Songs of desolation II

In last week’s blog post we looked at the popular music that was being published in Britain during the first half of the First World War. By 1916, songs published in the UK were moving away from the more militaristic music that had been popular at the outbreak of war, with comic songs and musical theatre keeping people’s spirits up. Much of the music contained in the boxes in the UL’s basement, by the middle period of the war, is by Ivor Novello; whose music had swiftly gained prominence after the early success of Keep the home fires burning (M290.a.90.524 (item no. 62)) .

Sergeant O'Leary V.C.A1915.224

Sergeant O’Leary V.C.

Alongside comic songs, and love songs, there was space to celebrate the few positives of an increasingly long and bitter war. Sergeant O’Leary V.C. (A1915.224), for example, celebrated an Irish hero. The celebrations for O’Leary’s V.C. were quite extraordinary, and can be viewed on British Pathe’s website.

Lighter hearted songs about the war such as Balloo, Boulogne and Blighty (A1916.174) – with words by “A Private in the 3rd Worcesters” – were also popular. Dedicated to Miss Lena Ashwell, a formidable lady who organized concert parties on the Western Front (which sometimes included performances from the aforementioned Ivor Novello), proceeds from the song were donated to Concerts at the Front, a charity dedicated to taking music to the front line. The artists worked in often horrendous conditions and had a phenomenal work-rate. They also played to huge audiences – over 13,000 men would attend a concert in Egypt.

Most of the music played was classical, as Miss Ashwell wished to educate as well as entertain. The concerts and the concert parties were much loved by the troops, not least because the entertainers were willing to go to places usually not reached by civilians. Lena Ashwell recalled one show: “I stood on a table and recited all the poems that I knew, but wished with all my heart that I had learnt many more, as the audience grew and grew, and they sat silently around like hungry children. It was a quaint, gentle, peaceful evening, and curious that on that night I should have been nearer the firing line than at any other moment”.

Desolation. A1917.305

Desolation. A1917.305

Charity songs continued to be popular, as were songs that linked the Home Front with men serving in the Forces. There were even such oddities as a “Knitting War Song” (A1916.316), originally written in French. Throughout 1916 the Home Front became more prominent in song, with the indefatigable Ivor Novello musing on The girl who waits at home (a.k.a. Laddie in khaki) (A1916.320). Patriotic songs tended to be more thoughtful, but the British love of satire was starting to creep in – Margaret Meredith’s Our heritage (with words by Rupert Brooke) was available to sing in public freely, but…”The public performance of any parodied version of this song is strictly prohibited”.

The songs arriving through 1917 and 1918 are an odd mix of comedy, sadness, and (with the advent of the Americans into the war) a second wave of patriotism. Oddly we seem to have failed to receive a copy of George M. Cohan‘s much loved song, Over therethough we do have a foxtrot arrangement!

Yanks 001

Swing in line – celebrating the entry of the United States into the war in 1917.

One of the nastiest songs in the 1917 box The conscientious objector’s lament (A1917.82) was co-written by a reputed co-writer of one of the most popular songs of the war years Mademoiselle from ArmentieresCanadian soldier – Gitz Rice. It’s a cruel song, but is probably a not inaccurate representation of public feeling at a time of growing desperation.

The tank's saunter danceA1918.100

The tank’s saunter dance

On the brighter side we have The tank’s saunter dance (A1918.100) complete with dance moves as danced at the Empress Ballroom, Blackpool. There’s also the comic (but almost certainly truthful) I’m sick of this ‘ere blinkin’ War with a cover illustration by the cartoonist, Bruce Bairnsfather. Bairnsfather was a serving soldier, who had been hospitalised with shell-shock and hearing damage sustained at the Second Battle of Ypres. While recovering he started to draw cartoons of life at the Front, and soon became hugely popular with the troops still serving. His work became so popular that he was promoted and was appointed as a cartoonist for the Allies. He went on to work with the American Forces in the Second World War.

Bruce Bairnsfather's I'm sick of this 'ere blinkin' WarA1919.104

Bruce Bairnsfather’s I’m sick of this ‘ere blinkin’ War

The majority of the war related songs that arrived in 1918 were romantic. A few, such as The hands that wait to greet you (A1918.83), When evening shadows fall (A1918.84) and Down the little lane of happiness (A1918.65)  look forward to a happy future with lovers reunited despite the stresses and strains of the War. Most though recognised that for many lovers there would be no tomorrow – Now you have gone! (A1918.68), Beautiful garden of memories (A1918.64) and At evenfall (A1918.62) are unashamedly nostalgic with quasi-mystical overtones.

Smoke cloudsA1919.118

Smoke clouds

One of the oddest of this batch of wartime songs looks forward to a rather different post-war future; and also indicates how much had changed since the outbreak of war. Smoke clouds features the cross-dressing entertainer, Jennie Benson, on the front cover, in full (male) officer’s uniform smoking. A woman smoking in public, pre-First World War, would probably have been considered almost as shocking as her wearing male dress!

The world had changed markedly since war was declared in 1914. The Emperor and the Kaiser were no more. A revolution had changed the face of Russia. Women over 30 had the vote in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and could enter Parliament as M.P.s for the first time. Attitudes were rapidly changing, but popular music remained in many ways much the same. As ever there was always a taste for comedy, romance, and evenings at the theatre; and the hope for a better post-war future.


Creative commons




About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.