Archives par mot-clé : World War II

I Always Thought I’d Die


recited by the poet 

I Always Thought I’d Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


World War II, Women and War, Oral History

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


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

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

Oral history: theory and the beginnings of practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s accounts of the War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hazards of war: danger/fear/death

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

A shared “women’s discourse”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[5] ibidem, 8.

[6] ibid., 112.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

[19] Eileen uses French.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Performer, official magazine of the Variety Artists Federation.

The Encore, A Music-hall and Theatrical Review

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

A note about the Songs

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

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

Can Literature and the Arts Be Irenic?

“We go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”  —Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry.

Citation  Arts of War and Peace 1.2. (November 2013)  Can Literature and the Arts Be Irenic?

Can literature and the arts be irenic?  How are the arts a unique vehicle for promoting peace?  How do they enhance memory?  How do the arts play a role in the formation of public opinion?  What possible effects could they have in policymaking?  How might literature and the arts be a vehicle of resistance to tyranny? While the role of epic poetry has often been to present the heroic grandeur of wars past, providing a type of justification for wars future, some poets have endeavored to depict the horrors of war in such a way that the cost of human suffering penetrates the reader’s consciousness. This issue examines and theorizes the role of literature and the visual arts in search for “positive” peace (the elimination of causes of violence and the avoidance of conflict) and the creation of a peace culture, by drawing attention to the writer or artist’s method and form, circumstantial motivation, use of memory and language as counter-propaganda, as well as reception by the public.

The importance of literary and artistic contributions to the obtaining and preservation of peace has been recognized by awards such as the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize (awarded to Mahmoud Darwish in 2003), and others, often lesser known, such as the Leeds Peace Poetry Award or the Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award. Although the connection between the arts and the search for and preservation of peace is instinctively acknowledged, its exact nature is imprecise. This issue opens considerations that should be further explored.

The word “peace” itself may be considered problematic.  Is it merely the absence of war?  Thesaurus and dictionary listings for the noun and adjectival forms of the word include the following synonyms that inspired some of the authors of this issue:  Peace, peaceful, peacefulness, concord, harmony, harmoniousness, friendship, cordiality, amity, amicableness, goodwill, accord, agreement, pacification, conciliation, truce, neutrality, ceasefire, armistice, nonaggression, nonviolence, calm, calmness, tranquility, serenity, restfulness, repose, quiet, quietness, silence, hush, still, stillness, placidity, composure, repose, relaxation, rest, restfulness, serenity, pacific, pacifist, peace-loving, unwarlike, nonviolent, nonaggressive, non-belligerent, non-combative, mild, easygoing, gentle, amiable, amicable, friendly, good-natured,  peacemaking, placid, even-tempered, irenic, dovish, conciliatory, placatory, inoffensive, pacification, peaceful, quiet, restful, serene, tranquil, undisturbed, restful, balmy, harmonious, cordial, friendly, strife-free, peaceable.

The papers offered in Arts of War and Peace 1.2 result in part from a conference held in Caen (November 2010), co-hosted with Claire Bowen, as well as several articles originally planned for a projected issue of LISA e-journal, called “Poetry of War / Poetry for Peace.”  In many ways AWP has grown out of LISA and the encouragements of Renée Dickason, who is deeply thanked for allowing several earlier papers to be printed here.

In addition the issue of Arts of War inaugurates publication of original translations. Poems by the German poet Ernest Stadler are translated into French by Julien Collonges and into English by Richard Sheppard : the expressionist “Awakening,” written in 1913, may now be read as prophetic. For readers of Stadler, other translations exist in French by Philippe Abry, Eugène Guillevic, and Lionel Richard and in English by Michael Hamburger. Closing the issus are new poems by Owen Lowery, some of which suggest memory’s role in building a desire for peace.

Edited by Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, 8 November 2013.

Michael Rotenberg-Schwartz
The Limits of Gore and Sympathy in Pacific Poetry: Southey and Hunt against an Augustan Tradition_8nov2013

Katharine Peddie
Auden’s Revisions and the Responsibility of the Poet

Cathy Parc
A Poet Laureate’s Front-Line(s): How to Wage a War of Words for Peaceful Purposes

Claire Bowen
War Pictures for Peace: Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War

Agnès Blandeau
The irenic effect of the Middle Ages on wartime England through film: the example of A Canterbury Tale by Powell and Pressburger (1944)

Adrian Grafe
Your sort of poet’s task: Tony Harrison’s ‘A Cold Coming’

Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec
Overlord vs. the Din: Writing Poetry to Promote Peace Now

Mary Kate Azcuy
Louise Glück’s Irenic Poems, “Crater Lake” and “Averno”

Anne Mounic
The Poetic Voice and the Paradox of Plenitude


Deux poèmes d’Ernst Stadler traduits par Julien Collonges

“The Awakening” translated by Richard Sheppard


Poems by Owen Lowery