam War may seem a bit abrupt, in fact it was soldiers’ shell shock that motivated many of Freud’s studies, leading to his theories about trauma during and immediately following World War I. Trauma theories have played a significant role in our perception of the Vietnam War.  Furthermore, it was during the Vietnam War period that war poetry from World War I came into general public appreciation.  Jon Silkin fostered a renewed appreciation of World War I Poetry in Britain, with an influence extending to other English speaking countries, by way of his periodical Stand, which in 2012 celebrated its 60th anniversary.

I would like to thank Rosanna Warren for the candor of her interview, Jon Glover, Stephen Romer and Jeffrey Wainwright for their poetry, and the contributors who have submitted state-of-the-art articles and generously offered reviews for this inaugural issue. My heartfelt thanks is also due to Michael Taugis who provided assistance and editorial footwork.

It is particularly moving for me that the inaugural issue presents work by Thomas Christopher D’Arcy and Dominic Hibberd. The former has written about war poetry and has had the personal experience of being a soldier.  The latter regrettably passed away this past August. Dominic Hibberd was a groundbreaking scholar who ensured that Wilfred Owen and Harold Monro would be of interest to future generations. He was also endowed with a pleasant spirit. It was my privilege to show him a small part of Caen and its University when he attended a workshop there in 2005.

Edited by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, March 2013.

Dominic Hibberd
A note on the origins of 1914-1918 ‘‘war poetry’’

Gilles Couderc
The War Requiem: Britten’s Wilfred Owen opera

Marie-Noelle Provost Vallet
Ghosts in Craiglockhart: Sassoon’s textual presence in Pat Barker’s Regeneration

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec
Resisting the Rhetoric: Memory in the Poetry of Ivor Gurney

Roland Bouyssou
In Parenthesis: A War Liturgy

Thomas Christopher D’Arcy
War Trauma, Recovery Narration, and the Need for Resistance: The Case of D. F. Brown’s Vietnam War Poetry

Jon Glover
Truth, Introspection and Extrospection


Jean-Michel Panoff
The Biological Targets of Chemical Weapons


Antoine Capet reviews “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” (Tate Britain, 2011)

Monique Lojkine Morelec reviews Antoine Choplin, Le héron de Guernica (2011)

Beatrice Pire reviews Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel (2010)

Carole Birkan-Berz reviews Geoffrey Hill, Clavics (2011)


And about the Mud… Rosanna Warren


A poem by Jon Glover

Two poems by Stephen Romer

Two poems by Jeffrey Wainwright