No wonder, then, that songs were a hugely important part of life at the Front. They helped soldiers to cope with the unimaginable experiences they had to endure and offered, at least for a moment, temporary release from the terrors of the battlefield. Many have since become embedded into our popular culture.
This little post is intended to accompany the current exhibition in the Music Department and to offer food for thought.
We chose the title “Pack up your troubles” as it was in 1915 that this song,[A1911.4144] which has since become such an icon of WWI, was composed. It was written by brothers George and Felix Powell (George taking the stage name Asaf, to show his Welsh roots), members of an entertainment troupe called the Harlequinaders. The piece won a competition for a marching song for the troops run by publishers Francis, Day and Hunter and the rest, as they say, is history.
However, another song, I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier [A1915.268] by Alfred Bryan and Al Piantodosi, puts the opposite case with great conviction, encapsulating the general sentiment of the American pacifist movement at that time.
Similarly When the Lusitania went down [A1915.353] by McCarron and Vincent (of “I’m forever blowing bubbles” fame) was composed in response to the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German torpedo on 7 May 1915 with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives. The song was recorded a mere 13 days after the event in response to the tragic loss of life. It’s closing refrain is telling;
It’s time they were stopping this warfare
If women and children must drown.
Many brave hearts went to sleep in the deep
When the Lusitania went down.
On the other side of the globe, the hugely successful Australian patter act Vaude and Verne (precursors of Morecambe and Wise, perhaps?), had composed What do you think of the Kaiser? [A1915.347], ridiculing Germany’s ruler in no uncertain terms. It was but one item from their endless supply of War-related material which included Kaiser-related gags such as: “The Kaiser can’t send a telegram in Germany. The system is in a state of chaos”, “How is that?” “The Russians have got all the poles”…
In complete contrast across the Atlantic, Irving Berlin’s musical Stop! Look! Listen! enjoyed its première at the Globe Theatre on Broadway on Christmas Day 1915. Telling the story (roughly) of chorus girl who made it to star, it produced several numbers which have since become classics. The best-known of these must surely be I love a piano [A1911.4105], which Berlin himself regarded as one of his best efforts.
Finally, it was in 1915 that Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote his elegiac little poem In Flanders Fields, published, eventually, in Punch in December of that year. Its almost unbearable poignancy has made it a vehicle for the expression of the horrors and waste of war, and it has since been set to music by many, many composers. Amongst them, Charles Ives, who included it as one of his Three War Songs published in the 114 Songs of 1922, and more recently set by Frank Harrington in his little cycle Where poppies blow.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In the midst of death and destruction, life DOES go on…it must…somehow: civilised society displaying humanity, compassion and decency, manages to hold fast.